The role that sleep plays in our immune health cannot be understated. With a new, allegedly more infectious, strain of the virus emerging over which we have little new information about, it wouldn't hurt to take a few extra precautions to ensure that our bodies are suitably equipped to handle any potential attacks to our overall health.
So how exactly does sleep relate to our immune system? According to sleep scientist Mathew Walker, sleep may be as, if not more important than diet and exercise, as it relates to our physical health. In truth, his research has proven that sleep is indeed the foundation upon which those two pillars will sit.
Ever notice how when we're feeling unwell, our primary desire is to curl up in bed and sleep our way to feeling better? It turns out that this biological reaction is our body’s way of revealing the intimate relationship between sleep and our immune health.
Epidemiological evidence has proven that the shorter your sleep, the lower your quality of life and your lifespan.
Research has shown that cases that reported having slept 7 hours or less at night, were almost 3 times as likely to become infected by the Rhinovirus, otherwise referred to as the common cold. On the other hand, individuals who slept 5 hours a night or less were almost 70% more likely to contract pneumonia, a respiratory infection that is associated with COVID infections.
In one study, they took a group of healthy individuals, where instead of keeping them awake the whole night, they simply limited their sleep to 4 hours for only one night. The study focused on one critical immune factor: our natural killer cells. These can be likened to being secret service agents in our immune system, cells that are very good at identifying dangerous, unwanted elements, and eliminating them.
In this study, they found a 70% drop in the concentration of natural killer cell activity in these individuals, after subjecting them to a decrease in sleep length.
It would be important to note as well that one of the things natural killer cells are very good at preventing and are great assassins of, are cancerous cells. The knowledge base that his research has accumulated over the years has revealed that short sleep duration has been associated with the doubling of the risk for the development of lung cancer, ovarian cancer, thyroid cancer, and even myeloma, a form of blood cancer linked to lymphoma.
If this is the impact of only one night of four hours of sleep, one can only imagine the state of our immune system after weeks, if not years, of insufficient sleep.
Far from inciting anxiety in people who are aware of their poor sleep health, his body of research aims to help people identify where they can effectively and efficiently focus their efforts should they be suffering from mild forms of ill health.
It is by no means proposing that sleep alone is the sole solution for an individual afflicted with insomnia, diabetes, or any form of cancer. Only that the research reveals how shortened sleep decreases the concentration of our innate killer cells that help clean up threats that could potentially aggravate symptoms that may cause these diseases.
Above, we’ve discussed what we’ve found can be expected from poor sleep. However, we feel it is equally important to find out what we stand to gain from making an effort towards getting proper, full sleep. Stay tuned for our next articles to find out more about how exactly sleep boosts our immunity!
Credits to Matthew Walker and his Masterclass on The Science of Better Sleep, for the body of knowledge on sleep and it's values, especially at a time of heightened concern over the collective health of our species.