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Understanding The Science Behind Sleep and Immunity

March 19, 2020 By Keerthi Balakumar

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A human spends a third of his life sleeping. This accounts for sleeping for eight hours every day, around 56 hours per week, and 2,912 hours per year. And while our body is in a state of rest, our brain and body are the most active in the entire day. While the rest helps us to rejuvenate, rest, and recharge for the upcoming morning, the brain and the body go through a number of biological processes that make us stronger.  Hence, the cure for any illness is prescribed medications and plenty of rest. People who ignore an adequate amount of sleep required, end up having various health issues which can lead to symptoms such as poor mental health and stress, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. 

Getting an adequate amount of sleep and following a healthy sleeping pattern is integral for the body. The irony is we understand the importance of sleep, and yet when the time comes, people always compromise their sleep. However, why we do this remains elusive. 

Woman sleeping on a bed


The mystery and wonders which sleep holds have piqued the interest of various scientific research. Although these researches have made some outstanding breakthroughs, it is still not known what genetic or molecular forces drive the need to sleep.  

It is a proven fact that lack of sleep is home to various health issues. Additionally, inadequate sleep results in breaking down the immunity system, resulting in catching infections and other ailments faster than those who sleep well. Apart from serious health issues, sleeping helps in fighting infections like flu, virals, and other infections, which are easier for a person to catch. With the world panicking over COVID-19 (Novel coronavirus), it's essential to have a strong immune system. Although we aren't saying that this will avoid COVID-19 completely, sleeping helps in building the immune system, which, if healthy, can help fight against many serious infections. Additionally, a person will have to follow a healthy lifestyle to build stronger immunity against diseases. Let's understand the relation between sleep and immunity.

Decoding The Link Between Sleep And Immunity 

An insufficient amount of sleep has been linked with various physical and mental health issues, including those which occur as a result of having a poor immune system. The enchanting role of our immune system involves fighting and protecting us from cold, flu, and other ailments, but if the immune system is poor, the infection fights and proves to be more resistant due to which the immune system fails in doing its job. 

Take an example where a person tries to seal a place with various coatings to prevent water seepage. Now, if there is even a slight crack in this coating, the water will find its way. Over the days, the water will work towards making the coating weak and seep deep within the roots. The same is the case with the immune system and infections. If a person has a weak immune system, the infection will try entering. At first, the immune system might be able to fight, but as the infection becomes more resilient, the weakened immune system will become further weak. Hence, it is vital to have a strong immune system. 

According to the MD and director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas, Diwakar Balachandran, many studies have shown that the T-cells in our body reduce when a person is sleep-deprived, resulting in an increase in inflammatory cytokines resulting in a greater risk of developing the flu or a cold. In simple words, inadequate REM sleep and sleep-deprivation hamper the immune system making your body inefficient in responding and fighting against colds, flu, or bacterial infections. 

Decoding The Link Between Sleep And Fever

Lack of sleep affects the body in more than one way. Apart from being inefficient in fighting against cold or flu, sleep loss also affects how the body fights against illnesses on coming down with them.  

Woman suffering from flu


The body's way of fighting with infections is by fever. Hence, it is important for the body to have a proper reaction. Since the body fights the infection with fever, and the body has the highest function rate while sleeping, fevers rise at night. In case the body gets less sleep, the fever reaction of the body is not primed and hence, the body isn't able to wage war on infection in the best possible manner. 

How Much Sleep Is Required for the Body to Fight Illness? 

The number of sleeping hours required by the body varies from person to person. While some people might require more hours to sleep, there are others whose bodies function absolutely normal with a lesser amount of sleep. According to Dr. Susan Zafarlotfi, Ph.D., clinical director of the Institute for Sleep and Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey:

“Some people may be able to drink a cup of coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts and readjust. But if you have a weak immune system, you will likely be more prone to infection if you are not getting enough sleep.”

However, Balachandran says:

“We live in a 24-7 society and everyone has two jobs and is bombarded with media. So sleep seems expendable. But proper sleep is a fundamental component of a healthy lifestyle.”

Ways to Get Optimal Amount of Sleep

Woman Sleeping on Bed

Some tips to have a good sleep pattern are:

  • Going to sleep at the same time every night and waking up at the same time 
  • Ensuring that the environment of your bedroom is well-suited for sleeping
  • Avoiding the use of electronic devices one hour before going to bed
  • Getting a good mattress, pillows and other sleep accessories to create the required environment

There are various other tips that one can follow to improve their sleep quality. However, the above-mentioned tips should be followed by everyone.

If a person isn't able to sleep because of insomnia or some other underlying problem, it is recommended to visit a doctor and identify the cause of your lack of sleep. Once the diagnosis has been made, a person can start with the medications or other precautions advised by the doctor. Additionally, relaxation and cognitive-behavioral therapy help the brain in relaxing and helping it to put the body in a deeply relaxed sleep.

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