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Sleep and Your Immune System

Many people’s first reaction to feeling sick is to crawl into bed and sleep it off. It turns out that response has a scientific basis as regular sleep plays an important role in maintaining a robust immune system. Not getting enough rest can lead to an increased risk of illness.

Studies have shown that sleep actually does boost your immune response. One study looked at the relationship between sleep and vaccine efficacy. It found that getting enough sleep following vaccination is key to activating an immune response.1 Furthermore, immune responses may be muted among those who, on average, get fewer than seven hours of sleep each night.

When you sleep, certain parts of your immune system kick into overdrive. During sleep, the body produces higher levels of cytokines, which help repair wounds and fight off infectious agents.

According to the CDC, study participants who got just four hours of sleep each night saw a 72 percent reduction in NK cell production.2 These cells play a major role in fighting tumors and viruses. Participants in this group also showed increased inflammatory cytokines. Over time, this increase may lead to a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions.

Unfortunately, you can’t just “catch up” on sleep when you have the time. Our immune systems don’t adapt to a lack of sleep. If you’re regularly short on rest, the issue can become chronic and cause long-term health issues.

The best way to ensure you get enough sleep is to make it a habit. Set a consistent bedtime, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, and stop using cell phones and tablets at least an hour before going to sleep. You’ll wake up feeling refreshed and full of energy—and so will your immune system.

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  • Zimmermann P, Curtis N. Factors that influence the immune response to vaccination. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2019 Mar 13;32(2):e00084-18. doi: 10.1128/CMR.00084-18. PMID: 30867162; PMCID: PMC6431125
  • NIOSH training for nurses on shift work and long work hours: Sleep and the immune system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Updated March 31, 2020. Accessed January 11, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/work-hour-training-for-nurses/longhours/mod2/05.html