Sleep Deprivation Makes You Sick, Says Your Mom & Science

Medical Studies
March 1, 2017

Every change of season we brace ourselves for the barrage of illnesses that sweep through our workspaces, schools, and homes. We take all sorts of precautions: getting flu shots, taking vitamin C supplements, stockpiling tissues—but many of us discredit one of the most important factors: sleep.

An article published in Neuroscience News reports on findings from a recent study that “shorter sleep duration can suppress the immune system.” The study tracked 11 pairs of identical twins over a 2-week period using “wrist actigraphy,” a method in which a small actigraph (similar to a watch) is used to record rest or activity over extended periods of time. Blood samples from the test subjects were taken on the final day of tracking, which helped to analyze how the immune system of the twin not getting enough sleep differed from that of the well-rested twin.
The research demonstrates “the transcriptomic effects of habitual short sleep on dysregulated immune response and provides a potential link between sleep deprivation and adverse metabolic, cardiovascular, and inflammatory outcomes.” If that is a wee bit hard to digest, we can break it down for you… the long and short of it is that, getting inadequate sleep not only impairs the immune system, it may also cause problems with metabolism, cardiovascular health, and inflammation, our immune system’s response to injury and bacteria.
Although this is not necessarily a new claim, the study marks a unique development in the field of sleep research in its use of identical twins as test subjects. According to the article, “genetics account for 31 to 55 percent of sleep duration,” while “behavior and environment account for the remainder.” This means that by studying twins with differing environments or behavioral habits, researchers were able to rule out the genetic aspect of differences between the two subjects. In addition, by conducting the study outside of a lab, researchers were able to place subjects in “‘real world’ conditions” and follow their habits long-term as opposed to observing them for a few nights in a facility.

So what can you do to ensure that you’re getting enough sleep to keep your immune system healthy? According to the Sleep Duration Recommendations chart provided by the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep needed by an average adult is between 7 and 9 hours per night. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides multiple strategies for ensuring that you reach that goal, including setting a sleep schedule for yourself (that is the same for both weeknights and weekends), avoiding caffeine up to eight hours before bedtime, and taking an hour of “quiet time,” to relax without artificial lighting before you hit the hay.
While it’s important to get your flu shot and wash your hands, it’s equally as important to make sure that you’re getting the right amount of sleep every night. So do yourself and your immune system a favor, and be sure to get enough shut-eye.

This post is part of our Sleep Month series.