How a Lack of Sleep Weakens Your Immune System as Much as Stress

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

Quality sleep is as integral to our good health as a solid diet and sufficient exercise. Are you getting enough sleep, and is it having the desired restorative effects?

There are plenty of studies that demonstrate the wonderful benefits of sleep. It can improve our memory, creativity, physical appearance, and willpower to stave off cravings. It helps strengthen the immune system and protect the body from illness. There isn’t much that sleep can’t do. But the other big question is, does the absence of sleep hinder willpower, memory, and the other benefits? Does a lack of sleep weaken your immune system? (1)

Let’s delve more into what happens when we don’t get enough sleep and how a lack of sleep can weaken your immune system as much as stress.

Everyone Needs Sleep

All animals on earth sleep. From the great whales to even tiny insects and earthworms. Sleep is one of the main drives for life, but the only biological need scientists don’t fully understand. Humans spend one-third of their lives being completely unproductive while they sleep. No eating, no moving towards goals, no reproduction, and left completely vulnerable. However, without rest, the body doesn’t function. The mind doesn’t function. And overall health and well-being diminishes. (1) 

While we still don’t fully understand why animals need to sleep, the science of sleep has advanced exponentially. We now know that sleep affects virtually every system of the body. Of course, the immune system is essential for overall health. We need a balanced system to fight off infections and protect against chronic or life-threatening illnesses. But now scientists are stating that in order to help the immune system keep the body healthy and well, sleep plays a crucial role. And not getting enough sleep weakens your immune system as much as anxiety and stress. (2)

Research on How Poor Sleep Weakens Our Immune System

In a 2015 study from the University of California, San Francisco, researchers tracked the sleep of 164 healthy men and women for a week. They then intentionally squirted a dose of rhinovirus, also known as the common cold, into each study participant’s nose, with the subjects’ full permission. What researchers discovered is incredible, and truly shows how inadequate sleep weakens your immune system. (3)

The participants were divided into four groups depending on their average amount of sleep each night while researchers tracked them. Subjects with less than six hours of sleep were more than four times as likely to get sick from the cold virus as those who got seven or more hours of sleep. Those who logged less than five hours were almost five times as likely to catch the cold. (3) 

This study shows a strong correlation between sleep and the immune system. The less sleep an individual gets, the more likely they are to catch a cold, having a nearly 50% chance of catching the virus with less than five hours of sleep. Considering that infectious illnesses are among the leading causes of death, getting sufficient sleep may do the body good, particularly during flu season. (1)

How Sleep Affects the Immune System

How can one small action (albeit a behavior that takes up 7-9 hours in a 24 hour period) bolster the immune system so much? Why animals sleep may still be a bit of a mystery to scientists, but how sleep impacts the immune system is something studied quite extensively.

In a 2019 study in Germany, researchers found participants who received good sleep had stronger activation in their T-cells. T-cells are a type of immune cells that help create antibodies and eliminate infected cells from invading foreign bodies. In essence, they fight infections and help maintain balance in the immune system. The research also showed that those who did not sleep showed an increase in stress internally, and the production of T-cells was significantly lower. Therefore, poor sleep weakens your immune system and the production of immune-bolstering antibodies. (4)

Sleep also aids in releasing immune-balancing proteins called cytokines. Cytokines coordinate with the immune system response to ward off infections. When there is an infection in the body, increased stress, or inflammation, cytokines need to increase to help the body fight back. Cytokines need sleep for production. The better the sleep, the more production of cytokines. No sleep weakens your immune system and prolongs the recovery from an illness. (5)

Sleep Weakens the Immune System as Much as Stress

Psychologists have long warned us about the dangers of stress on our immune systems. As early as the 1980s, scientists have found a strong correlation between high stress and unbalanced immune systems. Just as with losing sleep, increased stress lowers the production of T-cells. Further lab studies that intentionally stressed people out in just a few moments did cause a surge of one “first responder” neurotransmitter epinephrine. But all other T-cells and immune-balancing antibodies were weakened. (6)

The real problem stems from the amount of stress the average human encounters on a daily basis. If short-term stress can diminish T-cell production, what does chronic stress do to the immune system? The research shows how important managing stress is to assist in protecting ourselves from germs. But stress is often a by-product of not taking care of our fundamentals– eating, moving, and sleeping. And if most people consider nutrition and exercise to be the pillars of health, sleep could be counted as the foundation upon which those pillars stand. So sleep weakens the immune system as much as stress because decreased sleep adds to our already stressful lives. Improve sleep, decrease stress, and balance the immune system to work for you. (1)

Overcome Your Lack of Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is vital for restoring energy and boosting the immune system. There are many healthy habits to improve what is called sleep hygiene. Turning off electronics at least one hour before going to bed helps the brain begin to unwind and allow us to sleep. Create a relaxing routine in the evening and create a conducive sleep environment– one that is dark, cool, and quiet. (2)

To help beat back stress and catch some very healthy zzz’s, learn more about sleep and ways to improve it, including healthy supplements with The Ultimate Guide to Sleep. If lack of sleep weakens our immune system as much as stress, then ensuring a good night’s sleep is perhaps one of the best health insurance policies that we could ever wish for. The foundation of good health and fitness may rest by going to bed. Here’s to a good night’s sleep and a good night’s health. 

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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immune system, sleep and immune system, sleep guide, sleep help