Sleep Care

The Immune System & Sleep

Imagine working an eight-hour shift in a very physically demanding profession, such as construction work or working on a farm. Coming home, you are likely worn down, tired, and ready to rest and get ready for the next day. Instead, however, after a brief break, imagine working another long eight hour shift, and repeating this process day after day. New study results from a group of researchers working in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom suggests that this situation might be similar to what is experienced by the immune system of those who suffer from chronic sleep loss.

How does the immune system react

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to sleep loss?

In their study, researchers examined the white blood cell counts of fifteen normal, healthy young men under both normal sleep schedule conditions and severe sleep deprivation. To obtain their data, blood was first drawn from participants during a week in which sleep was controlled (eight hours per night) with measures taken during the daytime to ensure that participants did not become sleepy or drowsy (such as exposure to bright outdoor sunlight for fifteen minutes within the first hour and a half of awakening). In the experimental portion, the men were kept awake for twenty-nine continuous hours with blood samples collected throughout the period. The researchers then compared the white blood cell counts between the two parts of the study.

They found the greatest degree of change in levels for the type of white blood cells known as granulocytes, which are made of up of tiny granules containing proteins important to the body for fending off bacterial infections. People with low granulocyte levels are more likely to get frequent and severe infections. According to the researchers, the degree to which the white blood cell counts were affected by the physical stress of lost sleep was pretty much identical to how the immune system reacts to a general, overall stress put on the body. While emphasizing the future research would be needed to understand the molecular mechanisms by which chronic sleep loss could affect the body’s immune systems, they pointed to a very important application of their findings: helping clinicians and physicians treat the effects of working in professions that are often associated with long-term sleep loss, such as overnight jobs or rotating shift work.

Protecting the Immune System

For those suffering from sleep loss, there are some other ways to protect the immune system, such as incorporating exercise into the schedule (with some exposure to sunlight outdoors if possible, as this helps keep the body’s circadian rhythms in line). Eating a balanced, nutrient-filled diet is beneficial as well.

In cases of chronic sleep loss, a referral to a sleep specialist and possible visit to a sleep lab for an overnight sleep study can be helpful in ruling out any sleep disorders that may be leading to a poor night’s sleep—and likely a poor immune system as well.


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