Lack of sleep can do more than make you grumpier than Oscar the Grouch. It can have an impact on your immune system, according to a study conducted by the Surrey Sleep Research Centre. Researchers found that poor sleep quality for just one week could impact hundreds of genes related to metabolism, response to stress, and our immune system, which helps to protect us from illness and disease.
“It is an old wives’ tale that if you don’t sleep well, you will get sick, and there is some experimental data that shows this is true,” says Diwakar Balachandran, MD, who is the director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Keep in mind that our immune system, by design, is set up to protect us from a variety of ailments, including colds and the flu. But when it’s not functioning as it should, then its ability to “do its job” protecting us is lessened.
Other studies have revealed that for people who get inadequate sleep, either in quantity or quality, have a greater likelihood of getting sick after exposed to a virus, including the common cold, the Mayo Clinic points out.
Lack of sleep and the immune system doesn’t just impact whether or not we come down with an illness. It also impacts how fast we get well after being sick.
Take this example: when we get an infection, our body naturally fights this with a fever. “One of the things that happens when we sleep is that we can get a better fever response,” says doctor Balachandran. “This is why fevers tend to rise at night. But if we are not sleeping, our fever reaction is not primed, so we may not be waging war on infection as best we can,” he explains.
When you have inflammation or an infection, your body needs cytokines to fight off these invaders. However, the production of cytokines are disrupted — and may even decrease — when sleep deprived. This in turn decreases your ability to ward off certain diseases; in other words, it ups the risk of developing diabetes, obesity, heart, and other cardiovascular conditions.
If you are not getting enough sleep — or enough quality sleep, the first question to ask yourself is why? Do you have a sleep disorder? Is your bedroom environment not conducive to sleep? Is your mattress lumpy, saggy, and about five years past its prime? It may be a simple fix, such as lowering the thermostat to the best temperature for sleep or investing in a new mattress. On the other hand, if you have insomnia, sleep apnea, or another underlying health condition, a visit to your physician or sleep specialist may be in order.
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