Your Non-Exhaustive Guide To Sleep and Your Immune System

Enhancing Your Immune System series

By: Laura Tetrault 

Reading Time: 7 mins


Sleep and Your Immune System

Have you given any thought to your sleep? I hadn’t really. Not getting enough sleep and paying for it later always seemed like a good idea at the time. Whatever I was doing now had to be worth continuing, right? The next day would find me zombified or irritable and dragging - sometimes wishing to be put out of my misery. I thought that was the extent of the consequences I’d be paying. But I hadn’t given any thought to sleep’s other functions - especially the impact on my immune system.

Did you know that just one night of poor sleep can reduce your immune cells by as much as 70%? While we sleep our bodies use that rest period to restore our systems and our brains adapt to what we learned during the day. We literally clean the junk out of our heads too. When we cut corners on sleep, we increase our susceptibility to illness and infections. Alarmingly, our risks of developing health problems like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and metabolic disorders, gastrointestinal issues and even breast and colon cancers increase. Weight gain is also more likely, since we tell ourselves we’re too tired to exercise and prop our energy levels up using sugar, caffeine, alcohol and/or nicotine.

Sleep Troubles

So if we need sleep, like we need food and our bodies can even force us into sleep - why do we sometimes have trouble with it? Difficulty falling or staying asleep is called insomnia and it’s estimated that 30-50% of the adult population are struggling with it at any given time. This would be a good time to clarify that there are different types of insomnia.

Types of Insomnia

  • Acute - is short term and usually related to stress or a change in life situation
  • Chronic - trouble sleeping happens 3 - 4xs per week
  • Comorbid insomnia happens when you have another health condition that is also related to sleep changes like depression, pain, restless leg syndrome and others.
  • Some people have trouble falling asleep, but are ok when they finally do sleep (Sleep onset or initial insomnia)
  • Some can’t stay asleep (middle or maintenance insomnia)
  • Others wake up way too early and can’t go back to sleep (late or terminal insomnia)

Thirteen reasons why sleep can be hard

These enemies of sleep can be situational, and they can also be things we do to ourselves.

  • Stress - caused by situations and lifestyle changes
  • What we eat and when we eat it
  • Being sick
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Coffee or tea (caffeine) too late in the day
  • Too much sugar
  • Screen time too close to bedtime
  • Chronic Pain
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Having certain mental illnesses (depression)
  • Taking psychosomatic medications
  • Changes in your physical location

Stimulants like smoking, screen time, caffeine and sugar get us all wound up. And depressants like alcohol result in poor quality sleep, waking up more frequently and can worsen breathing problems. Some types of food can cause heartburn and indigestion or acid reflux - none of which are fun reasons to be awake at 2 am. No one wants to be doing the Pepto Bismol Dance ever.


How Much Sleep is Enough?

How much sleep we need varies, but 7-8 hours is a good target for adults. Teens need an hour or two more at 9-10 hours per day. School age kids need
10 hours, preschoolers need 11-12 hours and newborns need the most, clocking in at 16-18 hours per day.

You’ve probably heard that we aren’t getting the amount of sleep we need. When we get less than 7 hours, we build up a sleep deficit. Naps and sleeping
in on the weekend don’t cut it. The experts say that going to bed at a time when you know you can sleep at least seven hours is the bottom line.

Let’s look at sleep and how it affects your body’s ability to defend itself, to recover from an illness and to maintain your mental health.

Sleep and Your Immune Defence System

Your adaptive immune system - the part of the immune system that is trained to respond to specific invaders, has a memory. Your immunological memory helps your T cells and B cells (we’ve been affectionately calling these specially trained cells your body’s Navy SEALs) learn about the threat and respond appropriately. Sleep helps your body form that memory and keep it up to date. This whole system works rhythmically, in line with your sleeping and waking cycle.

While you sleep your body focuses on making new T cells and helping them get distributed through your lymphatic system. At the same time, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of them help promote sleep and others are part of your body’s protection system, helping to fight infection and inflammation. They are produced and released when you sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, you make less of these protective cytokines, infection fighting antibodies and cellular Navy SEALs.

Chronic sleep loss can even make your flu shot less effective by reducing your body’s ability to respond. Diwakar Balachandran, MD and director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas summed it up neatly, “The more all-nighters you pull, the more likely you are to decrease your body’s ability to respond to colds or bacterial infections.”

Sleep and Illness Recovery

When you’re awake, your brain is attending to all the things that keep your various systems functioning. When you sleep, some of those systems sleep too - and during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage your body is in a state of paralysis. Which is a really good thing for you and for anyone sleeping near you. You’re also dreaming in REM so if you weren’t paralyzed you might hurt somebody, depending on your dreams. Since it doesn’t have to control your day functions, your brain can trigger the release of hormones that help repair your tissues and your blood vessels. Sleep also lowers the demands on your heart, lowering your blood pressure, allowing your muscles to relax which can help healing and reduce inflammation.

Sleep and Mental Health

Sleep can affect your mental health and mental health can affect your sleep. If you are suffering from anxiety, fear, isolation or depression, you might also experience trouble sleeping. In a typical psychiatric practice, 50-80% of patients also struggle with sleep. In the past, experts thought of difficulty sleeping as a symptom of another issue, but that is changing. Studies indicate that sleep problems may raise the risk for or directly contribute to developing some psychiatric disorders. Harvard Health reports that since REM sleep enhances learning and memory and contributes to emotional health, experts believe that sleep disruption and insomnia “wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation.” Those emotional regulation challenges can show up as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit disorder (ADHD).

7 Things to do to Improve Your Sleep

If counting sheep and watching paint dry don’t put you in the mood for sleep, try these 7 proven ideas:

  1. Be physically active - walking, running, swimming and other aerobic activities will help you fall asleep faster, get more deep sleep and wake up less during the night.
  2. Stick to a regular sleep schedule and set a bedtime for yourself - it keeps your sleep/wake cycle in order. Avoid napping during the day to make sleeping a little easier at night.
  3. Reduce your stress - here are a few ideas to try
    1. Set a “no - screen” time for yourself about 2 hours before bed.Start journaling
    2. Practice gratitude
    3. Even write out your to-do list for tomorrow - it will help you stop worrying when things are written down
  4. Get more daylight - the more natural daylight you’re exposed to, the more sleep hormones your body produces. Aim for 2-3 hours.
  5. Set the mood for sleep. Keep your room dark, cool and quiet
  6. Change your diet - avoid high sugar, high carb foods at night and try to eat your last meal of the day 2-4 hours before your bedtime
  7. Keep a sleep diary to find out what helps you sleep and what doesn’t. There are lots of things you can keep track of including:
    • What you ate before bed
    • If you had alcohol or caffeine
    • Any medications you’re taking
    • If you exercised
    • Anything you did to relax
    • Was your day was more stressful than usual
    • How many hours you slept
    • Thoughts you had before bed
    • How you felt in the morning

Your sleep diary can be as detailed or as simple as you’d like it to be.
Over time you’ll gain insight into what works well for you.

8 Natural Remedies

On top of the lifestyle changes, there are some supplements and remedies that can also improve your sleep. Give us a call at the pharmacy (519) 322-4922 and we would be happy to help.
  1. Calcium and magnesium - work together to promote relaxation and improve your sleep
  2. Melatonin - your body’s sleep hormone - used for jet lag and short periods of time
  3. Passion flower tea - helps relax your nervous system
  4. Chamomile tea - promotes relaxation and can reduce pain, swelling and inflammation
  5. Valerian Root - increases your brain’s GABA levels to induce sedation
  6. Lavender and Chamomile essential oils - chamomile has been used as a natural remedy for anxiety and depression and lavender promotes sleep
  7. L-Theanine - This amino acid not produced by the body can help improve sleep before bedtime and promote relaxation.
  8. GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid) - is an amino acid produced naturally in the brain to promote a balanced mood and helps with stress and sleep.

If you haven't already, check out our articles on the immune system and how it works, the health benefits of laughter, a comprehensive guide to your gut, and   vitamins and supplements that can support your immune health. 


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