The coronavirus outbreak that has devastated China and left the world scrambling for answers has also reinforced the important role sleep plays in building our immune systems.
In a nutshell: Making sure we consistently get a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways we can improve our immunity and defend against viruses and disease. Sleep is a natural immune booster.
This is something we’ve known intrinsically for centuries, with a healthy dose of sleep often being paired with crackers and a warm bowl of soup when we are fighting back against the common cold. Modern research has only continued to highlight how interconnected sleep and the immune system are. We’ll dive into that relationship in just a moment.
But to be clear, I’m not suggesting sleep is a cure-all for coronavirus. That isn’t the case; currently, there is no vaccine for the infection. The coronavirus has, by Feb. 20, killed more than 2,100 people globally. Altogether, nearly 75,000 cases have been confirmed, mostly in China, where the country has ground to a halt as it looks to safeguard against further outbreak.
The coronavirus has also become a major concern here in the U.S, as several hundred Americans have been evacuated from China and quarantined for up to 14 days in the last few weeks.
Signs of the virus are typical of less severe illnesses. Coronavirus symptoms, according to the C.D.C., include: headaches, coughing, runny nose, sore throat and a fever.
Again, I’m not saying sleep is a panacea for coronavirus. What I am saying, though, is this is an opportunity to remember the fundamentals. There’s no debate sleep is a vital component of staying healthy. That’s why it’s worth understanding how it helps build our immune system. Here’s what we know about the immune system and sleep:
How The Immune System Works
First, we should quickly review how the immune system works. This is your built-in defense system against harmful germs that can make you ill.
The immune system has three primary jobs:
- To identify pathogens, or disease-causing germs, and remove them from the body. These include viruses, parasites, bacteria or fungi.
- Spot and neutralize harmful substances that come from outside the body.
- Combat major changes within the body, like cancer cells
Your immune system is activated when it recognizes antigens, or toxins and other foreign substances to your body. This triggers a response, where the immune system develops antibodies, or cells specifically developed to fight the invader. Once these antibodies are produced, the immune system will keep a file and use it again if it ever runs into the same issue; this is why you typically only fight the chicken pox once in your life.
How Sleep Affects Your Immune System
Sleep is necessary for your immune system to run as efficiently as possible.
You can think of your immune system as your body’s football coach and sleep as its halftime break.
Good coaches make adjustments at halftime, after recognizing what their opponents are doing effectively. Sleep plays the same role for your immune system, giving it a chance to fully assess any threats. The immune system can then deliberately tackle antigens, directing its cells — or players in this analogy — as they mount a counterattack. Without enough sleep, though, your body will have a hard time implementing the best game plan to fight back against illness.
Also keep in mind that temperature regulation is vital when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. One of the best ways I know to avoid overheating during the night is wearing cooling pajamas. These lightweight pajamas keep you cool when it’s hot, with their specialized moisture-wicking technology helping you stay asleep longer — and not have to worry about waking up during the night in a drenched t-shirt.
Sleep Boosts T Cell Production
One way sleep helps the immune system is in how it fosters T Cell production.
T Cells are white blood cells that play a critical part in the immune system’s response to viruses. Their activation is an important step in how the body handles invaders, with T Cells attacking and destroying virus-carrying cells.
A good night’s sleep is needed for T Cells to work their best, however.
One recent study showed participants who were able to get a full night of sleep reported higher levels of T Cell activation compared to participants who didn’t get ample sleep. Sleep deprivation, meanwhile, stops T Cells from responding efficiently — and makes it more difficult for the body to fight back against illnesses.
Sleep Improves the Immune System’s Response to Threats
The immune system’s response time is also improved by getting a good night’s sleep.
By completing the four sleep cycles, you’re supporting the release and production of cytokine, a multifaceted protein that helps the immune system quickly respond to antigens.
Cytokines have two priorities:
- Promoting cell-to-cell communication
- Directing cells to head towards infections and counteract the issue
These proteins are essentially the quarterback for your immune system, taking the orders on how to best fight back against a virus and directing immune cells to follow the game plan.
A lack of sleep makes this tougher. Your body relies on a full night of rest to replenish the cells and proteins it needs to fight diseases. Sleep loss stymies cytokine production, and in the process makes it harder for your body to battle back against viruses.
How to Best Avoid Coronavirus Infection According To The CDC
With no vaccine available for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has issued a number of rudimentary steps that should be taken to best prevent infection.
These steps include:
- Washing your hands with soap and water
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Work from home when you’re sick
- Clean and disinfect objects you frequently use
- Use tissues when you cough or sneeze, and make sure to throw it away immediately
Following these instructions, while at the same time, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night would be the best defense I can recommend. When considering how sleep helps the body ward off the common cold, that becomes especially clear.
Quality Sleep Fights Back Against Colds
When you’re suffering from a cold, one of the first things your doctor — or your mom — would tell you is to get plenty of sleep.
There’s plenty of research that backs it up. Sleep is perhaps the single best measure you can take to deal with, or prevent, colds.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco highlighted this last year. Their findings indicated poor sleep was the number one factor in determining whether someone would get sick after being exposed to the cold virus.
The UCSF study had 164 participants track their sleep habits for a week. Afterwards, they were all put in a hotel and given nasal drops, exposing them to the cold.
Volunteers who had reported good sleep during the week — averaging at least 7 hours of sleep each night — were much less likely to get sick. On the other hand, participants who got 6 hours of sleep or less each night were 4.2 more likely to catch a cold.
The researchers indicated poor sleep was the main determinant of whether someone got sick, overriding their age, race, income, stress level and habits like smoking. The results drove home just how important sleep is in combating everyday illnesses.
How to Get the Best Sleep Possible
We’ve gone over how important sleep is to building your immunity. With that knowledge, it puts an extra emphasis on making sure you now get the best sleep possible.
Still, simply finding the time for a good night’s sleep can be tough. I get it. Between work, family and day-to-day tasks, sometimes we can put sleep on the back burner. That shouldn’t have to be the case, though. Read my Sleep Calculator post for developing a strategy for getting the 7.5 hours of sleep you need each night.
One more thing to keep in mind: avoid blue light an hour before bed. I’ve written at length about how blue light can impact your ability to fall asleep quickly. Be sure to check out the 5 things to know before you buy blue light blocking glasses. I also regularly drink my favorite tea to relax and hydrate before bed during my power down hour so that I can rest easier.
The coronavirus outbreak has understandably become a worldwide story in the last few weeks. It’s certainly concerning, and I’m thankful we have so many dedicated people working towards a solution. The news has served as a reminder to me of how important sleep is in supporting our immune system. By getting a full night of sleep, we help our bodies best fight back against potential threats.
Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!