As the coronavirus spreads world-wide and anxiety builds, one behavior that has been proven time and time again to reduce the incidence and intensity of disease is getting sufficient sleep. To honor of World Sleep Day, and because sleep may be particularly important during a pandemic, lets dive into the science behind the relationship between sleep and immunity.
How Sleep Affects Your Immune System
While the COVID-19 disease and the novel coronavirus that causes it are new and therefore relatively poorly understood and understudied, research by Dr. Aric Prather out of UC San Francisco on another type of Coronavirus - the common cold - demonstrated that “people who sleep six hours a night or less are four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to the virus, compared to those who spend more than seven hours a night in slumber land.”
Although many people may naturally assume that a relationship exists between sleep and immunity, the study was able to show just how strong this relationship is--much greater than the relationship between the risk of developing a cold and alcohol consumption, smoking, or other markers of health including BMI and self-reported stress.
Why Lack of Sleep Weakens the Immune System
When we sleep, our bodies repair and restore vital systems that help keep us alive. This includes muscular, skeletal, and cellular repair during our REM stages of sleep. If we are not getting adequate REM sleep, our bodies will not recover and we will be more susceptible to illness.
While examining the relationship between sleep and response to cold virus exposure, the lead author of the UC San Francisco study explains that partial sleep deprivation reduces immune parameters critical to fighting infections. Other studies have also demonstrated that the active immune system is extremely energy-dependent, and the reduced energy demands during sleep allow us allocate additional energy resources towards the immune system.
Sleep as a Natural Immune System Booster
Another study, published last year in the Journal of Experimental Medicine and led by Stoyan Dimitrov, showed that a good night’s sleep can boost the effectiveness of T cells, a specialized white blood cell responsible for activating the immune system to fight infection. T cells do their job with the help of a special immune system protein called integrins, which allow the T cells to bind to their targets.
Dimitrov and his team showed that integrin activation happened at a higher rate during sleep than during wake, suggesting that the immune system is better at identifying threats while you’re asleep than while you’re awake.
Most people who come down with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, but in severe cases it causes pneumonia. While there are many kinds of pneumonias, a Harvard study led by Dr. Sanjay Patel found that in a sample of almost 57,000 women, getting fewer than 5 hours of sleep vs more than 8 hours explained a 70% difference in the incidence of pneumonia. It is important to note that they were not specifically looking at pneumonia associated with COVID-19, however the reduced immune system functioning that made these short-sleeping women vulnerable might be a valuable cautionary tale.
Other Ways to Strengthen Immune System
Additional things you can do to boost your immune system beyond getting more sleep include:
Making changes to benefit your immune system and improve your sleep will certainly not guarantee you avoid the coronavirus, but they will undoubtedly improve your overall well-being during this uncertain period.
Track Your Sleep and Other Behaviors
In a recent study done by the University of Arizona and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, WHOOP was proven to accurately measure sleep and identify sleep’s various stages. Having a tool like WHOOP to quantify how much REM sleep you are getting and how much sleep debt your body is experiencing could be critical to managing health.
In honor of World Sleep Day, they polled 100 of the best sleepers on WHOOP and asked them for their best sleep tips and tricks. Their advice ranged from snuggling your dog to maintaining a reliable pre-bed routine, to using various supplements and products. While the advice of champion sleepers is definitely worth a read during this time in which sufficient sleep might be more valuable than ever, it is important to pay attention to what’s working and not working for you personally.
Please note that Whoop is one of many ways to track your sleep and other activities, their system is well regarded and used by many professional athletes. They are responsible for preparing much of this content which has been reviewed and edited by us.
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