Sleep and the Immune System
When you don’t get enough sleep, it’s hard to show up as your best self. But did you know that you’re more likely to get sick too? Aside from the unpleasant experience of sleep deprivation, numerous studies have linked lack of consistent quality sleep with higher rates of sickness and mortality. On the other hand, getting enough deep sleep every night seems to have a fortifying and supportive effect on the immune system, decreasing our odds of getting sick. Let’s dive more into sleep and the immune system in this article.
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The Role of Sleep
There’s nothing like waking up after a good night’s sleep. You roll out of bed feeling refreshed, re-energized, and ready to take on the world. Getting enough sleep is a magical feeling that can improve our mood and help us show up as our best selves. Other benefits of hitting your sleep goals include:
- A greater threshold for stress
- More inner calm and peace
- More patience
- Improved communication
- Better relationships
- More creativity
- Higher levels of motivation
- Enhanced focus and concentration
- Improved productivity
But sleep isn’t just a pleasant and restorative experience — it’s an essential function that helps the body repair and prepare for the coming day. Aside from helping you feel energized in the morning, sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation, clearing toxic waste from the body and brain, repairing daily wear and tear, and healthy immune functioning.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Research suggests that consistent lack of sleep doesn’t just make us feel cranky. It actually affects our health and wellbeing. Studies show that in the long-term, poor sleep leads to :
- Increased sensitivity to stress
- Higher levels of pain
- Impaired cognitive function
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory issues
- Decreased emotional wellbeing
- Reduced performance and productivity
- Can prompt or worsen mental health conditions
- Less happiness and more mental distress
- Increased risk for accidents (falling, car accidents, etc.)
- Higher rates of sickness
In the long term, sleep deprivation can lead to :
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Weight-related issues
- Metabolic syndrome
- Type II Diabetes
- Colorectal cancer
Estimates suggest that nearly 70 million people in the United States and at least 45 million across Europe get less than the recommended 7-9 hours per night. 
The amount of sleep you get can have a profound effect on your health, with sleep experts finding under seven hours of sleep three nights in a row affects the body in the same way as if you’d missed a whole night of sleep. Additionally, regularly sleeping less than five hours a night has been linked with higher mortality. 
Sleep and the Immune System
Although many of us anecdotally know the link between sleep and the immune response, it’s only recently that experts have begun understanding exactly how sleeping time affects the immune system.
One study on sleep and immune system function found that pro-inflammatory cytokines and naive T cells (a type of white blood cell or immune cell) peak in production during the early evening, while other immune cells like cytotoxic natural killer (NK) cells peak during the early morning. In this way, sleep seems to help spread T cells through the body and may enhance cytokines in promoting the interaction between antigen presenting cells and T helper cells. 
In other words, when you sleep your body releases proteins called cytokines which act as protective forces that fight against inflammation, infections, disease, and stress.  When you don’t get enough sleep, your body may produce lower levels of these cytokines, increasing your odds of getting sick.
Diving even deeper, researchers have found that certain molecules and stress hormones (like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and prostaglandins) which are higher during the day actively prevent the “stickiness” of molecules called integrins. Integrins are critical for helping T cells stick to and kill virus-infected or damaged cells. Because levels of these daytime stress molecules are lower in the evening, the stickiness of integrins is stronger at night, allowing for greater T cell effectiveness. 
Researchers from the study mentioned above compared the levels of T cells from healthy participants who were asked to either stay awake all night or sleep. Unsurprisingly, researchers found that T-cells had higher levels of integrin activation for participants who slept than those who stayed awake all night. They also found that stress hormones like those from poor sleep may actually inhibit healthy functioning of T cells. 
10 Quick Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
- Practice good sleep hygiene
- Try to wake up at the same time each day
- Aim for at least 30 minutes of mindful movement, five days a week
- Create an ultra-relaxing evening sleep routine
- Don’t drink caffeine or consume lots of sugar right before bed
- Avoid technology that emits blue light before bed
- Consider whether you’re using the right bedding to support sleep
- Practice breathing exercises to ground yourself
- Use meditation to cultivate inner peace and calm a busy mind
- Try using Muse’s digital sleeping pills to help you fall and stay asleep throughout the night
Tired of not getting enough sleep?
Learn how Muse’s portable EEG headband could help train your brain to fall and stay asleep with greater ease and peace of mind.
- Learn about the short and long-term health consequences of not getting enough sleep HERE >>
- Explore the impact of sleep deprivation on mortality with Healthline HERE >>
- Read about the effects of sleep on the immune system HERE >>
- Discover the effects of lack of sleep with MayoClinic HERE >>
- Learn about the study on T cells and integrin activation HERE >>