Sleep & Immune Health: Can Not Sleeping Make You Sick?

The Importance of Sleep for a Strong Immune System

Sleep, you know it does your body good. There’s nothing like a full night’s sleep. You feel better, look better and perform better after getting the proper rest. But did you know that getting good, quality sleep is one of the best ways to strengthen your immunity?

Research shows, and experts agree, that sleep is crucial for a well-functioning immune system and your body’s ability to stay healthy. In fact, according to immunologist and functional medicine physician, Dr. Heather Moday, sleep is one of the most effective ways to prepare your body to fight infection. Which proposes the question: Can not sleeping make you sick?

To answer that question, we take a closer look at the relationship between sleep and immune health – and the importance of sleep for a strong immune system – below.

How Sleep Supports Your Immune Health

Years of research shows that consistent sleep helps regulate immune system activity, promoting a well-balanced and effective immune response.12

Your immune system has one (albeit complex) job to do: to protect the health of your body. It’s made up of a complicated network of specialized immune cells that work together to identify external substances and coordinate an appropriate response. These immune cells are like an army of highly trained foot soldiers, making up your body’s personalized defense system.

“All of the complex components of your immune system army rely on adequate sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm to work effectively,” Dr. Moday states in her latest book, The Immunotype Breakthrough (2021), explaining that sleep is a very active time for your immune system (despite being a quiet time for other parts of your body).

During deep sleep, your body is in a highly active immune state, producing more immune cells, making new antibodies, and releasing proteins called cytokines, which play a huge role in immune system regulation. Cytokines act as messengers, telling other specialized immune cells to prepare a defensive response — often times taking the form of inflammation. And, while a certain amount of inflammation is necessary for the immune system to defend the body, too much inflammation can be detrimental.

“All this nighttime immune activation requires a lot of energy. The body needs fuel to make new proteins, pump out fresh cells, and make heaps of antibodies. Luckily, while we sleep our basal metabolic rate is lower and our muscles aren’t burning up as much glucose as when we’re running around during the day. This allows our immune system to siphon off this surplus energy and get to work.” – Dr. Heather Moday, The Immunotype Breakthrough (2021).

How Does Lack of Sleep Affect the Immune System?

Not getting enough sleep disrupts the production of immune cells and cytokines, throwing your entire immune system out of whack. Research has shown that lack of sleep in both the short- and long-term affects your immune response, compromising your body’s natural defenses. Even just one night of poor sleep can weaken your immunity when presented with a challenge.4

One of the major consequences of an unbalanced immune system is out-of-control inflammation, which can contribute to inflammatory disease. In fact, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have all been linked to lack of sleep.5 Research has also shown that sleep deprivation can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease.6

“At the same time that proper sleep allows for a controlled environment of immune activity and inflammation, long-term sleep deprivation deregulates this response and causes chronic inflammation and disease,” explains Dr. Moday, adding that sleep loss is associated with a vast range of inflammatory disease states.

So Can Not Sleeping Make You Sick?

In short, yes. Not sleeping weakens your immune defenses, increasing the risk for catching something. For example, in a 2015 study published in the journal Sleep, researchers exposed 164 volunteers to the common cold and discovered that the people who slept less than 5 or six hours a night were at greater risk of developing the cold compared to those who slept more than 7 hours a night prior to exposure.

“Clearly, there’s an intricate connection between sleep and the immune system, as it relates to both chronic disease and our ability to fight off acute infections,” concludes Dr. Moday in her chapter on sleep and the immune system. “But here’s the good news: As soon as you start getting high-quality sleep, your immune system rebounds swiftly.”

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1Lange, T., et. al. Effects of sleep and circadian rhythm on the human immune system. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2021; 1193: 48-59.

2Besedovsky, L., et. al. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012 Jan;463(1):121-37.

3Asif, N., et. al. Human immune system during sleep. Am J Clin Exp Immunol. 2017; 6(6): 92–96.

4Irwin, M., Partial sleep deprivation reduces natural killer cell activity in humans. Psychosom Med. 1994 Nov-Dec;56(6):493-8.

5Garbarino,S., et. al. Role of sleep deprivation in immune-related disease risk and outcomes. Commun Biol. 2021; 4: 1304.

6Hsiao, Y.H., et. al. Sleep Disorders and Increased Risk of Autoimmune Diseases in Individuals without Sleep Apne. Sleep, Volume 38, Issue 4, 1 April 2015, Pages 581–586.