How Sleep Affects Your Immune System

Nina Livelo

May 27 2020

Most people know that sleep is essential, but not everyone realises just how important it is to immune health. Tossing and turning, intermittent waking, or sleeping for too few hours could all cost you your ability to fight infection.

Unfortunately, many people are currently facing such sleep issues due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fear and anxiety about the disease, economic stress, and drastic lifestyle changes make it hard to get quality shut-eye. This is problematic, as now, more than ever, we need our immune system at its strongest.

So, how can you overcome poor sleep during the coronavirus pandemic? This article will share a few tips on how to sleep better and provide more information about the connection between sleep and the immune system.

How Are Sleep and the Immune System Connected?

Put simply, good sleep is an immune system booster, while poor sleep is an immune system inhibitor. It’s when we are sleeping that the immune system is working hardest and most effectively to fight infection and heal the body. It’s important to get a full night of quality sleep because certain stages of sleep are more impactful than others.

There are four stages of sleep, all of which are important to your overall health. Most people have heard of REM sleep, which is when the body is most relaxed, and the brain is most active. This is the stage responsible for better focus and memory.

The most important stage of sleep for the immune system, on the other hand, is slow-wave sleep, also called delta sleep. This is when the body is most relaxed, and the immune system releases cytokine proteins, including T cells, which latch onto and destroy diseased cells in the body.

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When you get uninterrupted, deep sleep, not only does your body release more virus-fighting T cells, it produces stronger T cells that are even more effective at fighting infection. That’s why healthy immune function relies on getting the recommended eight hours of sleep per night.

In fact, a 2015 study in the United States tracking rhinovirus (the common cold) development found that those who slept less than six hours were four times more likely to develop cold symptoms than those who slept seven or more hours.

Rhinovirus and coronavirus are two different beasts, but the results of this study remain relevant. To keep disease away and symptoms at bay, getting enough sleep is absolutely essential. Unfortunately, these days, that is said than done.

How Has the Coronavirus Impeded People’s Ability to Sleep?

A pandemic of this amplitude is unprecedented in our time and has impacted everyone differently. For some, it has caused an increase in general anxiety and stress. We have also been forced to self-isolate, which is necessary to “flattening the curve.” Unfortunately, this isolation has led to increased rates of loneliness, boredom, frustration, and depression. All of these consequences affect our ability to get good sleep.

coronavirus pandemic

How Coronavirus Anxiety Affects Sleep

Anxiety affects both mental and physical health. A few common ways it manifests include rapid breathing and heartbeat, restlessness, nausea, aches and pains, and panic attacks. It also causes a variety of sleeping problems, such as:

  • Stress insomnia
  • Waking up throughout the night
  • Teeth grinding
  • Restlessness
  • Nightmares

It’s a vicious cycle because poor sleep can feed anxiety and exacerbate existing stress. Anxiety also has a negative effect on immune health because when you experience anxiety the body to go into fight-or-flight mode. This is when the immune system floods the body with cortisol and other stress hormones.

During periods of long-term stress, which many people are experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic, this causes sustained inflammation in the body, leaving it more vulnerable to infection.

This, combined with the negative effects of poor sleep, make anxiety a double whammy to the immune system.

How Lockdown and Isolation Affects Sleep

Even people who are not experiencing heightened anxiety during lockdown may still be suffering from sleep problems due to changes in their daily routine.

Humans, after all, are creatures of habit. We naturally anticipate many of our body functions based on the pattern in which we regularly do them. Eating, sleeping, and even going to the bathroom are all affected by this routine. For many people, this routine centres around work.

Now that people around the United Kingdom and across the world are either working from home or have stopped working altogether, our routines have been thrown off. As a result, the body is confused. You may find it harder to fall asleep and wake up at the same time you would normally.

Lockdown also makes it harder to sleep because it prohibits much of the movement and physical activity that usually make us tired.

How to Sleep Better and Improve Your Immune System

Concerned about poor sleep affecting your immune system? Here’s how to sleep better during lockdown and even after the coronavirus pandemic has ended. These tips will make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep longer.

how to sleep better

  • Establish a Routine – Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. It may be hard at first, but eventually, your body will begin to anticipate these actions.
  • Exercise – Physical activity is important to your circadian rhythms and also helps soothe anxiety. Even something as simple as a short walk around the neighbourhood is an immune system booster that keeps your body healthy and ready for bed.
  • Improve Your Sleep Hygiene – Sleep hygiene is the general term for the way you prepare your body for sleep. Good sleep hygiene involves avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, avoiding naps close to bedtime, eating at least a couple hours before falling asleep, and more.
  • Take a Break From Technology (And the News) – Try to stay away from using the computer, tv, and phone screens too close to bedtime. The blue light emitted from these screens interferes with our circadian rhythms and makes it harder to fall asleep. Social media and the news can also increase anxiety about the coronavirus and other current events, giving us more to stay awake and worry about.
  • Create a Comfy Sleep Environment – Make your bed with a comfortable and supportive mattress and pillow. An unsupportive sleep setting increases pressure and discomfort on the body and could lead to increased aches and pains that impede sleep. If your mattress quality is affecting your ability to get good sleep, consider purchasing a new one. Browse the reviews on our site to determine which one might be right for you.
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Getting good sleep is fundamental to healthy immune function, but it’s not always easy. If you are suffering from sleep problems, whether or not they are caused by stress from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to remedy them. Use these tips for how to sleep better as your first steps toward healthier, more refreshing sleep.

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