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The Relationship between Sleep, Stress, and Sickness

Sleep is important to fight infections, like COVID-19.

There are many advantages to getting a good night’s sleep. Everyone knows how much better it feels to wake up feeling energized and in a better, relaxed mood after sleeping a full uninterrupted night’s worth, while not getting enough makes us feel more stressed than needed. One advantage of sleep that is often overlooked is how getting enough of it plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy immune system. When you have an infection, it often makes you tired and increases the desire to sleep more. 

It is during deep sleep that our immune system does the most to fight infection and cancer. A recent study showed that a single night of 5 hours or less of sleep dropped the immune fighting function of the macrophage, a type of white blood cell that helps fight infections, from 100 % to 30%. We need a full 100% of our immune functioning to stay healthy and to resist and fight infection. In addition, when we sleep, a type of protein called cytokine is produced and released. Cytokines are proteins that regulate immunity and target infection. So if you lose sleep, your body is essentially getting weaker and is less able to fend off viruses. A consistent lack of sleep and poor sleep hygiene can make the flu vaccine less effective and slow the response rate of your body. Overall, there is a strong correlation between sleep habits and the likelihood of getting sick. 

The simple solution is to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night (or day). However, for many of us, this is easier said than done. You can learn about how to get to sleep easier and create a healthier sleep environment here. If you have trouble sleeping at night, taking at least 2 short naps a day (no longer than 30 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon) can help you feel more energized and reduce stress. Reducing stress is essential because high levels of stress can further weaken the immune system.

Stress is a natural prompt to make us unable to sleep or stay asleep and contributes to insomnia. Insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep, is actually a survival tactic that allowed our early human ancestors to survive. Imagine if you are being chased by a bear all day, and then when you lay down to rest, you can’t sleep. This is because your brain is on the lookout for the bear. If you fall asleep, your brain wakes you up, saying, “where is the bear?” or sleep with “one eye open.” 

It’s important to acknowledge stress as a common source of poor sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, we recommend resting, stay in bed, and meditate with your eyes closed for as long as possible. If you find yourself becoming more frustrated, try to engage in an activity that is calming but not very stimulating. If you do something such as eat or watch TV, your brain will program itself to be awake at that same time to do it again the next day, making matters worse.  You can learn more about creating a healthy sleep environment by reading our guide to getting the best sleep. Overall, stress and poor sleep habits can both lead to a weakened immune system, and the two go hand in hand. Getting enough sleep and reducing stress levels are both keys in not only keeping yourself healthy but keeping everyone around you healthy as well.