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Struggling to Sleep? Your Immune System May Be at Risk

4 min read

Exhausted mother pouring coffee

Is there anything more maddening than lying awake, staring at the ceiling … frustrated because your brain won’t shut off and your body is restless? And the longer you can’t fall asleep, the more anxious you become as you watch the clock slowly tick away the minutes.

If the above is a familiar scene, you’re not alone. A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one-third of Americans do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. The 2020 Philips Global Sleep Survey revealed that only 49% of Americans are completely satisfied with their sleep.

According to Gallup, the average American adult gets 6.8 hours of sleep each night (as compared with 7.9 hours per night in 1942).

Not getting enough sleep is a huge issue for those affected by it. Not only can it result in sleepiness and poor judgment during the day; it can also weaken your immune system.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

If you asked somebody how much sleep the average person needs, chances are they’d say “about eight hours.” While that may be true for many, recent studies have shown that how much sleep you need is determined by your genes. Because of this, in 2015, the National Sleep Foundation added another category called “may be appropriate” to their sleep recommendations chart.

According to Gallup, the average American adult gets 6.8 hours of sleep each night (as compared with 7.9 hours per night in 1942). Even more disturbing is a 2015 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence which found that 20% of teenagers get fewer than 5 hours of sleep at night, with most teenagers averaging 6.5 hours.

How Lack of Sleep Affects Immunity

When your sleep is insufficient, your body produces fewer cytokines. Cytokines are proteins, peptides and glycoproteins that mediate and regulate immunity, inflammation and hematopoiesis (the production of all the cellular components of blood and blood plasma). Cytokines are both produced and released when you sleep, making them doubly important because their depletion makes you more vulnerable to foreign invaders. 

Your body also produces fewer infection-fighting antibodies when your sleep is reduced. Your T cells (a type of white blood cell) are not at their fighting best. T cells are an essential component of the immune system because they search for and destroy foreign invaders. A February 2019 study by researchers in Germany found that “sleep improves the potential ability of some of the body’s immune cells (T cells) to attach to their targets.” They explain that a good night’s sleep can fight off infection.

So what can you do to get more snooze time and help your body carry out these critical missions?

8 Tips to Help You Sleep Better

  1. Be consistent. Try to go to sleep the same time each night and wake up the same time each morning. A study by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that students who had irregular patterns of sleep and wakefulness overwhelmingly had lower grade point averages. “Our results indicate that going to sleep and waking up at approximately the same time is as important as the number of hours one sleeps,” said Dr. Andrew J.K. Phillips, the lead author of the study.
  2. Avoid shift work. Shift work has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular, metabolic and infectious disease. A 2019 study looked at whether circadian rhythm disruption and disturbed sleep could lead to some of these health issues. The study concluded that chronic night-shift work as well as recent night-shift work may impact immune health status.
  3. Take a nap. If you are tired during the day, take a nap. A nap can relax you, reduce fatigue, increase alertness and improve your mood.  A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that “napping has stress-releasing and immune effects. Napping could be easily applied in real settings as a countermeasure to the detrimental health consequences of sleep debt.” A 2006 study published in the journal Sleep concluded that a 10-minute nap was the most effective afternoon naptime duration. 
  4. Avoid alcohol. Don’t consume alcohol within six hours of your bedtime. Alcohol does not improve the quality of sleep. “Alcohol may seem to be helping you to sleep, as it helps induce sleep, but overall, it is more disruptive to sleep, particularly in the second half of the night," according to Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director at The London Sleep Centre, who was quoted by WebMD. He added: "Alcohol also suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea. The more a person drinks before bed, the stronger the disruption. One to two standard drinks seem to have minimal effects on sleep.” (Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.)
  5. Keep caffeine to a minimum after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant that promotes alertness. Keep in mind, it’s not just coffee that contains caffeine; energy drinks, sodas, green tea, dark chocolate, chocolate cake (and anything with chocolate frosting) are just some of the food/beverage items high in caffeine. 
  6. Improve your sleep environment. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool (no more than 67 degrees, if possible). Eliminate distractions such as electronic devices and pets. If you find yourself being distracted by your bedside clock, place it on the other side of the room or turn it away from you. 
  7. Get adequate exercise. According to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” What’s more, she says that if you engage in 30 minutes of moderate exercise, it’s possible to see a difference in your sleep quality that night. “It’s generally not going to take months or years to see a benefit,” she says.
  8. Eat nutritiously. The best recipe for restorative sleep is to eat a well-balanced diet. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables; avoid processed foods; and keep your intake of sugar, salt, saturated fat and trans fats to a minimum.

    In the words of the late science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “Happiness consists of getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.”  And while this observation was in the context of one of his fictional novels, it does make sense. If you sleep well every night, everything else seems to fall into place. When you feel rested and alert during the day, you’ll likely be more productive and enjoy life more fully.

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