Sleep is the best immune booster: Rest improves your ability to fight off infections
05/24/2019 // Cassie B. // Views

“Get plenty of rest” might sound like pat advice when you’re sick, but a recent study shows that sleep can be quite miraculous when it comes to helping your body fight off infections.

German researchers have uncovered just how sleep works its magic. It’s related to T cells, a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in immune response. Under optimal conditions, T cells target cells that are infected with viruses and kill them. They can fight intracellular pathogens like the flu, herpes, cancer and HIV cells. However, they don’t always act as they should, and the researchers set out to find out why.

They found that hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, prostaglandins, and adenosine stop T cells from killing targets once they identify them because they render them unable to attach and stick to their targets. Levels of these hormones drop when you’re sleeping, so they examined the T cells of healthy people while either sleeping or staying awake all night. They found that the T cells of those who were sleeping had far higher levels of activation than those who were awake.

Study author Luciana Besedovsky said: "Our findings show that sleep has the potential to enhance the efficiency of T cell responses, which is especially relevant in light of the high prevalence of sleep disorders and conditions characterized by impaired sleep, such as depression, chronic stress, aging, and shift work."

Their findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

This may help explain why people who have trouble sleeping have a weakened immune system and a greater risk of chronic stress and depression. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are also higher in those who are stressed.


Not only do their findings draw attention to the importance of getting sleep, but the information gleaned about T cells could inspire improvements in therapies like cancer immunotherapy, where T cells attack tumor cells and kill them.

Sleep can also improve your immunity in other ways. When you sleep, your body produces and releases proteins known as cytokines, which target infections and inflammation. Moreover, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, so the effect is heightened.

Are you getting enough sleep?

Unfortunately, a lack of sleep is all too common, with the CDC reporting that more than a third of Americans fail to get sufficient sleep. Many people simply don’t recognize the dangers of a chronic lack of sleep and the stress hormones it releases. Getting fewer than five hours of sleep per night regularly has been linked to higher mortality, and studies have shown that getting fewer than seven hours of sleep for three consecutive nights affects your body just as badly as missing a full night of sleep.

If you have trouble getting all the sleep you need at night – seven to eight hours is ideal – experts recommend making up for it through short naps. Two naps of 30 minutes each or less, one during the morning and one in the afternoon, can reduce stress and offset the immune system damage caused by sleep deprivation, according to studies. If your work schedule makes morning and afternoon naps difficult, the National Sleep Foundation suggests you consider a short nap during your lunch break and another just before dinner.

With a lack of sleep linked to everything from mood and memory problems to weight gain and cardiovascular disease, it is essential that you give your body the rest it needs to fight off infections and keep your immune system healthy.

Sources for this article include:

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