How does sleep affect the immune system?

Your eyes spring open, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up like pine needles. You bolt out of bed, and you try to rationalise the situation, but the existential dread has already sunk in. You begin to panic and ask yourself, "why did I not set the alarm? Why did I let myself sleep in? As your thoughts race, you pick up your phone and read "9:32 a.m. Sunday". You lay back down and chuckle to yourself with a slight sense of embarrassment about the emotional journey you just went through. As the second's pass, your eyes begin to shut, and you slowly fall back into a peaceful sleep.

We've all done this, and we all know how good that second sleep feels. But why do we like sleeping so much? And why do we feel so good after getting a good night’s sleep?

Apart from the fact it helps us rest and prepare for the next day. Sleep boosts our immune system and helps us fight off disease and illness.

If you’ve ever wondered how sleep affects your immune system, I’ve put together a little FAQ.



The immune system

The immune system is a complex system that runs throughout our body to protect us from becoming sick.

Our immune system can split into two categories: adaptive immunity and innate immunity. Adaptive immunity is acquired over time through exposure to exterior threats. Innate immunity is something we are born with and is intrinsic to our DNA.


What are the signs of a strong immune system?

  • Having low-stress levels is a clear sign of having a strong immune system. People who have high-stress levels are low in lymphocyte, which means their body struggles to fight off infection.
  • If your cuts and bruises heal quickly, it means your immune system is working well and is efficient at fighting off foreign viruses. 
  • Having high energy levels is also a sign of a healthy immune system. It shows your body is getting enough rest and you have healthy energy levels.


How can I boost up my immune system?

  • Stay hydrated throughout the day: If you're dehydrated, your immune system is lowered and struggles to fight off infection.
  • Exercise and stay active: Doing so increases circulation, which allows immune cells to make their way around the body.
  • Have a balanced and healthy diet: Your body needs nutrients that it can't get on its own, so it'd vital to eat healthy if you want to maintain a strong immune system. 


What time of day is your immune system strongest?

Studies show that your immune system is stronger at night whilst you are sleeping. However, if your sleep pattern is off, this might change.


Does sleeping more increase immunity?

Sleep specialists say that the average person should be sleeping around 8 hours per night to maintain a healthy immune system. 

However, it all depends on the quality of your sleep. If you are not getting good quality sleep, your immune system won't respond and allow your body to heal correctly. 


How does lack of sleep affect the immune system?

Sleep aids both innate and adaptive immunity. If, for example, you are suffering from a virus that your body does not recognise, your adaptive immune system will attack it best while you are asleep.

If you are not consistently getting good quality sleep, you are more than likely to get ill. This might only be a cold or flu in the short term, but lack of sleep has been linked to degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia. 


How can I improve my sleep?

Most lousy sleeping habits are due to lifestyle. However, sometimes it can be due to disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnoea. In which case, proper medical advice is needed.

If you're struggling to sleep and don't suffer from any sleep disorders, consider these tips. 

  • Don't drink caffeine late in the day as it affects your immune system’s ability to relax at night.
  • Start going to bed at a consistent time. Doing so allows your body to get into a sleep pattern whereby it will be easier to drop into deep sleep naturally. 
  • Cut down on the booze. Having the occasional drink will help you nod off, but if it becomes a regular thing, it will seriously impact your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
  • Turn your phone onto aeroplane mode 2 hours before you plan on going to bed. Staying up and staring at your phone is not going to help you sleep. The blue light will fool your brain into thinking it's daytime, making it harder to get to sleep.


What drink helps you sleep better at night?

It's best not to drink anything up to hours before you plan on sleeping, as it'll mean you have to get up in the night to pee. However, drinks such as decaffeinated tea have proven to help with sleep due to their amino acid content. Also, avoid anything sugary or carbonated - best to stick with water.


What should you not eat before bed?

Eating directly before you go to bed will diminish your chances of getting a good night’s sleep, but if you are going to eat anything, make sure it's not on this list. 

  1. Red meat: I know it's tasty, but it's filled with insoluble fibre which takes hours for your body to digest, which means your body will still be working while you are trying to sleep.
  2. Dark chocolate: It's surprisingly filled with caffeine which is no good if you're trying to sleep.
  3. Bread:  It's nearly entirely made up of carbohydrates and sugar, which will give you energy and cause your body to work excessively to break it down.
  4. Broccoli: You might be glad to read this one. Similar to red meat, Broccoli is filled with insoluble fibre that can take hours to digest.


What food makes you fall asleep fast?

There aren't any foods that will help you sleep, per se. But having a healthy balanced diet will aid your sleep in the long term.


Is it OK to go to bed hungry?

If you're so hungry that you can't sleep, it's not a bad idea to grab a light snack. However, avoid eating any sugary or carby foods.


How can I fall asleep in 5 minutes?

There's no magic method to falling asleep, but there are things you can do to hurry it up.

  • Get your body into a comfy position.
  • Relax your muscles.
  • Visualise a calm place, such as a field or a forest, or somewhere you went on holiday as a child. 
  • Tell yourself you're going to stay awake. Using reverse psychology can be a great tool.
  • Turn off your phone.


Do earplugs & sleep masks really help? 

For some people, yes. However, having something plugged into your ears or having a mask around your head can be extremely distracting for some people, so it’s all down to personal choice. 


Can I track my sleep?

 Yes, there are many excellent sleep tracking devices on the market, and they're a great way to monitor whether you are getting the right amount of sleep. Most will give you a "sleep score" that will tell you how well you slept and how long for.


What are the best sleep tracking devices?


  • Fitbit makes a great sleep tracker that tracks your light, deep, and REM sleep. The device also logs your sleep patterns to see if you are getting good sleep regularly and measures your blood oxygen level via a tri-wavelength sensor, which checks to see where you are suffering from disorders such as sleep apnoea. 
  • One of the most interesting sleep trackers is the Oura Ring. It monitors your body temperature, heart rate and sleep patterns to give you an overall health score. It’s well worth looking into if you are looking for a 24/7 health monitoring device. 
  • The whoop strap 3.0 is definitely at the top of the list when it comes to sleep trackers. It's an all-round health tracker that monitors every aspect of your life from workouts, to blood pressure, to sleep. If you aren't sleeping enough, it will tell you and let you know how much you should be sleeping. 


I hope this FAQ has been useful and consider these points not just for better sleep but for an overall healthier life style. Sleep more, drink less, eat well and stay active.


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