Sleep and immunity and how even one night’s poor sleep can have a detrimental effect

The immune system is a complex interplay of biochemical processes involved in fighting off viral and bacterial infections, wound healing, reaction to allergens, removal of toxins as well as combatting malignant cells.

A relatively short disruption in sleep can have an impact on the immune defenses of the body. A study carried out on nurses showed that after one short night’s sleep, totaling 4 hours, Natural Killer (NK) cells were significantly reduced. NK cells are involved in killing tumor cells and reduced NK cells are associated with an increased cancer risk.(1,2)

Sleep loss is also linked to an increased risk of viral infection. Even when sleep disruption was short lived and was followed by a period of catch up sleep. In one study sleep was restricted to 4 hours a night for 6 nights followed by sleeping 12 hours a night for 7 days. This showed a 50% decrease in antibody production to influenza in comparison to those who had regular sleep.(3)

Sleep also impacts the immune system by priming the body to be in a more inflammatory state, with even one night's poor sleep increasing inflammatory cytokines. (4, 5)

No matter how well you eat, take supplements and herbs it is vital to prioritize healthy sleep patterns to help the immune system work at its optimal level. 

Natural sleep solutions which can help include: 

Going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time. Keeping to a routine helps the body to produce both the sleep hormone melatonin and, in the morning, cortisol which helps you to get you up and out of bed. (6)

Practice good sleep hygiene by taking an hour to wind down before bed, ideally with minimal light exposure from screens to encourage restful sleep. (7)

Making sure to have adequate nutrition to produce the hormones needed for sleep. To make melatonin our body needs the amino acid tryptophan and the mineral magnesium. A deficiency in any three can disrupt sleep.(8,9)

Consider a herbal sleep aid like valerian root before bed. Regular use of this traditional medicine has been shown to normalize sleep patterns.(10)

Cognitive behavioral strategies for insomnia (CBT-I) can be very helpful. And include meditation or breath work to keep the nervous system calm. Just ten minutes a day of regular meditation has been shown to reduce stress hormones and aid sleep.(11)

1: Irwin MR, Mascovich A, Gillin JC, Willoughby R, Pike J, Smith TL [1994]. Partial sleep deprivation reduces natural killer cell activity in humans. Psychosom Med 56(6):493-498.

2: Imai K, Matsuyama S, Miyake S, Suga K, Nakachi K [2000]. Natural cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood lymphocytes and cancer incidence: an 11-year follow-up study of a general population. Lancet 356(9244):1795-1799.

3: Spiegel K, Sheridan JF, Van Cauter E [2002]. Effect of sleep deprivation on response to immunization. JAMA 288(12):1471-1472.

 4: Irwin MR, Wang M, Campomayor CO, Collado-Hidalgo A, Cole S [2006]. Sleep deprivation and activation of morning levels of cellular and genomic markers of inflammation. Arch Intern Med 166(16):1756-1762.

5: Favero G, Franceschetti L, Bonomini F, Rodella LF, Rezzani R. Melatonin as an anti-inflammatory agent modulating inflammasome activation. Int J Endocrinol. 2017;2017:1835195. doi:10.1155/2017/1835195

6: Schutte-Rodin S, et al. Clinical guidelines for the evaluation and management of chronic insomnia in adults. J Clin Sleep Med. 2008;4(5):487-504.

7: Chung KF, Lee CT, Yeung WF, Chan MS, Chung EW, Lin WL. Sleep hygiene education as a treatment of insomnia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fam Pract. 2018 Jul 23;35(4):365-375. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmx122. PMID: 29194467.

8: Lieberman HR, Agarwal S, Fulgoni VL 3rd. Tryptophan Intake in the US Adult Population Is Not Related to Liver or Kidney Function but Is Associated with Depression and Sleep Outcomes. J Nutr. 2016 Dec;146(12):2609S-2615S. doi: 10.3945/jn.115.226969. Epub 2016 Nov 9. PMID: 27934652.

9:Mah J, Pitre T. Oral magnesium supplementation for insomnia in older adults: a Systematic Review & Meta-Analysis. BMC Complement Med Ther. 2021 Apr 17;21(1):125. doi: 10.1186/s12906-021-03297-z. PMID: 33865376; PMCID: PMC8053283.

10: Bent S, Padula A, Moore D, Patterson M, Mehling W. Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2006 Dec;119(12):1005-12. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.02.026. PMID: 17145239; PMCID: PMC4394901.

11:Cunningham JEA, Shapiro CM. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) to treat depression: A systematic review. J Psychosom Res. 2018 Mar;106:1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.12.012. Epub 2017 Dec 24. PMID: 29455893.

12: Gong H, Ni CX, Liu YZ, Zhang Y, Su WJ, Lian YJ, Peng W, Jiang CL. Mindfulness meditation for insomnia: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Psychosom Res. 2016 Oct;89:1-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2016.07.016. Epub 2016 Jul 26. PMID: 27663102.