Can You Sleep Off Illness?

People who sleep less than needed, or sleep poorly, often put their immune systems at
risk. During sleep, the body produces proteins called cytokines, which help you fight
an infection or inflammation, as well as general stress. So poor sleep, in reducing the
production of cytokines, can make it both easier to contract an infectious disease and
harder to fight off any disease you do experience.

That’s why, regardless of the demands of your daily life, you need a good seven to
eight hours of sleep a night. By deliberately shortchanging yourself of needed sleep to
“create” time for other pursuits, you put yourself at a health risk by jeopardizing
your immune system’s full functionality.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Although the brain gives us
signals that indicate when we have had insufficient sleep, data show that more and more
of us are ignoring these signals and reducing the amount of sleep we obtain each night.
The percentage of adults who sleep less than six hours per night is now greater than at
any other time on record.”

Though the NIH recognizes the role of sleep disorders in shortened sleep times, it says
that “it is clear that our current practice of sleeping less is largely driven by
societal changes, including increased reliance on longer work hours and shift work, the
trend for longer commute times, and increased accessibility to media of all sorts.”

On the positive front, other studies have shown that even those who are sleep deprived
and fall ill can recover via an “acute sleep response,” i.e., by taking to their beds
and sleeping off the illness. One study even showed that the sleep deprived, since
their bodies are already thirsting for sleep, recovered faster than those who slept
normally when facing an infectious disease. The illness triggered a more thorough
“acute sleep response” in some of the sleep deprived.

“These studies provide new evidence of the direct and functional effects of sleep on
immune response and of the underlying mechanisms at work. The take-home message from
these papers is that when you get sick, you should sleep as much as you can — we now
have the data that supports this idea,” observes Julie A. Williams, PhD, of the Center
for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, one of the researchers.

If you’re deliberately cheating on sleep because of work and life choices, you need to
reexamine your sleep-less approach. If you want to sleep more and better but simply
can’t do it on your own, then by all means seek professional help. Your very health and
vitality depend on it.

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