Sleep and the Immune System

This past weekend National Geographic TV ran a special called “Sleepless in America.” Mainly a collection of somber talking heads, with ominous warnings about the results of sleep deprivation, the two-hour show focused in one part on how sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on one’s immune system. (Stay tuned for another post on what it had to say about sleep and Alzheimer’s.)

In one segment that made one feel sorry for the mice who were the subjects/victims of the experiment, scientists injected mice with cancer cells and split them into two groups. One group was allowed full sleep; the other was forced to undergo interrupted sleep with a mechanical device that rolled a rod underneath them periodically. Xrays showed that both groups developed cancerous tumors. While the full-sleep group developed “normal” tumors, the sleep-deprived group had massive tumors that spread even into their bones.

It was pretty scary stuff, but lack of sleep does retard our immune systems. “It is an old wives’ tale that if you don’t sleep well, you will get sick, and there is some experimental data that shows this is true,” says Diwakar Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Different studies have pinpointed immune responses to poor sleep. One study in the Netherlands and United Kingdom showed a decline in white blood cell production in the sleep deprived. Another study showed an increase in inflammation in those who missed sleep. And inflammation has been long considered a trigger to heart disease.

Lack of sleep can also affect one’s glucose tolerance levels, and studies have shown that that those who chronically sleep less than six hours a night are twice as likely to develop diabetes as those who get their seven to eight hours a night.

With all these downsides to poor sleep, if you wear your lack of sleep like a badge of honor, you should realize that you may be doing your body and your health serious harm. It it’s within your power to get a full night’s rest, you should do so. If you face difficulties that make it hard, if not impossible, to get a full night of rejuvenation, then it’s time to seek professional help.

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