The coronavirus outbreak that has devastated China and left the world scrambling for answers has also reinforced the important role sleep plays in building our immune systems.
In a nutshell: Making sure we consistently get a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways we can improve our immunity and defend against viruses and disease. Sleep is a natural immune booster.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting sleep is a cure-all for the coronavirus. That isn’t the case; currently, there is no vaccine for the infection. The coronavirus has, by Feb. 20, killed more than 2,100 people globally. Altogether, nearly 75,000 cases have been confirmed, mostly in China, where the country has ground to a halt as it looks to safeguard against a further outbreak.
The coronavirus has also become a major concern here in the U.S, as several hundred Americans have been quarantined for up to 14 days in the last few weeks.
The signs of the virus are typical of less severe illnesses. Coronavirus symptoms, according to the CDC, include headaches, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, and a fever.
Here’s what we know about the immune system and sleep:
How the Immune System Works
The immune system is your built-in defense system against harmful germs that can make you ill. The system has three primary jobs:
- To identify pathogens, or disease-causing germs, and remove them from the body. These include viruses, parasites, bacteria, or fungi.
- To spot and neutralize harmful substances that come from outside the body.
- To combat major changes within the body, like cancer cells.
Your immune system is activated when it recognizes antigens or toxins and other foreign substances to your body. This triggers a response in which the immune system develops antibodies, or cells specifically developed to fight the invader. Once these are produced, the immune system will keep a file and use it again if it ever runs into the same issue; this is why you typically only fight the chickenpox once in your life.
How Sleep Affects Your Immune System
Sleep is necessary for your immune system to run as efficiently as possible. You can think of your immune system as your body’s football coach and sleep as its halftime break.
Good coaches make adjustments at halftime, after recognizing what their opponents are doing effectively. Sleep plays the same role for your immune system, giving it a chance to fully assess any threats. The immune system can then deliberately tackle antigens, directing its cells—or players in this analogy—as they mount a counterattack. Without enough sleep, though, your body will have a hard time implementing the best game plan to fight back against illness.
Sleep Boosts T Cell Production
One way sleep helps the immune system is in how it fosters T Cell production. T Cells are white blood cells that play a critical part in the immune system’s response to viruses. Their activation is an important step in how the body handles invaders, with T Cells attacking and destroying virus-carrying cells.
Sleep Improves the Immune System’s Response to Threats
The immune system’s response time is also improved by getting a good night’s sleep. By completing the four sleep cycles, you’re supporting the release and production of cytokine, a multifaceted protein that helps the immune system quickly respond to antigens.
Cytokines have two priorities:
- Promoting cell-to-cell communication.
- Directing cells to head toward infections to counteract the issue.
These proteins are essentially the quarterback for your immune system, taking the orders on how to best fight back against a virus and directing immune cells to follow the game plan.
A lack of sleep makes this tougher. Your body relies on a full night of rest to replenish the cells and proteins it needs to fight diseases. Sleep loss stymies cytokine production, and in the process, makes it harder for your body to battle back against viruses.
How to Best Avoid Coronavirus Infection
With no vaccine available for the coronavirus, the CDC has issued a number of rudimentary steps that should be taken to best prevent infection. These include:
- Wash your hands with soap and water.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Work from home when you’re sick.
- Clean and disinfect objects you frequently use.
- Use tissues when you cough or sneeze, and make sure to throw them away immediately.
Following these instructions, while at the same time getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, would be the best defense I can recommend. When considering how sleep helps the body ward off the common cold, that becomes especially clear.
Quality Sleep Fights Back Against Colds
When you’re suffering from a cold, one of the first things your doctor—or your mom—would tell you is to get plenty of sleep.
There’s plenty of research that backs it up. Sleep is perhaps the single best measure you can take to deal with, or prevent, colds.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, highlighted this last year. Their findings indicated poor sleep was the number-one factor in determining whether someone would get sick after being exposed to the cold virus.
The UCSF study had 164 participants track their sleep habits for a week. Afterward, they were all put in a hotel and given nasal drops, exposing them to the cold.
Volunteers who had reported good sleep during the week—averaging at least seven hours of sleep each night—were much less likely to get sick. But participants who got 6 hours of sleep or less each night were 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold.
The researchers indicated that poor sleep was the main determinant of whether someone got sick, overriding age, race, income, stress level, and habits like smoking. The results drove home just how important sleep is in combating everyday illnesses.
How to Get the Best Sleep Possible
We’ve gone over how important sleep is to building your immunity. That knowledge puts an extra emphasis on making sure you get the best sleep possible now.
Still, simply finding the time for a good night’s sleep can be tough. I get it: Between work, family, and day-to-day tasks, sometimes we can put sleep on the back burner.
The coronavirus outbreak has understandably become a worldwide story. It’s certainly concerning, and I’m thankful we have so many dedicated people working toward a solution.