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New Insights into Links Between Immune Function and Sleep

Lack of Sleep

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recent research shows that sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or disease, which is why you may feel ill after a sleepless night
  • Related research has discovered a key step in how your immune system powers inflammation in your body. By studying how neutrophils—immune cells that both defend against bacterial infections, and produce inflammation—adhere within your blood vessels, researchers hope to develop treatments based on modulating or blocking one of the steps in the adhesion cascade to reduce neutrophil recruitment
  • Researchers have revealed how white blood cells move to sites of infection, and understanding the molecular details of these processes can deepen understanding of how our bodies respond to inflammation, and help the development of drug therapies to manipulate your immune system
  • Drug therapies that either turn your immune system on or off are unlikely to produce optimal health, as such artificial manipulation can easily cause a cascade of detrimental side effects. The connections between sleep, immune function, and health are becoming ever more clear.
  • Lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity, and proper sleep can have a profound impact on your health by rebalancing and harmonizing your body, allowing it to function optimally—without resorting to drugs to artificially try to force your body into an unnatural response pattern

By Dr. Mercola

Has a sleepless night ever made you feel physically ill?

If so, there's a perfectly natural reason for it. Recent research published in the journal Sleep reports that sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress1.

The researchers measured the white blood cell counts in 15 people who stayed awake for 29 hours straight, and found that blood cell counts increased during the sleep deprivation phase. This is the same type of response you typically see when you're sick or stressed.

In a nutshell, whether you're physically stressed, sick, or sleep deprived, your immune system becomes hyperactive, and starts producing white blood cells—your body's first line of defense against foreign invaders like infectious agents. Elevated levels of white blood cells are typically a sign of disease. So your body reacts to sleep deprivation in much the same way it reacts to illness.

According to Science Daily2:

"Future research will reveal the molecular mechanisms behind this immediate stress response and elucidate its role in the development of diseases associated with chronic sleep loss," said Katrin Ackermann, PhD, the study's lead author. "If confirmed with more data, this will have implications for clinical practice and for professions associated with long-term sleep loss, such as rotating shift work."

How Does Your Immune System Power Inflammation?

Related research published in the journal Nature3, claims to have discovered a "key step" in how your immune system powers inflammation in your body. The study focused on neutrophils—immune cells that both defend against bacterial infections, and produce inflammation—and how they adhere within your blood vessels.

According to Medical News Today4:

"According to [lead researcher] Dr. Ley, when blood flow is extremely fast, neutrophils attach on to the blood vessel wall using sling-like membrane tethers. In the study... [they] used a novel imaging technique... to see and photograph the neutrophil adhesion process...

Neutrophils move around the body through the blood stream to fight infections, but in order to do this they must travel through the blood vessel walls of sites of inflammation, infection, or injury. Dr. Ley and team focused on how neutrophils attach to the blood vessel wall, rather than their migration out of the blood vessel.

Dr. Ley said "This is important because it provides an opportunity to develop new treatments based on modulating or blocking one of the steps in the adhesion cascade."

Results from previous studies have demonstrated that blocking just one of the steps can significantly reduce neutrophil recruitment...  When there is a site of inflammation in the body, the blood flow increases because the blood transports immune cells to the site to promote healing.  Although inflammation is a normal part of the healing process, in certain diseases it is undesired."

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Researchers Closer to Understanding How Proteins Regulate Your Immune System

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Calgary have revealed how white blood cells move to sites of infection within your body. This study was published in the June issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry5. Two proteins, L-selectin and calmodulin, are involved in the process.

The first, L-selectin, is found within the membrane itself of the white blood cell. Its action has been described as that of Velcro, as it adheres the white blood cell to the blood vessel wall. Once the cell reaches its destination—the site of inflammation—the calmodulin protein enters the equation to shed the L-selectin protein, allowing it to enter the inflamed tissue.

As explained by Medical News6:

"Cell biologists had figured out in 1998 that calmodulin was negatively regulating the shedding process of L-selectin," says Jessica Gifford, a PhD student supervised by Hans Vogel. "They knew calmodulin did it, but they didn't know how."

Using powerful magnets and a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, Gifford and Vogel determined the molecular structure of the interaction between the two proteins, providing important insight at the molecular level into how calmodulin controls the shedding of L-selectin. "Understanding the molecular details of these processes will help us understand how our bodies respond to inflammation," says Gifford, "and if we can understand that, that's the first step of producing drug therapies to manipulate your immune system, to either turn it on, or turn it off.

There is a growing interest in drug therapies to help regulate the immune system, say GIfford. "So many problems that people have are due to overactive immune systems," she says. "By understanding how your white blood cells get around, then maybe we can stop them from getting there when they don't need to be."

Of course, this type of research is almost always geared toward developing a drug therapy, but it's important to remember that your body has the innate wisdom to "do the right thing" or function correctly and appropriately, provided you give it the chance. Stopping your immune system from performing its innate functions is unlikely to result in optimal health...

If your immune system is overactive, wouldn't it make more sense to alter your lifestyle to remove the stress placed upon it that's driving it into hyperactive mode?

The connections between sleep patterns, immune function, and health are becoming ever more clear. Lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity, and proper sleep can have a profound impact on your health by rebalancing and harmonizing your body, allowing it to function optimally—without resorting to drugs to artificially try to force your body into an unnatural response pattern.

Another Major Contributor to Building and Balacing Your Immune System

One of the most potent influences on optimizing your immune system is the balance of beneficial and disease-causing organisms in your gut. By eliminating sugars and processed foods you help radically reduce pathogenic yeast, fungi, viruses and bacteria. By incorporating fermented foods loaded with beneficial lactic acid producing bacteria you can radically improve your gut flora.

If you aren't eating fermented foods, you most likely need to supplement with a probiotic on a regular basis, especially if you're eating a lot of processed foods. As explained by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride in an earlier interview:

"In parallel with beneficial microbes in the healthy gut, scientists have found thousands of different species of downright pathogenic disease-causing microbes; bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes. But as long as the good ones predominate in your gut, they control all the pathogens… They keep them in small colonies and they don't allow them to proliferate."

Dr. Campbell-McBride has developed a Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Protocol designed to restore the integrity of your gut lining to help you restore health.

"Our digestive system is lined by very specialized cells, which are called enterocytes. These little cells only live for a few days," Dr. McBride explains. "They live for two or three days. Then… they die, get shed off, and get replaced by new, healthy enterocytes. The cell regeneration process in your gut lining is a very active process.

… We have a real chance to heal and seal our damaged gut lining thanks to this wonderful process of cell regeneration. But here's the catch: in order for your body to give birth to healthy functioning baby enterocytes, it needs two factors. It needs building blocks for them, because they're made out of certain nutrients (proteins, certain fats, vitamins, enzymes, and other active molecules)… Second, it needs the whole process to be orchestrated by the beneficial microbes in your digestive system; by the beneficial healthy gut flora."

People with Gut and Psychology Syndrome/Gut and Physiology Syndrome (GAPS) have neither of those factors. They run out of building blocks due to improper nutrition, which prevents the proliferation of new, healthy enterocytes, and their gut lining is overpopulated with pathogenic bacteria, virus, fungi, worms, protozoa, and other pathogenic microbes. As a result, the beneficial microbes are virtually nonexistent, and the balance of good and bad bacteria is dramatically skewed, which can decimate your immune system and lead to a wide array of ailments, including immune diseases.

How Sleep Influences Your Physical Health

Unfortunately, sleep is one of the most overlooked factors of optimal health and immune function. But make no mistake about it, without good sleep, optimal health may remain elusive, even if you eat well and exercise (although those factors will tend to improve your ability to sleep better).

Aside from directly impacting your immune function, another explanation for why poor sleep can have such varied detrimental effects on your health is that your circadian system "drives" the rhythms of biological activity at the cellular level. Hence disruptions tend to cascade outward throughout your entire body. For example, besides impairing your immune function and raising your cancer risk, interrupted or impaired sleep can also:

Increase your risk of heart disease. Harm your brain by halting new cell production. Sleep deprivation can increase levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone), resulting in fewer new brain cells being created in your hippocampus.
Aggravate or make you more susceptible to stomach ulcers. Contribute to a pre-diabetic state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can wreak havoc on your weight.
Raise your blood pressure. Contribute to premature aging by interfering with your growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep (and during certain types of exercise, such as high intensity interval training).
Worsen constipation. Increase your risk of dying from any cause.


Furthermore, lack of sleep can further exacerbate chronic diseases such as:

Parkinsons   Alzheimers Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Gastrointestinal tract disorders Kidney disease Behavioral problems in children

How to Optimize Your Sleep

Below are half a dozen of my top guidelines for promoting good sleep. For a comprehensive sleep guide, please see my article 33 Secret's to a Good Night's Sleep.

  1. Avoid watching TV or using your computer at night—or at least about an hour or so before going to bed—as these technologies can have a significantly detrimental impact on your sleep. TV and computer screens emit blue light; nearly identical to the light you're exposed to outdoors during the day. This tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion.
  2. Under normal circumstances, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 or 10 pm, which makes you sleepy. When this natural secretion cycle is disrupted, due to excessive light exposure after sunset, insomnia can ensue.

  3. Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the slightest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. So close your bedroom door, and get rid of night-lights. Refrain from turning on any light at all during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. Cover up your clock radio.
  4. Make sure to cover your windows—I recommend using blackout shades or drapes.

  5. Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 68 degrees. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep. This is because when you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
  6. Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it abruptly drops, signaling your body that you are ready for sleep.
  7. Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to shut down all power in your house.
  8. Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. This serves at least two functions. First, it can be stressful to see the time when you can't fall asleep, or wake up in the middle of the night. Secondly, the glow from a clock radio can be enough to suppress melatonin production and interfere with your sleep.
  9. Cell phones, cordless phones and their charging stations should ideally be kept three rooms away from your bedroom to prevent harmful EMF's.