Sleep & Immune Resilience

In his book, Better Sleep, Better You, Frank Lipman, MD, explains how peaceful slumber can be the best defense against infection and disease.
During sleep, the body manufactures and stockpiles infection-fighting molecules. Courtesy of Pexels

As we’ve seen in the case of a pandemic—the ultimate test of our immune strength and resilience—sleeping more and better may very well save your life. There’s a reason why more and more doctors are recommending sleep as a preventive remedy for widespread viral infection: It’s one of the most influential regulators of your immune system.

Your immune system is the original third-shift worker, punching in as you drift off to sleep. It takes advantage of your downtime to repair damaged cells, gain ground in the fight against disease or lingering infection, and manufacture and stockpile protective, infection-fighting molecules, namely cytokine antibodies. Cytokines are kind of like all-purpose modulators in the body, helping you sleep and preparing to protect you from invaders. When you don’t get enough sleep, though, your immune system pretty much can’t do any of those things. That’s why people who don’t sleep long or well enough are more likely to get sick, including from viral infections like COVID-19. And when they do get sick, they get sicker and take longer to recover.

In fact, the evidence is so clear that routinely sleeping fewer than six hours a night compromises your immune system and increases your risk of cancer, that the World Health Organization has classified any form of nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen. (The only exception to this is for people with genetic variants on ADRB1 or other genes that allow for less sleep—but this is not most of us!)

The biggest problem with dysregulated sleep, or sleep that is out of rhythm, is that it leads to a dysregulated immune system. Oftentimes we talk about making your immune system stronger, “boosting” it to fight off whatever comes its way. But a more accurate way to think of it is having an immune system that knows how to deploy a modulated, measured response, especially in the event of a catastrophic assault such as a novel virus infection. As scientists and doctors discovered when looking at the mortality patterns of COVID-19 (as well as other endemic viruses such as SARS, MERS and avian flu, in addition to some noninfectious diseases like multiple sclerosis and pancreatitis), a common, often fatal, complication they found is called a “cytokine storm.” This is when the body launches an overly aggressive attack on the virus, unleashing so many cytokines at once that the body sustains too much damage from the resulting inflammation. So while cytokines can be beneficial, particularly when deployed in just the right amount, too many at once can overwhelm the immune system and the body.

When it comes to our immune system, more is not always better. Moderation, modulation and resilience, however, are. Sleep has the power to equip our body with the best defense system possible.

Excerpted from Better Sleep, Better You. Copyright © 2021 by Frank Lipman, MD & Neil Parikh. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved