Why sleep is so important for your immune system

Kristine Tarbert
Senior Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer

With the coronavirus outbreak officially being called a pandemic, and the regular flu season also on the way, Australians are more than ever focusing on remaining healthy and keeping our immune system strong.

And as the coronavirus continues to spread, doctors have used World Sleep Day to remind people that getting enough sleep could be crucial to helping fight off any illness.

Sleep expert Dr David Burton says along with good nutrition and exercise, the key to combatting illness is sleep, adding it’s not only necessary for mental and emotional wellbeing, but is also necessary for strengthening our body’s ability to fight off infection.

“Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are known as the three pillars of health, and in order to maintain optimum physical and mental wellness, we need all three pillars to be fortified,” Dr Burton tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“Sleep deprivation can affect the likelihood of you contracting a virus that you have been exposed to, and whether or not you will have a speedy recovery.”

Sleep is important for your immune system. Photo: Getty

Aussies not getting enough sleep

Alarmingly, research on Australia’s sleep quality and habits has revealed less than half of us are actually satisfied with our sleep.

A recent study, commissioned by Royal Philips, found that while most Australians understand sleep is an important contributor to their physical and mental well-being, 57 per cent also admit they have not done anything to change or improve their sleep.

Factors putting quality sleep at risk stem from both social and technology distractions with more than half of Australian adults waking 1-2 times during the night, and 34 per cent typically waking up at least three times during the night.

Why sleep is so important

When we sleep, our brain moves through a continuous five-stage cycle, with each stage playing an important role in our body and mind’s ability to recover and recharge.

This cycle begins with a four-phase process, called non-REM (NREM). It is during NREM, that brain waves slow down and, as we enter into deep sleep (the last two phases of NREM), the body rests, recovers and repairs, and our immune health and energy levels are recharged.

Following NREM we move into rapid eye movement (REM), during which our brain becomes more active and our memories are processed and organised.

For our brain to perform at an optimal level, and for our body to be able to effectively fight off illness, we need to have restorative sleep and go through this sleep cycle a number of times.

“If we lack adequate NREM and REM, our physical, mental and emotional health is compromised as our brain, muscles, nerves, neurons and complex internal systems, including our immune system, are slow to respond and unable to function or perform well,” Dr Burton explains.

Bad sleep could impact your physical and mental health. Photo: Getty

What happens if we don’t have ‘good sleep health’?

During sleep, our body makes and releases small inflammation and infection-fighting proteins called cytokines. Studies have shown that without adequate sleep, less cytokines are produced and the body struggles to fight of infection.

Difficulties in learning, memory, perception, maintaining focus and motivation, and coping with stressors, are all consequences of poor sleep health.

“When we are sleep deprived, the neural connections used to form and consolidate memories throughout the sleep cycle, particularly during REM, are not able to fully develop and strengthen,” Dr Burton says.

Long term, the Australasian Epidemiological Association has identified that poor quality sleep leads to a “greater risk of cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, stroke, heart attack and arrhythmias; the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in increased; there is a greater risk of dementia and more rapid progression of the disease; and the prevalence of some cancers may be increased.” 

Napping can be a valuable tool

Dr Burton says making up for lost sleep is not as simple as sleeping in on the weekend, but does add that napping can help.

“Napping is a valuable tool for overall sleep health as naps can help increase a person’s mood and focus,” he adds.

The ideal amount of time for a nap is between 10 - 20 minutes.

“This is because people will only enter the earlier, lighter, stages of sleep during this length of time and avoid the latter stages of sleep, which will cause them to wake up feeling groggy and lethargic.”

Napping can help. Photo: Getty

How can we improve our sleep health?

There are some basic things you can do to help keep your sleep pillar standing strong:

  1. Develop a bedtime routine that includes 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed.

  2. Minimise night-time disruptions such as light and noise. Darken the room, turn off your phone, and keep the bedroom environment conducive for sleeping with a comfortable temperature and minimal sound disturbance.

  3. Avoid drinking alcohol before sleep as it can affect the time it takes to enter that important REM stage of sleep.

  4. Ideally, adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep.

  5. And, of course, if you are unsure and think you may have a medical condition or serious sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, speak to your doctor in order to get a correct diagnosis, treatment and support.

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