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Health & Wellness

Making Sleep Your No. 1 Priority Can Help Prevent & Overcome Illness

March 14, 2020

How Sleep Boosts Immune System And Makes it Stronger

As world-wide anxiety builds around the spread of coronavirus, one behavior that has been proven time and time again to reduce the incidence and intensity of disease is getting sufficient sleep.

In honor of World Sleep Day, and because sleep may be particularly important during a potential pandemic, we’ll dive into the science behind the relationship between sleep and immunity.

The Connection Between Sleep and Immunity

While the COVID-19 disease and the novel coronavirus that causes it are new and therefore relatively poorly understood and understudied, research by Dr. Aric Prather out of UC San Francisco on another type of Coronavirus – the common cold – demonstrated that “people who sleep six hours a night or less are four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to the virus, compared to those who spend more than seven hours a night in slumber land.”

Although people may naturally assume that a relationship exists between sleep and immunity, the study was able to show just how strong this relationship is–much greater than the relationship between the risk of developing a cold and alcohol consumption, smoking, or other markers of health including BMI and self-reported stress.

Why Lack of Sleep Weakens the Immune System

When we sleep, our bodies repair and restore vital systems that help keep us alive. This includes muscular, skeletal, and cellular repair during our REM stages of sleep. If we are not getting adequate REM sleep, our bodies will not recover and we will be more susceptible to illness.

While examining the relationship between sleep and response to cold virus exposure, the lead author of the UC San Francisco study explains that partial sleep deprivation reduces immune parameters critical to fighting infections. Other studies have also demonstrated that the active immune system is extremely energy-dependent, and the reduced energy demands during sleep allow us allocate additional energy resources towards the immune system.

Sleep as a Natural Way to Improve Immune System

Another study, published last year in the Journal of Experimental Medicine and led by Stoyan Dimitrov, showed that a good night’s sleep can boost the effectiveness of T cells, a specialized white blood cell responsible for activating the immune system to fight infection. T cells do their job with the help of a special immune system protein called integrins, which allow the T cells to bind to their targets.

Dimitrov and his team showed that integrin activation happened at a higher rate during sleep than during wake, suggesting that the immune system is better at identifying threats while you’re asleep than while you’re awake.

Most people who come down with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, but in severe cases it causes pneumonia. While there are many kinds of pneumonias, a Harvard study led by Dr. Sanjay Patel found that in a sample of almost 57,000 women, getting fewer than 5 hours of sleep vs more than 8 hours explained a 70% difference in the incidence of pneumonia. It is important to note that they were not specifically looking at pneumonia associated with COVID-19, however the reduced immune system functioning that made these short-sleeping women vulnerable might be a valuable cautionary tale.

Other Ways to Boost Immune System

Additional things you can do to boost your immune system beyond getting more sleep include:

  • Eliminating alcohol
  • Increasing your intake of zinc and Vitamins B6, C, and E
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing stress and anxiety
  • Eating a healthy, whole-foods diet
  • Hydrating well

Making changes to benefit your immune system and improve your sleep will certainly not guarantee you avoid the coronavirus, but they will undoubtedly improve your overall well-being during this uncertain period.

Track Your Sleep and Other Behaviors with WHOOP

In a recent study done by the University of Arizona and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, WHOOP was proven to accurately measure sleep and identify sleep’s various stages. Having a tool like WHOOP to quantify how much REM sleep you are getting and how much sleep debt your body is experiencing could be critical to managing health.

In preparation for World Sleep Day 2019, we polled 100 of the best sleepers on WHOOP and asked them for their best sleep tips and tricks. Their advice ranged from snuggling your dog (a personal favorite) to maintaining a reliable pre-bed routine, to using various supplements and products.

While the advice of champion sleepers is definitely worth a read during this time in which sufficient sleep might be more valuable than ever, it is important to pay attention to what’s working and not working for you personally. WHOOP members can use the new Journal feature, launched earlier this week, to track a wide and customizable list of potentially sleep-influencing behaviors (including the immune system boosters listed above) in order to understand on a personal level what drives green recoveries, peak sleep performance and better overall health.

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Emily Capodilupo

Emily Capodilupo is VP of Data Science and Research at WHOOP. Before joining WHOOP in 2013 as the first full-time employee and first scientist, Emily studied Neurobiology at Harvard University and studied circadian biology in the Analytical and Modeling Unit of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital. As a runner and former gymnast, Emily knows first hand the importance of sleep and recovery for peak performance.