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Science of sleep: How sleep can have a positive effect on the immune function and fight infection

Among the many benefits of a good night’s sleep, new research reveals that slumbering can have a positive effect on the immune system

sleep affect immune system

It’s estimated that we spend roughly a third of our lives asleep – but while we all know that sleep is essential for our bodies to recharge, a new benefit has recently come to light. Researchers in Germany have discovered that a sound night’s slumber can help boost the immune system, improving the functionality of certain white blood cells. These immune cells are known as T cells, which are a vital force in protecting the body against infection – including intracellular pathogens (e.g. virus-infected cells as flu, HIV and cancer).


a sound night’s slumber can help boost the immune system


These findings (published in February’s Journal of Experimental Medicine) show how quality sleep can enhance the T cells’ ability to destroy infected cells. When a virally infected cell enters the body, T cells recognise it as a threat and activate sticky proteins – aka integrins – that then attach to the target and eradicate it. In the study, sleeping test subjects demonstrated significantly higher levels of integrin activation than the wakeful subjects, confirming the beneficial effect of sleep on our immune system.

Conversely, when such conditions as impaired sleep or chronic stress interrupt our sleep, our bodies can prove more susceptible to illness. This is because the release of stress hormones – such as adrenaline and noradrenaline – lowers the ability of T cells to activate the integrins needed to eliminate viral threats. Stress hormone levels normally decrease while snoozing, so a disturbed night’s sleep could prove harmful to your health – this explains why you might find yourself coming down with a bug or cold after a series of late nights, or during a tense period at work, for example.

 Unlike pills and drugs, sleep offers a genuinely enjoyable way to look after your body, proving that a good night’s rest really can be the best medicine.