Precious Health Monitors: Your Immune System and Sleep

We all know the importance of diet and exercise in promoting health; its significance by now should be etched across our brains. However, what is not given similar attention, because its impact is not readily understood, is the powerful relationship between your immune system and sleep. These are precious health monitors that work intricately behind the scenes to help maintain your state of health. Yes, they are part and parcel of the magnificent human body working harmoniously to keep us feeling fit and alive, yet these two deserve special attention.

When our immune system and normal sleep patterns are disrupted, which happens frequently under stressful conditions, this is the time when their meaningful role is played-out in front of us as a test to our mental health and resilience against infections.

According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) some 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. Scientists believe that there are a multitude of people around the globe who suffer from conditions of wakefulness and only a small percentage are getting adequate amounts of sleep time. Many of us are now classed as sleep deprived. This information should be a great concern to society at large, due to its consummate effect on physical and mental health.

Many of us have experienced that sudden bout of the common cold and feelings of having contracted the flu soon after a night or two of insomnia. That is our immune system “nudging” us with signs that things are no going well for us.

The relationship between sleep and the immune system is a complex one; it is one of many phenomena being meticulously researched, just like the inner workings of the brain. A number of studies confirm the fact that the T cells, a small lymphocyte responsible for orchestrating the immune system response is reduced when we have insufficient sleep. Their reduced activity immediately incite cytokines (a small protein of the body that has an effect on the behaviour of other cells) to increase. The increase of cytokines and thereby the reduction of T cells are potentially linked to greater risks of getting the cold and flu.

Supplements for aiding our immune system:

Echinacea is the best known herb to help support the immune system by increasing white blood cell count to battle against infections.

Goldenseal is a herb that contains berberine, in studies it has shown to have antibiotic and antiparasitic properties.

What you should know about your immune system

Our immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend against infectious diseases and any substance alien to the body. Every moment of the day the system performs its function of keeping us protected. Unfortunately it is not always successful for several reasons, and one in particular is the lack of sleep.

The organs involved in the immune process are situated throughout the body and are called the lymphoid organs. Their function is highly complex and multifaceted. Lymphoid organs affect growth, development and the release of infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes.

The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system. The system assists with blood flow by operating as a reservoir for the excess blood produced per day by the circulatory system. They also drain excess fluid from body tissues and return them to the blood. Lymphoid organs include:

  • Spleen
  • Appendix
  • Bone marrow
  • Tonsils
  • Adenoids – two glands located at the back of the nasal passage
  • Lymph nodes – small organs shaped like beans
  • Peyers patch – lymphoid tissue in the small intestine
  • Thymus
  • Blood vessels
  • Lymphatic vessels – network of channels that carry lymphocytes

Some of the lymphoid tissues are organised into specific structures and are classified as central lymphoid tissue (bone marrow and thymus) and peripheral lymphoid tissue (lymph nodes, spleen, and mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue – M.A.L.T.).

The most notable of lymphoid tissues are the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract and urogenital tract.

Lymphocytes: their development and purpose

Lymphocytes patrol the body for infectious micro-organisms and are vital to a smoothly-run immune system.

All immune cells are first produced in the bone marrow, the fatty tissue in bone cavities, essential to the immune system. Lymphocytes are one group of immune cells produced, and phagocytes are another. Phagocytes function to protect cells by engulfing or devouring harmful foreign substances. Some cells like the B-cells continue to grow in the bone marrow while others, such as the T-cells complete their maturity in the thymus. These two cells: B- and T-cells are the two most prominent groups of lymphocytes that recognise and attack viruses, bacteria, and rogue cells.

How lymphatic tissues perform, by draining substances from various organs is important in diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of cancer. Because of its physical proximity to many tissues of the body, the lymphatic system is responsible for carrying cancerous cells between various parts of the body in a process called metastasis. Metastasis is the spread of disease from one location to another in the body.

When our bodies’ immunity does not function properly it leaves the body susceptible to a wide array of diseases. A common complaint linked to immune disorders is allergies and hypersensitivities. Swollen glands under the armpits, the pelvic region and adenoids, are usually the result of a lymphatic action as the body fights against infections or can occur when there is an injury. Other immune dysfunctions are manifested by:

  • Autoimmune diseases, such as anaemia, juvenile diabetes, allergies
  • Immune complex disease, such as viral hepatitis and malaria
  • Cancer
  • Immunodeficiency disease, such as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

The role of sleep in the prevention of illnesses

We can now look at the role of sleep and the lack thereof in the realms of mental health and the prevention of illnesses. For people who are insomniacs or those who are deprived of their needed amount of repose per night are subject to a long list of mental and physical health problems.

Experts have known for years the effects between sleep deprivation and immune system suppression. Several studies conducted have shown how body temperatures have a tendency to rise at night during sleep and while at complete rest, but falls during nights when we are restless or not sleeping. Any increase in body temperature we call a fever, and this is when our bodies attempt to destroy any pathogens by creating an environment hostile to the invader. This proves sleep increases the active functioning of the immune system during this time.

Mood disorders, clarity of mind, cognitive function are directly affected by the state of wakefulness. Our inability to get the needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep recommended are caused by individual reasons, including: work pressures, meeting deadlines, worry over financial issues, relationship strains, career goals, death of a loved one, and several other life stressors.

It is not difficult to associate people who are chronically depressed and anxious with having sleep disorders. Individuals who suffer from depression typically lack energy, are more emotional and have problems with mood swings.

Healthy individuals are easily distinguished from insomniacs, they usually appear more positive, are more logical in expression and thought, and are energetic. It is, after all, very rare to be well while having only 4 or 5 hours of sleep.

In studies that looked at predictors of good health and positive well-being, several behaviours emerged that were positively correlated to health and longevity. Sleep, and lots of it, not surprisingly headed the list followed by: exercise, snacking but not on sugary sweets and drinks, maintaining a stable proportioned weight, and minimal use of medication, tobacco and alcohol.

Sleep is a primal function that all human beings must surrender to in order to live healthily. It is a state of rest in which we become relatively unaware of our environment. During sleep most physiological functions such as body temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration are depressed or slowed down. At this time, the body regenerates cells for repair and growth. This is a vital time to the body and any reduction in normal sleep time will result in an incomplete basic function for rejuvenation.

We rest in cyclic patterns of approximately 2 hour durations in which the sleeper moves through four stages of sleep: from stage one to four and back again to stage one. REM sleep occurs during stage one and is thought to be the most profound on cognitive function and personality. Interruptions during this stage of rest are hypothesised to have an adverse effect on mental functioning.

Supplementing for a goodnight’s sleep.

Magnesium is needed for correct muscle relaxation and nerve function.

Vitamin B6 is needed to convert serotonin, which is the brain chemical required for relaxation and sleep.

Passionflower contains harmin, which can help to keep levels of serotonin high.

Valerian is a herb that has sedative properties.

How sleep and the immune system keep us functioning

It is something our bodies have been telling us for years that when we don’t get needed slumber-time we simply cannot function properly. We become more sensitive to our environment and react spontaneously with emotion and not logic; we become emotionally- charged and cranky. Further sleepless nights will eventually take its toll causing a breakdown in immunity.

Scientists have learned that circadian rhythms (the 24 hour cycle known as our internal clock) are involved in everything from sleep to weight gain, mood disorders and a variety of diseases.

Your body actually has many internal clocks, in your brain, heart, lungs, liver, lymphatic organs and skeletal muscles; they are all designed to keep your body running efficiently.

In a successful study conducted by researchers on mice they discovered a direct connection with sleep deprivation and infection. Researchers found that the circadian rhythm of mice actually controlled an essential immune system gene that helps the mice ward off pathogens. When levels of this gene, called “toll-like receptor 9” (TLR9) were at their highest, the rat’s ability to stave off infections were greatly increased.

When the mice were injected with pathogens, the severity of the disease was dependent on the levels of TLR9 gene present. Low levels of the gene corresponded to an immune breakdown. When the mice were vaccinated with bacteria during high levels of TLR9, the mice showed enhanced immunity response and protection from infection.

Researchers concluded that their findings unveiled a direct molecular link between circadian rhythms or a good night’s sleep and the immunity.

How to increase your chances of a good night’s sleep

1: Sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as possible. Studies show that even the tiniest of glow, such as from your alarm clock, can disrupt your “internal clock” and your pineal gland’s production of melatonin and serotonin.

2: Limit any light emitted from any electronic equipment as these can mimic the light from outdoors, according to research. They significantly impact your sleep, tricking your brain to thinking it is still day-time and therefore inhibits the release of sleep hormones.

3: Take a warm bath approximately one hour before bedtime. A warm bath increases your core temperature and when you step out of the bath your temperature abruptly drops; this signals your body that you are ready for sleep.

4: If you can alter the temperature in your room, maintain it at approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies show that the optimal temperature for sleep is between 60 to 70 degrees or 21 to 22 degrees Celsius.

If you have ever been on a long transatlantic flight this is the average temperature used to promote relaxation of passengers and eventual sleep.

Keeping your room cooler or hotter than the temperature recommended is said to lead to restlessness.

Additionally, try to avoid using loud alarm clocks to jolt yourself awake. After a restful slumber your body takes a wide leap backwards. You put your entire body under unnecessary, very stressful episodes in the mornings from using a loud alarm clock to shock yourself awake.

How to boost immune system health

In addition to sleep, nutrition plays an important part in boosting immunity. Here are a few important vitamin enhancers we need to get adequate amounts of in our diet.

  • Vitamin B12-important for healthy red blood cells and lowering levels of homocystreine (destructive compound risk of atherosclerosis)
  • Vitamin C – increases the production of infection fighting white blood cells
  • Vitamin E – stimulates the production of natural killer cells, those that seek out and destroy cancer cells
  • Omega -3 fats – increase the activity of phagocytes. They are healthy polyunsaturated fats essential for immunity and overall health. Examples: fatty fish, walnut oil, flax oil, nuts and seeds
  • Carotenoids – beta carotene increases the number of infection fight cells. Examples: sweet potato, carrots, and spinach.
  • Bioflavonoids – they protect the cell membranes against environmental pollutants

Our bodies are like an advanced regulatory system that works efficiently on timing and balance. A healthy immune system grows even more important as we age, and so we need to do all we can to have plenty of sleep, together with proper nutrition and exercise.