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How Sleep Can Affect Your Immune System


September 25, 2019 | Published by

Not getting an adequate amount of sleep can make you feel lethargic, tired and worn down. But studies show that your sleep you get can actually affect your immune system and how fast it takes you to start feeling better. So, if you feel like you’re getting sick more often, it’s possible the quality of sleep you’re getting is to blame. (1)

It’s in the Cytokines

While you’re sleeping, your immune system produces proteins known as cytokines. While some cytokines help promote sleep, others are needed to increase when you have inflammation, an infection, or even when you’re under stress.  (1)

Since your body already reduces the number of infection-fighting antibodies and cells when you don’t get enough sleep, adding the fact that you produce less of these cytokines when you’re suffering from sleep deprivation can really do a number on your immune system. Chronic sleep deficiency can even make flu vaccines less effective by reducing your body’s ability to respond. (2)

 HPA Axis, Sleep, and Immune Function

The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) functions in your body as the central circadian pacemaker and syncs to the environmental light/dark cycle. (3)

The SCN also affects hormone secretion, including that of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which is also responsible for hormone secretion as well as the body’s stress response system. The HPA secreted hormones corticotropin and cortisol inhibit sleep and trigger wakefulness. (4)

Since your cortisol levels are elevated when standard sleep is interrupted, people who are under stress have a higher number of circulating hormones associated with the HPA axis, and lower levels of sleep. (4)

Sleep’s Impact on Infection

 Studies have shown there is a connection between sleep and disease as well.  In a 22-year population-based cohort twin study, men and women who slept either fewer than 7 hours or more than 8 hours per night had an increased mortality risk compared with those who slept between 7 and 8 hours. (4)

Another study showed participants who slept fewer than 5 hours in a night were 2.5 times more likely to have diabetes than those who slept 7 hours or more. Additional studies showed that sleep disturbances also worsen chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Healthy Napping

If it feels like your schedule is too crammed and your burning the candle at both ends, it’s sometimes difficult to get adequate sleep. Thankfully, research has shown that there is a great benefit to napping if you need to catch up on some missed Zs.

Taking a nap in the morning and one in the afternoon, no longer than 30 minutes each, has been shown to diminish stress levels and balance the negative effects that sleep deprivation has on the immune system. Even a shorter 20-minute nap during the workday can have positive effects. (5)

The best way to stay healthy during flu season is to get a solid seven to eight hours of sleep every night. This helps keep your immune system in its best shape and can also protect you from other health issues down the line such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. (5)



  1. Olsen, E Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick? Mayo Clinic.
  2. How Sleep Affects Your Immunity. National Sleep Foundation.
  3. Mieda, M The Network Mechanism of the Central Circadian Pacemaker of the SCN: Do AVP Neurons Play a More Critical Role Than Expected? Frontiers in Neuroscience. T
  4. Ganz, F et al. Sleep and Immune Function. Critical Care Nurse.
  5. Sleep deprivation effect on the immune system mirrors physical stress. National Sleep Foundation.








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