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Get Some Sleep: Getting good rest helps you stay well
March 15th, 2011
12:28 PM ET

Get Some Sleep: Getting good rest helps you stay well

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs on Tuesdays on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.


Karen considered herself a normal, healthy, 30-something-year-old woman, but she had noticed that in the past two years or so she was always getting sick: colds, flues, sinus infections, GI bugs. “I never use to get sick, but now it seems like every other week, I am coming down with something.”

We talked about what had changed in the past two years. The answer was: everything. She had finished law school and moved to Chicago to work for a large firm. She was working 60-80 hours per week, eating fast food, not exercising and sleeping only five to six hours per night.

She had read about a connection between poor sleep and a lowered immune system and came to the sleep center to discuss if sleep deprivation was at the root of her troubles.

It turns out that the relationship between sleep and our immune system is very complicated and there is much research that remains to be done. It seems that small amounts of sleep loss may actually help you fight off infection while profound or prolonged sleep deprivation can greatly diminish your ability to ward off infection.

Several years ago, Lange and colleagues showed that health subjects who were kept awake one whole night after immunization with the hepatitis A vaccine had a 50 percent lower antibody response at four weeks compared with control subjects who slept eight hours after receiving the vaccine.

However, a similar study by Spiegel at the University of Chicago looked at people’s ability to mount an immune response to the influenza vaccine and found mixed results. In this case, the subjects were partially sleep restricted for several days before and after receiving the vaccine and indeed their antibody titers were about 50 percent lower than well-slept control subjects when tested 10 days out. However, in contrast to the other study, at three weeks, the antibody titers were similar in the two groups.

So perhaps it takes extreme sleep deprivation to lower our immune response or perhaps it is lowered initially when we suffer sleep deprivation, but bounces right back when we get good sleep. The truth is that we need more research in order to answer these basic questions.

In order to approach the question of immune response and sleep from the opposite direction, we may ask what happens to sleep once a person is infected. As most of us know, in the acute throes of an infectious illness a person is very sleepy and can sleep for extended periods of time.

Research has shown that a common, and it seems beneficial, response to infection is to increase sleep in general, and in particular to increase non-REM sleep.

But what Karen wanted to know, like many others, is whether her chronic partial sleep restriction over the past two years was lowering her immune system and leading to her many illnesses.

Besides explaining the present state of the research on this topic, I also pointed out that her high stress levels, poor diet and lack of exercise were also likely to be big contributors. However, I usually don’t believe in sitting on the fence in these situations. She asked my professional opinion as a sleep physician, and I was going to give it. Yes, I do believe that chronic sleep loss impacts our ability to fight off infection.

The information contained on this page does not and is not intended to convey medical advice. CNN is not responsible for any actions or inaction on your part based on the information that is presented here. Please consult a physician or medical professional for personal medical advice or treatment.

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Filed under: Sleep

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Duh

    My 5 year old could have told you sleep corresponds to a healthy immune system. .

    March 15, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KD

      And yet, many people still don't get enough sleep. SO, a totally valid article.

      March 15, 2011 at 14:08 | Report abuse |
    • SoundGuy

      Here's a great tip for those with trouble falling asleep: play sounds of nature in the background and listen carefully and attentively to every nuance and subtlety of such sounds. Natural sounds are flowing but very random, so you can't anticipate anything and thus your concentration capacity increases, releasing other thoughts that could be preventing you to relax and fall asleep. A site called TranscendentalTones offers long-duration mp3s of such sounds, which you can download online. This strategy also works wonders with children, as they are somehow instinctively inclined to relax to the sounds of nature.

      March 16, 2011 at 03:26 | Report abuse |
    • Palash

      True. Vigorous exercise, plenty of good food and rest, sunshine and love and purposeful life should get you great sleep every day. Look at this mans work and you will learn the practical ways of making those traits work every time.

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8V3R4RLKQ8&w=640&h=360]

      http://www.foodnsport.com

      April 1, 2011 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
  2. What about?

    what about doctors, who are chronically sleep deprived but do not seem to get sick as often as the regular population and military servicemen who not only are sleep deprived but usually out in the elements?

    March 15, 2011 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fred Evil

      Don't forget, they have better access to a vast medicine cabinet that we can only dream of.....!

      March 15, 2011 at 17:24 | Report abuse |
  3. Kraznodar

    Don't be hatin'

    March 15, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kraznodar

      I was replying to a hater but their post got removed.

      March 15, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Haters gonna hate.

      March 18, 2011 at 20:04 | Report abuse |
  4. Kraznodar

    I can't speak for anyone else but when I'm short on sleep my allergies are enough worse that people around me comment on them.

    March 15, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LearntoSpeak

      "I can't speak for anyone else but when I'm short on sleep my allergies are enough worse that people around me comment on them."

      I can't speak for anyone else, but, when I'm short on sleep my allergies are so much worse that people around me comment on them.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
    • Mags82

      @learntospeak:

      there shouldn't be a comma after "but," pal.

      HA-ha.

      March 16, 2011 at 14:21 | Report abuse |
  5. LEB

    Wow, getting enough sleep helps you stay healthy. Next they're be delivering the next revolutionary health finding... eating food keeps you healthier than eating cardboard and dirt!

    March 16, 2011 at 00:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. klapperich

    cardboard AND dirt? sweet I'm getting me some along with hoarding as much iodine as I can, cause I'm an american and it's alll about ME

    March 16, 2011 at 06:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. nushatka

    Didn't all law school graduates know that they need to sleep 7-8 hours each day? My point is – she did not make a choice to work 80 hours each week just because she thought it would be fun to check it out. It is national problem – we are working harder instead of working smarter, and this makes us sick and obese.

    March 16, 2011 at 07:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Liza

    This is news? I think it's pretty obivious that people who don't sleep are in poorer health compared to those that do. Duh.

    March 16, 2011 at 13:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. john

    Facebook is like a bathroom wall that everyone writes on except real bathroom walls are more interesting.

    May 6, 2011 at 01:02 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.