In the fight against coronavirus, there’s something even more essential to our safety than wearing a face mask or keeping 6-feet from everyone else in the grocery store.
And, according to the CDC, more than a third of Americans are not taking it seriously.
Can you guess what it is?
Not sleeping enough (at least 8 hours a night) can have extremely harmful effects on not just our mood the very next day but also on our overall immune health years into the future.
This 19-minute TedTalk by Dr. Matthew Walker (a neuroscientist and professor at UC Berkeley widely renown for his research on the impact of sleep on human health and disease) reveals some of the astonishing effects of just a few hours of sleep deprivation on our overall mental and physical health:
His main points that demonstrate the impact of sleep on the immune system are:
Men who sleep five hours a night have significantly smaller testicles than those who sleep seven hours or more.
Reducing sleep to 4 hours/night results in a 70% reduction in natural killer cell activity. These cells are responsible for identifying and eliminating dangerous cells in the body, such as a cancerous tumor.
Sleep deprivation is linked to increased risk of cancer of the bowel, cancer of the prostate, and cancer of the breast. The link is so strong that the WHO considers night-shifts a probable carcinogen.
Sleep deprivation hurts our DNA. In an experiment, adults who only got 6 hours of sleep instead of 8 disrupted the activity of 711 of their genes, switching off those that were associated with the immune system and turning on those associated with tumors, inflammation, stress, and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Matthew Walker summarizes, "the shorter you sleep, the shorter your life".
What does this mean in-midst of a pandemic?
As the world begins to consider coming out of lock-down and our eventual re-emergence into society, here in the US we are debating which states should open up and when. While I write this in Colorado, experts are considering whether our state’s younger population and low rate of obesity may be enough to help it withstand any uptick in the infection rate.
Based on the latest research confirming the positive effects of sleep on the immune system, however, it may be more fundamental to consider sleep deprivation as a key factor in our potential resilience to coronavirus. We can assume that if a state’s population is significantly sleep deprived (sleeping less than 7 hours in 24 hours), then their immune systems will be much more compromised, resulting in both greater infection rates and greater mortality rates.
Thus, this map might be just as good a starting point as the indicators of age or obesity:
Prevalence of Short Sleep Duration Among Adults, by State, United States, 2014
Coincidentally (or not), in addition to having a low obesity rate, Colorado also has one of the least sleep-deprived populations in the country.
However, 28% is still too high, especially when we’re trying to curb a deathly pandemic.
So, why exactly is sleep so important for our immune system?
Well, because...efficient T cell responses require the firm adhesion of T cells to their targets, e.g., virus-infected cells, which depends on T cell receptor (TCR)–mediated activation of β2-integrins. Gαs-coupled receptor agonists are known to have immunosuppressive effects, but their impact on TCR-mediated integrin activation is unknown. Gαs-coupled receptor agonists isoproterenol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, prostaglandin (PG) E2, PGD2, and adenosine strongly inhibit integrin activation on human CMV- and EBV-specific CD8+ T cells in a dose-dependent manner. In contrast, sleep, a natural condition of low levels of Gαs-coupled receptor agonists, up-regulates integrin activation compared with nocturnal wakefulness, a mechanism possibly underlying some of the immune-supportive effects of sleep. (Dimitrov et al. 2018)
Just kidding, you didn’t have to read that. We’ll break it down.
T-cells attacking a cancer cell. (Source: AdobeStock)
T-cells, similar to the natural killer cells discussed above, are a type of white blood cell that target virally infected cells, attach to them, and kill them.
Enter the integrins:
Integrins allow T-cells to attach to the infected cells, as in the photo above.
T-cell with receptors. (Source: AdobeStock)
Once attached to the infected cell, receptors activate the T-cell so it can go ahead and destroy the infected cell.
But only if hormones don’t interfere:
Hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (stress) decrease the ability of T-cells to activate and destroy infected cells.
This is where sleep comes in:
These puppies already know. (Source: Woof Woof)
While we sleep, our stress and adrenaline levels go down, allowing T-cells to activate and kill dangerous cells.
Here's what oncologist Dr. Steven Tucker has to say about all of this:
“The single best way people can improve their immune system is through adequate sleep. I used to say that health was based on fitness, nutrition, mindfulness and sleep. I would tell patients that these are the four pillars of health. I no longer do that. I can’t emphasize it enough if you want to improve your immunity, sleep is not a pillar of health but the bedrock foundation upon which all health, including immunity, is built.”
What do we do with this new knowledge?
Previous researchers who have already linked sleep to healthy immune functioning have called for sleep as a new “vital sign that should be more carefully characterized in the management of patients, especially in vulnerable populations such as the elderly or the immunocompromised" (Motivala, Irwin, 2007).
But the latest research cited here showing exactly how sleep and immune function are linked may allow scientists to develop therapeutic methods to help immunocompromised people, such as cancer patients, activate their T-cells into killing cancerous tumors. And if sleep is powerful enough to fight cancer, it just might be enough to power a global boost in immunity and halt coronavirus in its tracks.
But for right now, let this be the study to tip us all over the edge to turn off our phones and roll into bed.
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-Gary Ostermueller, General Manager: Prudential Stainless & Alloys, Woodbridge, New Jersey"