Doing This at Night Ruins Your Immune System, New Study Says


Living through a global pandemic has given many of us a better appreciation for the importance of our immune systems. However, far too many among us still embrace unhealthy habits that chip away at our bodies' defenses. We do this, in part, because scientists are still learning all of the ways that our lifestyles and immune systems are linked—and until recently, it fair to say that most of us simply didn't know any better.

Now, new research is shedding light on how one nightly habit could be ruining your immune system, and putting you at increased risk for a range of serious health conditions. Read on to learn which one unhealthy habit could be tanking your immune system, and why doing it often could lead to a higher likelihood of heart disease, dementia, and more.

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A robust immune system is crucial to your health.
iStock / m-imagephotography

A robust and healthy immune system helps your body protect itself from disease. Without it, you're far more vulnerable to illness and infection, including everything from cold and flu viruses to more serious chronic conditions.

"Our immune systems are complex and influenced by many factors," explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Vaccines build immunity against specific diseases. Some additional ways you can strengthen your immune system are eating well, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and avoiding excessive alcohol use."

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Sleeping too little at night can ruin your immune system.

A good night's sleep leaves you feeling rested and restored—but the benefits go much deeper than that. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine shared data from both human and animal trials, which determined that failing to get adequate sleep for just six weeks can all but ruin your immune system.

In the human study, the researchers gathered a group of 14 healthy adult volunteers who were accustomed to sleeping for the recommended eight hours per night. After drawing control samples of their blood, they shortened the subjects' sleep by 90 minutes per night for the six-week study period, then re-drew a second blood sample for comparison.

"In subjects who had undergone sleep restriction, the number of immune cells circulating in the blood was higher. These cells are key players in inflammation," study co-author Filip Swirski, the director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Icahn Mount Sinai in New York, told NBC News.  "The key message from this study is that sleep lessens inflammation and loss of sleep increases inflammation."

Losing sleep can leave you more vulnerable to serious conditions.

When your immune system is compromised, you're more vulnerable to a wide range of health conditions, says Kristen Knutson, an associate professor at the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. "It plays a big role in a lot of other health conditions," she told NBC News. "Anything that impairs the immune system can have far-ranging effects."

In addition to making you more susceptible to infectious diseases, chronic lack of sleep can also increase your risk of inflammatory disorders including sepsis, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other forms of dementia.

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The effects appear to be long lasting, though changing your sleep habits can help.

In addition to seeing an increased number of immune cells after the six-week study period, suggesting an inflammatory immune response, the researchers also saw that the stem cells—which go on to become immune cells—also showed functional changes which worsened with each new bout of impaired sleep.

More research is needed to determine whether these effects of poor sleep are permanent, or if the stem cells may fuller recover over the course of months or years. However, experts say one takeaway is clear: getting consistently adequate sleep is crucial to your health. "You can't run yourself ragged during the week and make up for it on the weekend," said Knutsen.