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General Health

How Poor Sleep Can Ramp Up Inflammation

By Serene Wilken on Dec 23, 2020 2:00:00 PM
7 Minutes Reading Time


Nearly everyone knows how essential good sleep is after a night of tossing and turning because we feel the weight of its importance the next day. We find ourselves reaching for that third cup of coffee to make it through our workday, which then masks the symptoms that our body is sleep deprived. 

Most of us go day in and day out lacking high-quality sleep and perhaps don't notice that this pattern of poor sleep has affected our body at a deeper level beyond the common brain fog. 

This lack of sleep can affect our bodies by increasing a cellular inflammatory response that can harm our overall health and put us at a greater risk for disease and chronic illness. I'll dive into how sleep and inflammation are closely tied together, as well as go over some ways you can be sure to consistently get a good night's sleep to improve your overall health. 

What is inflammation?

You've most likely heard of inflammation mentioned as harmful when it comes to diet and longevity. Not all inflammation is bad, as it is very helpful and essential for survival when we need it to assist in fending off a threat. Inflammation is part of a natural protective biological response from our immune system. It goes to work to fend off harmful bacteria, toxins, and viruses that cause illnesses, as well as helping the body heal from acute injury.

Most likely, you've experienced acute inflammation with the swelling and redness of a bug bite as the immune response is working to fend off the attack. Other examples of acute inflammation include fever, chills, fatigue, and stiffness as signs that the body is working to fight off a threat. We know if we experience these types of symptoms, we sleep more to help heal the body and let the immune system do its job.

But why is sleep necessary for our immune system to work? When we sleep, our bodies produce proteins called cytokines, which target infection and inflammation, creating an immune response (1). Inflammation in the body is measured by these markers of cytokines, hormones as well as C-reactive proteins. If the body is stressed due to lack of sleep or other factors, some of these cells get signaled to attack healthy cells, leading to disease and chronic illness over time.

If we experience frequent inflammation or at the wrong times, it becomes out of balance, and we can have further health risks beyond having feelings of burnout. For example, autoimmune diseases occur as a result of the body triggering an inflammatory response when there is no foreign threat present. With diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, the immune system's pathogen-fighting cells attack the body's own healthy cells and tissues (2).

Even if you don't have an autoimmune disease, you can still experience inflammation. A state of chronic inflammation is more common than you think as individuals reach for substances like caffeine to help counter frequent sleep issues. When the body is in a state of chronic inflammation, the immune system is always fighting, which activates the body's disease-fighting cells. 

Chronic inflammation can arise with sleep loss, poor diet, environmental toxins, as well as stress. Studies show that having increased inflammation can lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular, metabolic, and inflammatory disease (3).

Sleep and Inflammation 

We all know that sleep is necessary for our physical and mental health, but very few know its importance. Scientific studies have shown that even acute sleep loss increases inflammation in the body (4).

Our sleep cycle and our immune system (controls our inflammatory response) are regulated by the same circadian rhythm, which is the body's internal biological clock. This system moves us through sleep-wake cycles throughout a 24- hour day as well as regulates our immune system and levels of inflammation. Biologically speaking, the circadian rhythm is nearly 24 hours, and our bodies rely on the sun to reset this cycle in sync with the length of days. This is why it's important to get daily sunlight as it relates to our sleep quality and keeping us on a schedule.

Naturally, when we sleep, we are going through phases of alternating REM (rapid eye movement), and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep throughout a typical night that repeats itself about every 90 minutes (5). During these phases, our body goes through various stages of repair as cortisol naturally lowers, and our body ramps up T-cells to fight off threats. This is why it's imperative that we actually allow our bodies to experience enough sleep to go through these important phases and not compromise our natural immune response. 

As we can see, when we have poor sleep, our immune function is also disrupted, which leads to more inflammation. However, studies show that even when we oversleep (sleeping over 9 hours), we can be in a state of inflammation and have higher levels of C-reactive proteins (6).

How much sleep is enough?

More than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (7). This is not surprising as our modern society is often on our devices too late at night or having late-night meals, which only disrupts a regular sleep schedule.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommends that adults aged 18–60 years sleep at least 7-9 hours each night to promote optimal health and well-being. If we sleep less than 7 hours per day, we have an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress (8). This means we must set up a sleep routine! Check out these tips below to accomplish many solid nights of sleep.

How to Improve your sleep and reduce inflammation:

1) Maintain a sleep routine of 7-9 hours and set a recurring daily bedtime.

 2) Get regular sunlight to help boost your natural circadian rhythm.

3) Limit caffeine throughout the day and have your last serving in the early afternoon if necessary.

4) Eat 2-3 hours before bed and don't drink alcohol as it can interrupt your phases of sleep.

5) Stay off your devices and wear blue blocker glasses to reduce your exposure to blue light, which keeps your brain alert.

The truth is that we take sleep for granted. Your body needs high quality sleep to repair and prevent chronic inflammation leading to disease and other illnesses. So set a time for bed and turn down those lights for a solid night of sleep. Your body will thank you. 

1) https://www.uchealth.com/en/media-room/covid-19/better-sleep-habits-to-strengthen-immunity

2) https://thesleepdoctor.com/2019/01/01/5-things-to-know-about-sleep-and-inflammation/?cn-reloaded=1

3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5143488/

4) https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/best-practice-and-research-clinical-endocrinology-and-metabolism/vol/24/issue/5

5) https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/what-happens-when-you-sleep

6) https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(15)00437-0/abstract

7) https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html

8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4434546/

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Serene Wilken

Serene Wilken is a graduate of UCLA, and a senior Pilates and Mobility specialist in Northern California. She grew up as a gymnast, which inspired her to pursue a fulfilling career in fitness for over ten years. She holds certifications in Functional Range Conditioning (FRCms), TRX, BASI Pilates for Injuries & Pathologies, as well as BASI Pilates Mentor Program with Rael Isacowitz. She is a strong believer in continuing education, self-growth, and pursues to expand her knowledge of movement so she can help others thrive in their own bodies. 

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