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How Sleep Affects Your Immune System

March 13, 2023

Poster for video Sleep and Immunity with Yvonne Chu, MD

It’s a universal experience: you start to feel sick, and all you want to do is sleep. And yet, rest does not come.

“That’s because when your immune system is fighting off a pathogen, your sleep quality is often not very good,” says Yvonne Chu, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System.

Sleep study results show that when someone has an acute illness, there’s a decrease in rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. REM sleep is believed to be the most restorative stage of sleep, Dr. Chu explains.

What’s more, poor sleep can also increase your susceptibility to certain types of illness. “Studies have shown that those who chronically get less than seven hours of sleep a night are three times as likely to develop the common cold compared to those who routinely get eight hours or more of sleep,” Dr. Chu says.

Likewise, vaccine studies suggest that those who sleep less mount fewer antibodies to certain vaccines, including those for influenza and hepatitis A and B, Dr. Chu adds.

“When study participants were deprived of sleep for about four hours a night in the days preceding—and one to two days following—vaccination, they developed a significantly lower level of antibody titers compared to those who were not sleep-deprived,” she says.

The bottom line, Dr. Chu says, is that there is no substitute for getting consistent, good quality sleep, especially if we want to reap the immune system benefits sleep can offer.

In this video, Dr. Chu talks more about sleep and your immune system.