When you get sick, bang your toe, or cut your finger, your immune system springs into action. Its job is to neutralize any invaders and help restore health.
It does this by activating white blood cells, which release cytokines and other inflammatory molecules that simultaneously launch the offensive and defend your healthy tissue.
When this response is temporary, it’s a good thing and a powerful defence mechanism. But when the inflammation doesn’t let up, problems occur. What’s termed “chronic” inflammation can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and more.
Sleep deprivation is associated with inflammatory markers and may contribute to chronic inflammation. This might help explain why people who don’t sleep well tend to have a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic illness.
Why might sleep contribute to inflammation? There are a few theories.
Blood pressure drops during sleep, and blood vessels relax. If you’re unable to fall asleep, blood pressure may not go down like it should, potentially triggering cells in blood vessel walls that cause inflammation.
A lack of sleep may also change the body’s stress response system and keep cortisol levels higher for longer each day.
Too little sleep also interferes with your brain’s natural housecleaning system. When you’re in the deepest phase of sleep, cerebrospinal fluid moves through the brain and flushes out beta-amyloid proteins that are linked to brain cell damage and inflammation.
This can lead to a vicious cycle of beta-amyloid buildup that promotes inflammation and makes it harder to reach deeper, non-REM short wave sleep, ultimately making it harder to sleep and retain memory.
One night of poor sleep can boost beta-amyloid buildup, but it can be reversed relatively quickly. However, risks and problems arise when poor sleep becomes a regular pattern.
Getting better sleep may be essential to improving immune function and undoubtedly linked to better overall health. Working on sleep hygiene and addressing issues like obstructive sleep apnea are two of the main ways to improve sleep.