Shocking and unexpected revelation: Sleep affects immune system

The first candidate for the annual ‘science stating the bleeding obvious' prize of 2009 is a study just published that shows that quality and length of sleep can affect your immune system. Specifically, getting less sleep and / or poorer quality sleep makes your immune system less able to fight off infections. This should surely not be a big surprise to most people who have at some point in their lives been run down to some extent and have had less than adequate quantity and quality of sleep. But clearly, scientists felt it was important enough to get some quantitative measure of effect.

Actually, the research did reveal some startling thresholds where a relatively small difference in quantity or quality of sleep resulted in a big increase in vulnerability to infection. For example, sleeping for less than seven hours a night on average trebled your risk of developing a cold compared to those who slept for eight hours or more. And regarding quality of sleep, people who were asleep for 92% of the time in bed were five and a half times as likely to become ill as people who slept for 98% of their time in bed.

These results, from research carried out by Carnegie Mellon University, are a useful reminder to people (including this author particularly) not to neglect basic physiological needs during everyday life when focussed on some longer-term goal. The research is consistent with anecdotal evidence suggesting that inadequate sleep for prolonged periods of time could have a serious detrimental effect on the immune system. It also appears that a return to adequate sleep levels can result in fairly rapid improvements in health and wellbeing

For people who have been grappling with an HIV+ diagnosis and who are fighting with a doctor who insists that everything is ‘AIDS', this could be an important reminder that more fundamental physiological issues may need to be addressed before looking to blame phantom viruses for ill-health and susceptibility to infections.

The original report from the BBC is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7823599.stm