Poor sleep affects immune system

By Siski Green , Tuesday 13 March 2012

People who sleep badly respond less well to stress and may be more susceptible to illness

People who don’t get restful sleep display a different physical response to stress from good sleepers, according to new research, and it puts them at higher risk of disease. It’s a vicious cycle – you’re stressed so you sleep badly. Your lack of sleep adds to the stress. And then because of your bad night and stress, your body responds differently, increasing your risk of mental and physical health problems.

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center, US, evaluated 83 study participants with an average age of 61 for cognitive status, then each person was asked to describe their sleep quality, stress levels, loneliness and medication use. About a third of the study participants reported sleep problems, despite all of them being in good physical health. Blood tests to measure levels of the protein IL-6 were done at the beginning of the study, participants were then given verbal and memory tests and a battery of questions intended as stressors before having repeat blood tests.

Prior to the stress tests, there was no significant difference in IL-6 levels between those who had poor sleep and those who didn’t. Both groups performed similarly on the tests, indicating that poor sleep did not have an adverse effect on their ability to deal with stress. Afterwards, however, both groups showed higher levels of IL-6, and those who had had poor sleep had four times more than those who’d had a good night’s sleep.

The protein IL-6 is produced by the body in response to trauma or injury and stimulates the immune system, encouraging the production of helpful proteins. But when too much of it is produced it can lead to a variety of diseases. An excess of IL-6 is associated with obesity, mental impairment, and heart disease, and it also stimulates the process of removal of calcium from bones. People with rheumatoid arthritis have higher levels of IL-6 and, as it’s the chemical messenger involved in inflammation, some medications for RA work by blocking it.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.


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