After not getting enough sleep on consecutive nights, most of us feel tired and sometimes a little under the weather. Interestingly, though researchers don’t know exactly why our bodies need as much sleep as they do, recent studies have revealed some of the mechanisms for sleep deprivation’s negative effect on immune health.

In a 2012 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, researchers found that the immune system reacts to sleep loss as if the body is under stress. After 29 hours without sleep, researchers measured the white blood cell count – which tells you about the immune system – of young men and compared it to their counts taken while getting sufficient sleep each night. They found that the white blood cell count was up, reflecting an immediate stress response to the body’s lack of sleep.

A 2013 study by University of Helsinki researchers found that after even a short period of sleep deprivation, the behavior of genes related to immune function was altered and there was an increase in B cell activity. B cells produce antigens as part of the body’s defensive response to stressors. According to Vilma Aho, a lead researcher, this study reveals changes at the genetic level to support previous research that sleep deprivation may be related to cardiovascular issues, diabetes and other inflammatory responses by the body:

“These results corroborate the idea that sleep does not only impact brain function, but also interacts with our immune system and metabolism,” Aho said. “Sleep loss causes changes to the system that regulates our immune defense.”

During flu season, which typically hits the hardest during the holidays and in January, it’s important to get enough sleep and take other precautions to keep the immune system healthy and functioning, which will make us less susceptible to the various flu viruses floating about. Here are some tips for boosting your immune health:

  • Get regular exercise. Choose an activity that works for you, such as swimming, walking or biking, and per the American Heart Association’s recommendations, try to do moderate exercise for 30 minutes per day, five days per week.
  • Eat healthy. Cut out fatty foods – especially fried food – and load up on fruits, vegetables – especially dark, immune-boosting leafy greens like spinach, kale and arugula – and whole grains.
  • Lower your stress. As much research has shown, stress can be detrimental to your immune health. Find ways to lower your stress, whether that involves reading before bed, getting a massage, spending time with family and friends, meditating or doing yoga.
  • Get enough sleep. Many people have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, but there are some things you can do to improve your sleep quality. For example, experts suggest that people should avoid caffeine at least eight hours before bed time, as it can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. Another easy adjustment is to avoid using laptops, cell phones, tablets or watching TV right before bed – several studies have shown that the blue light interferes with our circadian rhythms.
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