Chronic inflammation and The Immune System

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If you follow health news, you’ve probably heard a lot about inflammation. Chronic inflammation has received a great deal of attention as a significant cause of illness and disease in recent years.

But how well do you understand the connection between inflammation and sleep? That link brings together two of the body’s most complicated and fundamental systems: the immune system and our need for sleep. Keeping inflammation under control has significant implications for our health. Sleeping soundly may be one method to protect ourselves from the unhealthful inflammation linked with chronic diseases ranging from cancer and heart disease to autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and others.

What exactly is inflammation?

When I chat with my patients, I notice that while most of them recognize that excessive inflammation can be dangerous, many don’t understand what inflammation is or what it accomplishes. Inflammation is a natural, protective biological reaction of the immune system to fight off harmful foreign pathogens—bacteria, viruses, and toxins—that cause illness and disease and aid in the healing of the body after injury. Acute inflammatory symptoms, such as swelling and redness, fever and chills, pain and stiffness, and weariness, indicate that the body’s immune system is in “attack mode,” fighting hard to neutralize a threat.

We’ve talked a lot about the dangers of inflammation. However, the inflammatory response of the body is critical to our health and survival.

Inflammation becomes a problem when this natural, protective reaction occurs too frequently or at inappropriate periods. Autoimmune disorders develop when the body initiates an inflammatory response in the absence of an outside threat. Instead, pathogen-fighting cells in the immune system assault the body’s healthy cells and tissues. Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are examples of autoimmune diseases caused in part by an overactive, misdirected inflammatory response.

Chronic inflammation has also been related to the development of major chronic and life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. With chronic inflammation, the body’s immune system is constantly on alert, activating disease-fighting cells in the absence of an external threat. These fighter cells can attack, wear down, and damage healthy cells, tissues, organs, and systems throughout the body over time, resulting in chronic illness.

What causes prolonged, excessive, and unhealthful inflammation? Poor food, pollutants in the environment, and stress are all factors to consider. In addition, a study has shown, lack of sleep contributes to inflammation.

The same biorhythms govern both sleep and inflammation.

When we discuss sleep and the immune system, we deal with two of the most complex processes in the human body. There is far too much we don’t know to put all of our scientific research to rest. Though it is obvious that we require sleep to exist, scientists are still baffled as to why we sleep. The human immune system is enormously complicated, and scientists are still attempting to decode its processes, to understand how it works—and why it fails.

We do know one thing. A shared regulator links sleep, immunological function, and inflammation. Our sleep is governed by circadian rhythms, which induce hormones and other physiological changes that cause us to oscillate between sleep and alertness during the 24-hour day. Those daily sleep-wake cycles that we go through without giving them much thought? Our circadian rhythms work in the background to keep us on track. Sleep is disrupted when circadian rhythms are out of sync.

Circadian cycles also govern our immune system and, by extension, our levels of inflammation. Normal immune function is compromised when circadian rhythms are interrupted. We are more prone to unhealthful inflammation and are more susceptible to metabolic disease, cancer, and heart disease.

Maintaining a consistent sleep habit is one approach to help keep circadian rhythms in sync. Consistency is essential for our biorhythms. Every day, going to bed and waking up at the same time reinforces the healthy circadian rhythms that govern both our sleep and our immune function, including inflammation.

A lack of sleep triggers inflammation. Too much sleep has the same effect.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about the nuances of the sleep-inflammation association. However, there is already a substantial body of evidence indicating that a lack of sleep increases inflammation in the body. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that acute, persistent sleep deprivation—conditions in which sleep is restricted for 24 hours or more—increases inflammatory activity in the body. Scientists have also looked into partial sleep deprivation, the type of chronic, insufficient sleep that many people suffer daily. While study results are inconsistent, numerous studies demonstrate that this type of everyday sleep loss raises inflammation.

It may surprise you to hear that sleeping excessively can also cause unhealthful inflammation. A 2016 study examined over 70 scientific studies on the association between inflammation and sleep. In addition to the adverse effects of short rest on the immune system’s inflammatory response, it discovered that sleeping excessively boosted levels of critical inflammatory indicators such as C-reactive protein, which is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Getting the correct amount of sleep for you—for most adults, 7-9 hours each night—on a consistent basis is one strategy to help minimise low-grade, systemic inflammation associated with ageing and chronic disease.

Just one night of insufficient sleep can cause inflammation to skyrocket.

Long-term health consequences of inadequate sleep are a major public health problem. Sleep’s impact on inflammation is a significant role in maintaining health and avoiding disease throughout our lives. However, it does not take years, or even months, for sleep to have a harmful impact on inflammation levels. According to study, it can be done in as little as one night. According to research, one night of inadequate sleep is enough to activate pro-inflammatory mechanisms in the body. According to a 2008 study, just one night of fragmented sleep resulted in significantly greater levels of NF-kB, a protein complex that functions as a potent signal to induce inflammation throughout the body. One exciting component of this study was that the researchers discovered that female respondents had a stronger inflammatory response than male subjects. The disparities in how men and women react to sleep loss are significant and understudied. The impacts of sleep on inflammation may be one area where men and women experience varying degrees of consequence—which could have ramifications for their susceptibility to chronic disease. This is an area of research that requires greater attention.

It’s tempting to dismiss a single night of poor sleep as insignificant. However, every night of sleep counts. A commitment to receiving a whole night of restful sleep—every night—along with your capacity to operate at your best intellectually and physically, makes a difference at a molecular level in your body’s ability to keep inflammation in check.

Stress has a significant role in the sleep-inflammation link.

You’ve probably heard me mention the strong links between sleep and stress. Stress is a common impediment to sleeping. Worried, on high alert, agitated, and anxious—these emotional and physical states of stress make falling asleep and sleeping well throughout the night difficult. As a result, not getting enough sleep exposes us to the physical and mental impacts of stress. When we’re weary and short on rest, we’re more prone to slip deeper into an anxious condition. Many people become caught in a vicious loop of stressing out at the end of the day, having trouble sleeping, feeling weary, and becoming even more anxious the next day—which leads to even more trouble sleeping.

This prolonged sleep-stress cycle causes more than just tiredness and irritability. Inflammation can also triggered by stress. On a biochemical level, our bodies respond to mental and emotional stress in the same way they would to a hazardous infection or a direct physical threat: with a “fight or flight” response that affects immune system functioning and ramps up inflammation. Chronic stress causes systemic, low-grade inflammation that degrades the health of our cells and makes us more susceptible to disease over time.

We’ve all heard that stress is harmful to our health. Science is now determining what that entails and how stress contributes to disease by inducing inflammation. A 2017 study found crucial links between chronic stress, elevated inflammation, and the development of a variety of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression. The researchers in this study show a relationship in which stress-induced inflammation is the “common soil” in which a variety of serious, chronic diseases might flourish.

In this complicated relationship with stress and inflammation, sleep plays a crucial dual role. Sleeping well can help to control inflammation directly by preventing the pro-inflammatory activity that happens amid poor, disrupted sleep. Furthermore, rest provides significant protection against stress, a major contributor to chronic inflammation—a now-known road to disease.

Gut health is also important.

The human microbiome is one of the most intriguing areas of sleep and health study. (I serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of UBiome, an innovative organisation committed to the study and teaching of the microbiome and its impact on health, performance, aging, and illness.)

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