What kind of 'sick' person are you? Are you the kind that pushes through, or the kind that slows down at the first sign of illness?
Normally I'm in the latter camp. If I'm feeling off, I will often take myself to bed super early and just rest and sleep. It's like my body knows this is what it needs as often I get that tiredness that you can feel right down to your bones . Feeling guilty at laying in bed is not something I've ever really subjected myself to, and I'm lucky that no one in my house is unable to look after themselves while I'm resting
However recently while on holidays, I felt those first signs of getting sick about 3 weeks into our trip. It was something I had been almost expecting - I hadn't been sick in over 3 years and we had been on multiple planes, crowded trains, and immersed ourselves in crowded tourist destinations surrounded by people coughing and spluttering for weeks. At first there was no obvious symptoms, I just didn't quite feel like my ususal self, but because we were only in every city we visited for a few days, I wasn't keen to slow down, So we pushed on. And on, and on!
We were racking up an average of 30 - 35,000 steps each day and we kept up with that blistering pace, keen to cram in as much as possible. And then my body (or my husband - I blame him mostly), gave me a case of the worst sore throat I think I've ever had. But again, it was nothing that made me feel sick enough to slow down (I just couldn't enjoy all the amazing food - not even the gelato!), so we kept going. After all, it was just a sore throat.....
But - a full bottle of the throat spray I had luckily packed, plus many many immune tablets, a box of medicated throat lozenges we'd resorted to buying, a box of strepsils, and nurofen some days for the pain, my sore throat persisted. Normally a sore throat, without any other accompanying symptoms, is something I would shake off pretty quickly back home - so that made me start thinking about the value of sleep when it comes to our bodies fighting off illness.
So why is sleep such an important part of recovering?
Sleep not only gives our bodies time to rest but it also gives us an opportunity to make much needed immune cells. These cells are vital to fighting off infections. Depriving our bodies of sleep also deprives our bodies of the opportunity to make enough immune cells which means that when there is infection present, we just don't have the resources to fight it off.
A study done on one particular type of immune cell called Natural Killer (NK) cells (these are cells help kill infected cells in the body) showed that by restricting to sleep to 4 hours for just one night, NK cell activity reduced to an average of 72% of that of a well slept particpant.
In another study 164 participants were administered nasal drops containing rhinovirus (the common cold). They found that those that slept 7 hours or less per night were almost three times as likely to contract rhinovirus as those that slept at least 8 hours.
These studies highlight what a vital role sleep plays in keeping our immune system healthy. And they are just the tip of the iceberg. Studies have also been done on the role a lack of sleep plays in other aspects of our health. Aside from making us susceptible to acute infection, lack of sleep can also affect our memory, mood, weight, create inflammation, increase the risk of chronic disease and much more.
Getting enough sleep truly is vital to our health and wellbeing. For some people, it's a simple matter of changing bed time habits to get the required amount of zzzz's, but many people struggle with getting to sleep, staying asleep, or getting good quality sleep and there can be many reasons for this. If you are one of these people, have a chat to your health professional about ways you may be able to improve your sleep.
Naturopath & Nutritionist
The Natural Health and Wellness Clinic
Irwin MR, Mascovich A, Gillin JC, Willoughby R, Pike J, Smith TL . Partial sleep deprivation reduces natural killer cell activity in humans. Psychosom Med 56(6):493-498.