All-nighters are rarely enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination, but can you get sick from being tired — and I mean, not just cranky and desperate to lay unmoving in bed for 12 hours, but physically ill? According to a recent study from the University of Washington, there's evidence that chronic exhaustion might actually influence how well your immune system functions, and unfortunately, not in a way that turns you into someone whose superpower is avoiding the sniffles.
In the study, published in the journal Sleep, researchers analyzed blood samples from 11 sets of identical twins who reported different sleep patterns. (Prior research has shown that sleep has a heavily genetic component, so using twins allowed researchers to control for the role of genetics in their findings.) Over the course of two weeks, participants wore wrist actigraphs measuring the duration of their sleep. At the end of the study, their blood samples were compared with their sibling's.
Here's where it gets interesting: Researchers found that the twin who slept less displayed signs of a depressed immune system. "Habitual short sleep was associated with up-regulation of genes involved in transcription, ribosome, translation and oxidative phosphorylation," they wrote. Additionally, and perhaps surprisingly, they also found that "genes down-regulated in short sleep twins were highly enriched in immuno-inflammatory pathways." In other words, chronic sleep deprivation appears to shut down the systems associated with immune response.
"Our study... provides a potential link between sleep deprivation and adverse metabolic, cardiovascular and inflammatory outcomes," researchers concluded.
Their findings are supported by prior research, which shows that sleep is important in regulating the functioning of the immune system; it follows that sleep deprivation would suppress this functioning. In fact, a 2012 European study found that severe deprivation elicits the same kind of reaction from the immune system as physical stress, particularly in terms of white blood cells. Furthermore, a different study that year found that sleep deprivation weakens a vaccine's effectiveness. Over time, this deprivation can wind up having serious health consequences.
It looks like sleep deprivation really can make you more vulnerable to illness. Luckily, the solution is super easy: get more sleep. Although it's tempting to forgo sleep when you're busy, it's a vital part of self-care, which is something we could all use lately. So next time you're tempted to let Netflix play itself out until long past a reasonable bedtime — it doesn't count as a marathon if the computer selects the next episode for you, right? — just shut off your laptop and let your dreams entertain you instead.