The Sneaky Way Inflammation Can Mess With Your Sleep — And Vice Versa

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There’s no shortage of reasons for why you should aim to get a solid six to eight hours of sleep per night. Research has shown how immunity, mental health, and physical health are all tied to the quality of sleep you’re getting on a regular basis. But adding to the list of reasons why you might not be achieving a full night’s rest is a culprit you might not have thought of: inflammation.

Research has associated too much sleep, as well as too little sleep, to an increase in inflammation, which is often linked to depression as well as other chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Chronic inflammation varies from person to person, and can exist in various places throughout the body, including your lungs, joints, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. But what about the inverse of that relationship — that is, how might inflammation affect quality of sleep?

“Chronic inflammation, whether it’s causing pain or releasing excess cytokines, can be a cause of insomnia,” says New York-based acupuncturist and holistic health practitioner Dr. Shari Auth. According to Dr. Auth, the inflammation-sleep relationship is cyclical: “Both chronic inflammation and lack of sleep can increase cytokine levels in the body, linking inflammation with lack of sleep and vice versa.”

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Cytokines are proteins that allow cells to communicate with each other and help regulate sleep, health, mood, performance, and fatigue, which are all factors affected by sleep loss and disease, wrote Dr. Mark R. Zielinski, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in a Thrive Global article. “These pro-inflammatory cytokines are enhanced in the brain with sleep loss and are elevated in the brain at times of the day when one sleeps more,” Dr. Zielinski explained in the article.

Joyce Faraj, PhD, RDN, CDN, is a nutritionist at Mountainside Treatment Center who has studied “systemic, low-moderate inflammation,” which she notes is associated with stress, poor diet, and depression. In Dr. Faraj’s research, she found that among women with low to moderate chronic inflammation, vitamin D deficiencies were associated with higher depression scores. Sleep, or lack thereof, has an important relationship with depression, and the association between vitamin D deficiency and higher depression scores wasn’t identified among women with no inflammation.

It’s important to note that not all inflammation is bad — acute inflammation is vital for many normal bodily functions, including the immune system's response when you sprain your ankle or get a paper cut. But in cases where people are looking to alleviate chronic inflammation, Dr. Auth recommends acupuncture. “Numerous clinical trials have shown that acupuncture is beneficial for both sleep and reducing inflammation in the body. It’s especially beneficial for helping those with insomnia,” says Dr. Auth. “Acupuncture helps decrease cortisol levels, which helps relax the mind and body, and decreases anxiety and helps counter the impact inflammation has on healthy sleep by aiding the body in unwinding.”

Dr. Faraj suggests incorporating foods with anti-inflammatory properties, like nuts and leafy greens, as well as consuming the omega-3s found in flax, salmon, and walnuts to reduce inflammation.

If you have any medical concerns on the subject, consulting your doctor is a great first step. While it's clear that there is a connection between the two factors, it’ll take more time and research to fully unravel the relationship between inflammation and sleep.