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Sleep Loss Triggers Immune Response, Study Finds

Jul 13th, 2012

Sleep lossHow the immune system reacts to sleep deprivation is the same as its reaction to physical stress, according to a study by scientists from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Researchers found that lack of sleep and physical stress trigger an  immune response.

The study, which appeared in the journal SLEEP, measured the difference in white blood cell counts in 15 healthy young men under both normal and deprived sleeping conditions. The research was conducted by scientists from Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam, the Netherlands and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom.

White blood cells or leukocytes defend the body against infection by producing antibodies that ward off diseases.

During the first phase, the subjects followed a strict routine of sleeping eight hours a day for a full week. Participants were also exposed to more than 15 minutes of sunlight within 90 minutes of waking up. They were prohibited from consuming anything with caffeine, alcohol, or any type of medications.

During the second part of the experiment, subjects stayed awake for as long as 29 hours.

Scientists collected blood samples for both normal and sleep deprived patients and compared granulocyte counts. Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell which contain microscopic granules or sacs that encapsulate enzymes capable of digesting microorganisms.

Researchers found an increase in number of granulocytes when subjects were severely deprived of sleep. Granulocyte production patterns are also affected with numbers peaking during nighttime.

“The granulocytes reacted immediately to the physical stress of sleep loss and directly mirrored the body’s stress response,” said lead author Katrin Ackermann, PhD.

Several studies have linked sleep deprivation with diseases like diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease. Many studies have shown that sufficient amount of sleep promotes optimum immune system, while constant lack of sleep may lead to immune system impairment.

“Future research will reveal the molecular mechanisms behind this immediate stress response and elucidate its role in the development of diseases associated with chronic sleep loss,” Ackermann said. “If confirmed with more data, this will have implications for clinical practice and for professions associated with long-term sleep loss, such as rotating shift work.”

The study shows that the immune system is affected by sleep deprivation in the same way as acute physical stress does. Long-term sleep deprivation contributes to health problems previously unknown. The authors recommend further studies to reveal the exact mechanism of this phenomenon.

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