If you have a chronic illness, you’ll know all too well the feeling of going about your day when you’ve had poor sleep. That feeling of mental grogginess, accompanied by the physical aches…it’s not fun. Sleep performs several essential functions beyond just improving your mood, memory, and mental clarity. Sleep actually has important physiological impacts on your body as well. Read on to learn the top three reasons why sleep is especially important for chronic illness patients.
1. Decrease Inflammation
According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, there is a link between lack of sleep and the risk of developing certain diseases and health problems. For example, sleep deprivation studies have shown that when healthy research study participants were deprived of adequate sleep levels, they experienced increased blood pressure and inflammation levels, in addition to impaired blood glucose control. These symptoms actually mimic the impact of increased stress on the body. Other studies have found that prolonged sleep deficiency can lead to chronic, body-wide low-grade inflammation and is associated with various diseases that have an inflammatory component, such as diabetes.
As many of you know, increased inflammation and an abnormal inflammatory response are what underlie many chronic illnesses, including autoimmune disease. As a result, it’s important to get enough sleep to ensure that your inflammation levels stay in-check.
2. Prevent Weight Gain & Hormone Imbalances
In addition to increasing your inflammation, studies have shown that a lack of sleep can also lead to weight gain. For instance, people who habitually sleep less than six hours per night are much more likely to have a higher than average body mass index (BMI), and people who sleep eight hours have the lowest BMI. For this reason, sleep deprivation is now considered a possible risk factor for obesity.
Poor sleep increases cortisol levels, a stress hormone that can increase visceral (mid-section) body fat storage. It is associated with increases in insulin as well; insulin is a hormone that regulates glucose processing and also promotes fat storage. A lack of sleep can also be the culprit for lower levels of leptin, a hormone that alerts the brain that it has had enough to eat, and higher levels of ghrelin, a biochemical that stimulates one’s appetite. This means that those with poor sleep may have intense food cravings, and feel hungry despite consuming enough calories.
3. Strengthen Immune Memory
According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep helps to strengthen immune memory, which is the immune system’s ability to remember how to recognize and react to dangerous antigens. With autoimmune disease, patients’ immune systems incorrectly attack their own healthy tissues and cells. As a result, autoimmune patients have immune systems with poor immune memory. Getting adequate sleep levels can help to strengthen your immune system’s ability to differentiate between your own tissues and foreign invaders.
Although the exact reasons why sleep helps your body to improve its immune memory are unknown, there are several hypotheses. For example, it’s believed that because breathing and muscle activity slow down while you’re asleep, your body now has freed up the energy for the immune system to perform these critical immune-memory tasks.
Another way that sleep helps your immune system is through the production of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone. Melatonin is known to have anti-inflammatory effects by scavenging toxic free radicals, which cause tissue destruction during an inflammatory reaction. Melatonin also reduces the over-expression of a variety of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can cause a cytokine storm in one’s body. There is also some evidence that melatonin inhibits the production of adhesion molecules, which are responsible for causing inflammatory white blood cells to stick to endothelial cells in one’s connective tissue.
How Much is Enough?
By now, you may be convinced that you need more sleep…but how much shut eye is really enough? According to the Sleep Foundation’s guidelines, adults aged 18-64 need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Adults over the age of 65 are recommended to get a similar amount of sleep – between 7 to 8 hours – each night. Infants, children and teens need even more hours of sleep to sustain their growth and development.
Sleep Problems and Chronic Illness
Having a chronic illness like an autoimmune disease can directly impact your ability to get quality sleep. For instance, many autoimmune patients suffer from chronic pain, which makes it challenging to fall asleep or to stay asleep. In fact, two-thirds of patients with chronic pain conditions report experiencing sleep disorders like insomnia.
I myself have Sjogren’s Syndrome, which, in addition to chronic joint pain, causes severe dry eyes and dry mouth. In my earliest days of living with Sjogren’s, I had difficulty staying asleep, since I would constantly wake up every few hours to chug bucketloads of water to relieve my chronically dry mouth, go to the bathroom (as a result of all the water I was drinking!) and put in eyedrops to relieve my severely dry eyes. Fortunately, I was able to find relief for my dryness symptoms through prescription and over-the-counter products, which made it possible for me to get a good night’s rest, without having to constantly wake up.
Chronic illnesses can also result in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, which can in turn make falling asleep difficult. If you’re staying up late at night due to incessant worrying about your health problems, it’s important to get treatment for your mental health conditions from a provider who understands the realities of living with a chronic illness.