Bad Nights, Bad Health
Sleep problems wreak havoc on the immune system – and could make existing health problems worse
A night of tossing and turning can ruin a day before it has even begun. But a new study suggests that chronic sleep problems could ruin health in potentially lethal ways.
There’s always been a correlation between good health and good sleep. When dealing with a cold or flu, it’s normal to feel sleepy; the immune system is releasing chemicals and compounds to fight infection during sleep. What’s less known, says Dr. David Gozal, chairman of pediatrics at University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, is how “sleep quality affects the immune system.”
A study directed by Dr. Gozal that was published in the journal “Cancer Research” in January showed that fragmented sleep had an extremely powerful affect on tumor growth. In the study, a group of mice had their sleep interrupted periodically, while another group of mice was left undisturbed. After seven days, both sets of animals were then injected with tumor cells. After the tumors had grown, the mice were observed again. The tumors in the mice whose sleep was interrupted were much more invasive than those of the mice whose sleep was uninterrupted.
“There are multiple arms of the immune system and all of these are coordinated and some of them fight against cancer,” Dr. Gozal explains. “And if some of them are transformed, they can help cancer survive.”
There is one part of the immune system that was notable in the study.
“Toll-like receptor 4, a biological messenger, helps control activation of the innate immune system,” Gozal says. “It appears to be a lynchpin for the cancer-promoting effects of sleep loss.”
There have been studies suggesting that higher mortality was associated with shorter sleep for those with cancer. But there was little research on the specifics of how sleep might impact the chances of those diagnosed with cancer. Gozal describes the results of this study as a “first step” in connecting sleep quality and cancer.
However, there is still a great deal of research to be done on the connections. The results of the animal model do not necessarily mean that human cancers will react the same way. What is clear, however, is that if a patient with cancer has chronic sleep problems, he or she has a higher risk of succumbing to the cancer.
Gozal was adamant that a good night’s sleep is vital for everyone, including healthy people.
“It’s important for people to understand that sleep is like a bank account,” he says. “The same way you take care of your credit card and bank account, you have to take care of sleep.”
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