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Sleep and Inflammation – A Balancing Act

Last Updated on April 12, 2020 by Ashwini G

The relationship shared between sleep and inflammation is very synergic. Sleep can both increase or reduce swelling and vice versa. Further, too much sleep, as well as too little sleep, can trigger inflammation. To keep both the conditions optimal, your body needs to walk a very thin line. Sleep can lead you into sickness by triggering inflammation or worsening an already existing inflammation. On the other hand, sleep can also be your partner in disguise for health and happiness. It can reduce, limit, or even stop inflammation from occurring. You must be wondering why sleep is so essential for reducing inflammation. Or even that how can something as beneficial as sleep trigger inflammation? This article will guide you through the dynamics of the relationship between sleep and inflammation.

What Is Inflammation?

Before embarking upon sleep and its effects on inflammation, you first need to understand the concept of inflammation. A lot of people do not understand the basics of inflammation and the role or effect it has on your body.  Inflammation is a complex biological response of your body tissues to foreign particles that harm, destroy, or otherwise damage your body. This response involves the:

  • Immune system
  • Blood cells
  • Molecule mediators

Inflammation is an innate immune response of the body and not part of adaptive immunity. The innate immune response is generic. The immune system responds automatically without much thought behind it. The adaptive response, on the other hand, is a specific response towards the pathogen. It is a much more sophisticated and detailed response. In simple language, inflammation is your body’s way of protecting you. Inflammation stimulates the production of white blood cells and other substances that help your body in case of infections, injuries, or other conditions.

Why Does Inflammation Occur?

Inflammation is your body’s first response to an infection, damage, or hurt. It involves getting the white blood cells to the site of hurt to fight off the external stimuli and begin the task of repair and healing. Inflammation also prevents you from unnecessarily touching the site or being too relaxed with it. This, in turn, prevents any secondary infections from settling in and helps in repairing the damage faster. Further inflammation also leads to joint stiffness and, in some cases, loss of function. This further prevents you from overexerting that area and giving it the rest; it requires for healing to happen effectively and efficiently.

Types of Inflammation

Inflammation is classified under two types as per Harvard Health. This classification is based on the severity and period of the condition. These are:

  • Acute Inflammation: This is the original response of the body tissues to any external stimuli which damage the body. This involves the movement of plasma and leukocytes from the blood to the injured area. Acute inflammation does not carry forth for a prolonged period and is short-term. Examples of acute inflammation include:
    • Skin cuts or scratches
    • Sore throat
    • Ingrown toenail
    • Acute bronchitis
    • Dermatitis including eczema, rashes, etc
    • Sinusitis is inflammation of the nasal passage. This can be caused by seasonal allergies.
  • Chronic Inflammation: This is prolonged inflammation, i.e., inflammation over some time. It involves a change in the type of cells present at the damage site. Further, it also involves the destruction and healing of the tissues at the inflammation site at the same time. Some examples of chronic inflammation are:
    • Inflammatory Arthritis: This includes a variety of medical conditions that have inflammation of the joints like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriatic arthritis.
    •  Asthma: This is caused when there is inflammation in the air passages that are responsible for carrying oxygen to the lungs. Inflammation makes these passages narrow and hence makes breathing difficult.
    • Periodontitis: This is inflammation of the gums, and the teeth support tissues. It is a bacterial infection.
    • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): It is also called Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative colitis. It involves inflammation of the GI tract and eventually leads to damage to the GI tract.

Apart from this, chronic inflammation is also responsible for an increased risk of stroke, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

Signs of Inflammation

There are five signs and symptoms of inflammation. The signs are very visible and cannot be ignored. These signs are:

  1. Pain: This is the most common sign of inflammation. Inflammation causes pain in the affected area, such as joints, muscles, or skin. Pain makes the areas sensitive and tender to touch. The more chronic and severe the inflammation, the worse the pain you will feel at the site.
  2. Heat: The inflamed area will be warmer to touch than other areas of your body. This is because there is increased blood flow in that area. This increase in the blood flow causes the temperature of that area to be higher than in other areas.
  3. Swelling: When a part of your body is inflamed, it might result in fluid retention. The tissues of that area might accumulate fluid, which causes them to swell. It is important to note in an injury swelling can happen with or even without inflammation.
  4. Redness: It is common to observe redness with inflammation. This is because of the increased blood flow that concentrates the level of blood in blood vessels of that particular area.
  5. Loss of Function: In case of an illness or physical trauma, inflammation can cause loss of function in that organ or area. For example, an inflamed joint due to arthritis or a broken joint cannot be moved properly and sometimes even not at all.

These symptoms are extremely easy to identify. It does not require any study or experience to recognize external inflammation. Ever inflammation of internal organs can easily be identified through the symptom of localized pain and swelling.

Sleep and Inflammation

Now that you understand the whys and what’s of inflammation, the next step is about understanding the complex relationship between sleep and inflammation. Sleep is the naturally recurring state of your body where you minimize the muscle control and activity and concentrate on repair and healing of the body tissues and parts. It is during sleep that most of the healing process in your body takes place. In fact, whenever you come down with any illness or hurt yourself in any way, the advice that comes with any medicine is too taking rest. Your body needs the resting period to repair itself. The same concept applies to inflammation. Remember, inflammation happens when you have been hurt or injured in some way or another. It is your body’s defense mechanism coming into play. Sleep aids your defense mechanism. The connection between sleep, immunity, and inflammation is discussed below:

  • Regulator: For your defense mechanism to work, your immunity needs to work optimally, and for optimal immunity, your body needs sleep. Hence sleep, immunity, and inflammation are all interrelated. Sleep, the immune system, and inflammation share the common regulator known as the “Circadian Rhythm.”

Your sleep cycle is regulated through the circadian rhythm. This rhythm keeps your body on the sleep-wake cycle and keeps it synchronized. It is also responsible for regulating the immune system in your body. When this circadian rhythm gets disrupted, it disrupts both the sleep cycle and the immune system synchronization. This is turn, makes you more susceptible to inflammation.

Sleep Pattern – Too Much and Too Little

Your sleep pattern, i.e., the number of your snooze hours, matter. Studies show that an average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep. You should aim your sleep hours to be in that bracket. The effects of less and more sleep are discussed below:

Too Much Sleep

The question that everyone loves to ask is whether there is such a thing as too much sleep? Yes, there is such a thing as too much sleep. Too much sleep is also known as oversleeping. Sleep is good for you and your body. It keeps you healthy, but too much sleep can work against you. An average adult needs a maximum of 9 hours of sleep. Anything more and you are slumbering more than what is required by your body. Studies show that too much sleep is linked to inflammation and inflammation-related diseases. The major cause of this is:

    • C-reactive protein (CRP): This is a blood test systemic inflammation marker. CRP levels rise with inflammation. People who are known to oversleep also tend to have high CRP levels in their bodies, indicating increased inflammation due to oversleeping. Studies show that females oversleeping had 44% higher CRP levels than those sleeping for 7 hours. Another study details that the CRP levels persistently increased by 8% for every hour beyond the 7 – 9 hours bracket of ideal sleep hours.

Too Little Sleep

Getting too little sleep or sleep deprivation can trigger inflammation and cause inflammation to worsen. The medical community is still trying to understand the exact relationship between sleep and inflammation. However, studies are unanimous in maintaining that lack of sleep, even for a single night, is enough to trigger inflammation. The main reasons for this are:

    • Cytokine: Cytokines are produced by the T – cells in your body. These cytokines are protein molecules that help the T – cells of your immune system to identify and target foreign pathogens and substances in your body that make you sick. Sleep aids in the production of these cytokines.
    • NF-κB: This is a nuclear factor protein that acts as an inflammation marker. Sleep disturbance, especially poor sleep quality and hours are known to cause a spike in this protein, thereby linking little sleep with increased inflammation.
    • Stress: Stress is a common by-product of less sleep. Stress and sleep are in a vicious cycle. Less sleep accelerates your stress levels and vice versa. Now studies have linked stress with even inflammation. At a basic biological platform, your body reacts to stress like any other foreign pathogen. It goes into a “fight or flight” mode. This triggers your immune response and leads to increased inflammation.
    • Gut Health: Gut health is dominated by all microbial life present in your intestines. These “Microbiome” have a big influence on your mental and physical health. Studies show that when your gut health is poor, it contributes to inflammation. This holds for both acute and chronic inflammation.

Poor sleep or lack of sleep, in turn, contributes to an unhealthy gut. It reduces the goof bacteria in your intestines and promotes the bad disease-causing bacteria. Further sleep deprivation causes stress, which is another major factor for an unhealthy gut.

Inflammation and Sleep

It is not just sleep that affects inflammation. The effect goes in the other direction as well. Inflammation, especially chronic inflammation, affects your sleep cycle as well. When you are hurt, down with some ailment or suffer from medical conditions involving inflammation, then chances are you cannot sleep. Pain gets worse during the night, swelling tends to increase, and the joints become stiff and unmanageable. These entire forces combine to make you very uncomfortable, making it difficult to catch up on the snooze factor.

Tips to Maintain a Good Sleep – Inflammation Cycle

The most effective way of ensuring a good relationship between sleep and inflammation is by ensuring that your body gets the optimal hours of sleep it requires. Some ways of achieving that are:

  • Regulate your Circadian Rhythm by keeping a good schedule. Going to bed on time and waking up at a particular time will ensure that your circadian rhythm is maintained optimally, ensuring optimal sleep and immunity functions.
  • Take care of your sleep surroundings to ensure favorable sleep.
  • Keep stimulants in the shape of caffeine, blue/white light exposure, and heavy diet to a minimum at least two hours before sleeping.
  • Eat a well-balanced nutritious diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, fiber, and other nutrients.
  • Catch up on exercises and indulge in activities like yoga and meditation to soothe and calm yourself before sleeping.

Few Doubts Settled

After reading through about the connection shared by sleep and inflammation in your body, you might have certain queries related to the subject. Below are some answers to the frequent questions:

Is Sleep Beneficial To Inflammation

To keep it short, yes. Sleep is very beneficial to the inflammation. Sleep helps by keeping the pro-inflammatory activities that your body might participate in check.

Does Inflammation Worsen During the Night?

Inflammation is known to get worse during the night when you sleep. This is because the levels of an anti-inflammatory hormone known as “Cortisol” naturally drops during the night.

Does Lack of Sleep Affect Inflammation?

Lack of sleep throws the body out of gear. When you do not get enough sleep, the natural synchronization and harmony of your bodily functions get disturbed. This causes your immunity to becoming counter-intuitive. Under sleep deprivation, your immunity might respond by going on overdrive and increasing its response to the affected injury, thereby increasing the inflammation.

Will Drinking Coffee Reduce Inflammation?

Studies have shown coffee to have anti-inflammatory properties. Hence drinking coffee regularly might help in reducing inflammation, but it exercises moderation when consuming coffee. Too much coffee will make you too edgy and excited, causing poor sleep patterns, which will negatively affect your inflammation.

Bottom Line

A lot of people don’t understand the role of inflammation. They think that inflammation is a very natural part of the healing process. And you are right in thinking that. The problem with inflammation arises when there is too little or too much of it. Sleep helps to a great extend in controlling that factor of inflammation. Sleep allows the immunity to function optimally, which in turn allows for optimal levels of inflammation. However, the lack of sleep will exacerbate any existing inflammation. So the trick is not just sleeping but getting the optimal sleep to effectively keep the inflammation in check.

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