The coronavirus outbreak that has devastated China and left the world scrambling for answers has also reinforced the important role sleep plays in building our immune systems.

In a nutshell: Making sure we consistently get a good night?s sleep is one of the best ways we can improve our immunity and defend against viruses and disease. Sleep is a natural immune booster.

To be clear, I?m not suggesting sleep is a cure-all for the coronavirus. That isn?t the case; currently, there is no vaccine for the infection. The coronavirus has, by Feb. 20,?killed more than 2,100 people?globally. Altogether, nearly 75,000 cases have been confirmed, mostly in China, where the country has ground to a halt as it looks to safeguard against a further outbreak.

The coronavirus has also become a major concern here in the U.S, as several hundred Americans have been quarantined for up to 14 days in the last few weeks.

The signs of the virus are typical of less severe illnesses. Coronavirus symptoms, according to the CDC, include headaches, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, and a fever.

Here?s what we know about the immune system and sleep:

How the Immune System Works

The immune system is your built-in defense system against harmful germs that can make you ill. The system has three primary jobs:

  • To identify pathogens, or disease-causing germs, and remove them from the body. These include viruses, parasites, bacteria, or fungi.
  • To spot and neutralize harmful substances that come from outside the body.
  • To combat major changes within the body, like cancer cells.

Your immune system is activated when it recognizes antigens or toxins and other foreign substances to your body. This triggers a response in which the immune system develops antibodies, or cells specifically developed to fight the invader. Once these are produced, the immune system will keep a file and use it again if it ever runs into the same issue; this is why you typically only fight the chickenpox once in your life.

How Sleep Affects Your Immune System

Sleep is necessary for your immune system to run as efficiently as possible. You can think of your immune system as your body?s football coach and sleep as its halftime break.

Good coaches make adjustments at halftime, after recognizing what their opponents are doing effectively. Sleep plays the same role for your immune system, giving it a chance to fully assess any threats. The immune system can then deliberately tackle antigens, directing its cells?or players in this analogy?as they mount a counterattack. Without enough sleep, though, your body will have a hard time implementing the best game plan to fight back against illness.

By Michael J Breus Ph.D. for Psychology Today

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