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Can Sleep Loss Destroy Your Immune System?

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Our viability as a life form means that our responsiveness to the seasons in terms of food supply and reproduction are really all there is in regard to ending up on top, in the Darwinian sense. That's why our genes have "on and off" switches, controlled by hormones, that respond to environmental cues. We are finely tuned to survive by responding event to event, because the only sure thing in nature is changing circumstances. Without this system, we couldn't vary our behavior in sync with the immediacy of the occurrence. Life's a dance (e.g., Nelson 2010).

We listen to the music and sway. The vibrations from the environment are picked up by the hormonal interface that we call the endocrine system. This endocrine system is acting as the software that runs an organic computer we call the body/brain. The amount of light (brightness, temperature, and electricity) and gravity (magnetism) you are exposed to is the program that runs the software (e.g., Konakchieva 1988).

Through the auspices of this hormonal software program, which throws switches on genes that control the machine nanosecond by nanosecond, you balance on the board on the log.

This whole "human sub-machine" is an integrated part of the larger machine of the environment, or biosphere. Every living thing is an interactive machine or bio-computer programmed for adaptive intelligence. That means the definition of life is the ability to learn and change in response to experience. This experience-based decision system allows each life form to change in response to every other life form, because hormones control your behavior and your genes. The actions you take in a day are not really derived of free will. They are, rather, a product of thought-ware derived of physiology.

The elements in the environment control the hormonal processes in your body that program your brain to control your behavior. So a brain without a body is mindless, but a body without an environment is brainless. The fluctuating fat base on that body is really an immune response that protects and makes you viable in all seasons of the year. Your behavior with regard to food cravings and appetite is simply an immune response, too (e.g., Nelson 2010). Homeostasis. The immune system is much more than bone marrow or spleen, Peyer's patches or thymus cells. Even the lymph system is only a part of what we call the immune system. Those sites are actually just factories for the production of white cells, lymphocytes, or T cells.

About 80 percent of the full force of your defensive immune system resides in your intestines or gut (e.g., Maestroni 1998). This makes sense, since most toxins will enter through your mouth. Even though we're led to believe that the immune system is our defense system, nothing could be further from the truth.

The immune system is planetary, not individual.

Our hormonal interface with the world in the form of the HPA axis means that the immune system is really "the man behind the curtain" working the knobs and dials that make the brain seem so competent.

The elements of the immune system--gut, skin, fat, lymph, brain, and glands--all recognize, communicate, memorize, react, and even plan to survive earth changes that have been timed into our programming by millennia of experience. These capabilities mean that the immune system is as sentient, on its own, as you think you are. It also makes sense that 80 percent of the immune system is located in the gut because the gut was your original brain. As we slithered across a rock, pre-"head brain," the neurotransmitters we know, like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, and hormones like adrenaline and insulin ran "The Project" -- you, from your midsection (e.g., Petrovsky 1997).

The real clue to the overwhelming power and control the immune system has comes in the realization that it is completely mobile, so like the free thinking individual you perceive yourself to be. The immune system within is, at least, your equal. Your immune system controls your behavior by controlling neurotransmitter activity (e.g., Chai 1996). All immune cells have receptors to read both neurotransmitters and hormones controlling energy regulation and sex hormones. By the same token, the immune expressions called cytokines are active in your gut and your brain and your fat base and gonads. It's the immune system, locked in step with environmental pressures that can spell Judgment Day, either by a lack of defense or an all-out attack on your body. If you lose your balance with other life forms or the cosmos, the immune system reacts to compensate. It's really just the compensatory mechanisms that are the real causes of what we perceive to be disease (e.g., Chai 1996).

For example: When you experience a sore throat in the throes of a viral infection, the pain you feel is not borne of the virus at all. It is, instead, the pain of dying cells sacrificed (killed) by your own immune system. The same goes for the body aches, fever and headache. It's not the pathogen at all making you sick. It's the planetary immune system in you making you sick in an attempt to rid you of the virus-infected tissue at the point of origin, which is your throat or all to restore order to all living things. If the virus makes it all the way to your stomach, your immune system will sacrifice the lining there, too, to shed the virus. Then you'll have a stomachache and diarrhea or vomiting to add to your misery.

Just Chill

Temperature regulation during sleep is another antibacterial strategy we've evolved. While a very warm organism has more of an adaptive advantage through flexibility in acquiring new habitats, the constant heat provides optimal conditions for the growth of most bacteria. The best bet is to cool down. That's why our temperature drops at night and we look for a blanket (e.g., Krauchi 1997).

Since you can't find food in the dark--in fact, it's more likely you'd become food-- melatonin acts as a rheostat that lowers body temperature during NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep in order to slow metabolic processes and stave off hunger. The bonus is that the bacteria also respond to the less than balmy temperature: The cold that slows our metabolism also slows theirs (e.g., Krauchi 1997).

At the beginning of sleep, you dream a little, while you cool down as melatonin rises; you dream again during the predawn hours before you wake up, as melatonin falls and you warm up. Mammals in cold climates sleep for months at a time, or hibernate, to slow metabolic processes during food scarcity and darker days. Cooling us down in the dark, melatonin does antioxidant work, times ovarian and testicular function, and revs up the immune system for the next waking period, when we must keep harmful microbes out from behind the front lines (e.g., Krauchi 1997).

Sleep is the biggest immunological defense scheme we've come up with yet, because not only does it defend us against other organisms in our environment, it defends us against starvation by the insulin-melatonin system. Insulin is produced only when your body senses sugar or stress.

We Are Not Alone

Everything we coexist with is balanced in tension with us. Imagine two people at a gym throwing a heavy ball back and forth. When two people play "catch" with a heavy ball, they are sort of pushed apart because of the weight. The constant exchange of weight keeps the game going. It's the same with life; back and forth, back and forth. To stay in the game, we have a circumscribed existence with a narrow set of options. Consider these options a "playing field." The hours of light you are exposed to control actual genetic "on and off" switches, enzyme activity, and, most important, the growth of four pounds of symbiotic bacteria that live in your gut. These guys are the keys to life and death and dress size (e.g., Krauchi 1997; Brown 1990).

Your "personal bacteria" are constantly at war with other bacteria and viruses over you. How this Armageddon creates and maintains your immune system--the same immune system that controls your metabolism and fertility--is the key to the whole shooting match between light and health. But this battle only rages at night, when you sleep. Every morning, the outcome of the war predicts not only your immunity, fertility and weight, but your mental health, too (e.g., Konakchieva 1995).

Our lives, you see, are not our own.

We are symbionts, controlled by a different life form with priorities of its own. When we're in the light, we pick up the light through our skin and carry its energy, in cells called cryptochromes, down to the symbiotic bacteria that live in our middles. They love light and they love sugar. They love reproductive hormones, too. A common observation that young people and the elderly have weaker immune systems is a misinterpretation. The truth is that reproductive adults have stronger immune systems than the elderly and little children because the bacteria in our guts love sex steroids for breakfast and because when we reproduce we make more condos for the bacteria to live in. That principle is the reason women often have diarrhea during a menstrual period, when their hormone levels are flat and the bugs are leaving a sinking ship (e.g., Garcia-Maurino 1997).

One Is the Loneliest Number

Carsten Korth, in his article "Co-evolutionary Theory of Sleep," published in the Journal of Medical Hypothesis in 1995, agrees with us that the development of sleep as we know it was an evolutionary strategy to keep us even with the microbes. The mat of bacteria in your gut exudes endotoxins that control your physiology. The endotoxins exuded are cell- wall constituents that are sort of like pheromones or germ sweat. As the bacteria thrive over the course of a day, the endotoxins build. At a certain level, your immune system kicks in to take them down, so you continue to thrive. It's what's known as a host response (e.g., Korth 1995).

We only go to sleep when a substance called endotoxin LPS is exuded over the course of the day by these friendly bacteria in our guts. We go to sleep when LPS reaches a critical enough concentration in our bloodstreams to trigger an immune response. Sleeping is that immune response. White cells called macrophages and leukocytes multiply and kill off some of the bacteria in your system. It's well known that sleep is induced by an immune "expression," or a cytokine, called interleukin-2, which happens in response to the LPS put off by our gut bacteria.

These "neighbors" have become active participants in our entire immune existence as it relates to the spinning planet and all of its other inhabitants. After all, there's more of them than us. They're everywhere. Our gut alone contains 1 kilogram or 2.2 pounds of bacteria. There's more in your mouth and on your skin. All evolving species had to evolve around, or, more to the point, with bacteria. They owned the joint way before any of us got here (e.g., Korth 1995).

We had no choice but negotiation.

Our co-evolution is just a case of domestication on both parts. Over the millennia of symbiosis between them and us, our human immune systems have evolved in response to their orchestration. They gave us an immune system as a self-controlling mechanism and as defense for their turf.

For us, sleeping is actually just "thinning the herd." "Bacteria ranching" is just like a successful cattle ranch operation, in which homeostasis is achieved by eating or selling off just enough of the herd to keep it manageable. Our domestication of bacteria works the same way. The herd and the rancher both benefit. The evolutionary tactic of sleep is just a sneaky adaptation that allows us to get the edge on them, once every planetary rotation. The inequity in any tug of war only arises when one side stops pulling; therefore, no sleep, no edge. The immune expressions, or cytokines, that ensue from high levels of endotoxins can act as neurotransmitters and literally take you down, too (e.g., Brown 1990).

By rendering you unconscious, they close your eyes. Closed eyes means melatonin happens and later, at midpoint in the night, prolactin. Both these hormones mediate immune function through other cytokines called interleukins. Interleukins have numbers like IL-1, or 2 or 3, instead of real names, probably because there are a bazillion of them. High levels of IL-2 are always found i n sleep states, even those that result from illness. Once you fall asleep, the surging melatonin encourages white-blood-cell activity specifically designed to respond to pathogens like the bacteria living in your middle.

Needless to say, whether it results from closed eyes or the sun being on the other side of the globe, dark is dark; and the darker the better for melatonin production. Sick sleep is more intense and related to the phenomenon of fever through IL-1 and IL-6. You must sleep when you're sick or you won't survive an onslaught by the "other." Sleep is when the melatonin and prolactin kick in to make white cells, T cells, and N K (natural killer) cells.

A gut "out of whack"--meaning having too little or the wrong kind of bacteria punching a broken time clock--means a seriously impaired immune system. So, not sleeping, on purpose, ...when it gets dark, means destroying an ancient ecosystem evolved to benefit both parties -us and them.

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By T.S. Wiley,
T.S. Wiley is the inventor of The Wiley Protocol and author of Sex, Lies,
and Menopause and Lights Out.

References

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Brown, Richard, et al., "Are Antibiotic Effects on Sleep Behavior in the Rat Due to Modulation of Gut Bacteria?" Physiology and Behavior 48 (1990): 561-565.

Chai, Z., et al., "Interleukin (IL)-6 Gene Expression in the Central Nervous System Is Necessary for Fever Response to Lipopolysaccharide or IL-1 Beta: A Study on IL-6-Deficient Mice," Journal of Experimental Medicine 183 (January 1996): 311-316.

Garcia-Maurino, Sofia, et al., "Melatonin Enhances IL-2, IL-6, and IFN-y Production by Human Circulating CD4+ Cells," Journal of Immunology 159 (1997): 574-581.

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R. Konakchieva, S. Kyurkchiev, Iv. Kehayov, P. Taushanova, L. Kanchev, "Selective effect of methoxyindoles on the lymphocyte proliferation and melatonin binding to activated human lymphoid cells". Journal of Neuroimmunology December 31, 1995: 125-132.

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Krauchi, Kurt, et al., "Early Evening Melatonin and S-20098 Advance Circadian Phase and Nocturnal Regulation of Core Body Temperature," American Journal of Physiology 272 (April 1997): R1178-R1188.

Krauchi, Kurt. "The Hypothermic Effect of Late Evening Melatonin Does Not Block the Phase Delay Induced by Concurrent Bright Light in Human Subjects " Neuroscience Letters 232 (1997): 57-61.

Maestroni, Georges J.M.. "The photoperiod transducer melatonin and the immune-hematopoietic system". Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology June 1998: 186-192.

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