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Chronic inflammation has hit the headlines in recent years, but what is it? We asked Dr. Michael Breus, our Sleep Doctor, what it means and whether sleeping well can guard against it.

What is chronic inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural, protective biological response from the immune system to fight off harmful foreign pathogens – bacteria, viruses, toxins – that cause illness and disease, and to help the body heal from injury. The symptoms of acute inflammation, including swelling and redness, fever and chills, pain and stiffness or fatigue are signs the body’s immune system is in “fight mode,” working hard to neutralize a threat. We talk a lot about the dangers associated with inflammation. But the body’s inflammatory response it essential to our health and survival.

Problems with inflammation occur when this natural, protective response happens too often, or at the wrong times. Autoimmune diseases occur as a result of the body triggering an inflammatory response when there is no foreign threat present. With chronic inflammation, the body’s immune system is in perpetual fight mode, activating disease-fighting cells that have no external threat to fend off. Over time, these fighter cells can attack, wear down, and cause damage to healthy cells, tissues, organs, and systems throughout the body, leading to chronic illness.

What triggers excessive, unhealthful, chronic inflammation?

Poor diet, environmental toxins, stress. And, as research shows, poor sleep is a contributor to inflammation. That’s because sleep and inflammation are regulated by the same biorhythms.

Circadian rhythms drive hormones and other physiological changes that cause us to move back and forth along a continuum of sleep and wakefulness throughout the 24-hour day. These rhythms also regulate our immune system, and with it, our levels of inflammation. When circadian rhythms are disrupted, so is normal immune function and we’re more at risk of disease.

One way to help keep circadian rhythms in sync is to maintain a consistent sleep routine. Our biorhythms thrive on consistency. Going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time every day reinforces the healthy circadian rhythms that govern both our sleep and our immune function, including inflammation.

Is there such a thing as too much sleep?

It might surprise you to learn that sleeping too much can also raise levels of key inflammatory markers. Getting the right amount of sleep for you – for most adults, that’s between seven and nine hours a night on a consistent basis – is one way to help avoid low-grade, systemic inflammation that’s associated with aging and chronic disease.

How about the relationship between stress and inflammation?

Stress is a common obstacle to sleep. We’re more likely to sink deeper into a stressful state when we’re tired and short on rest. Many people fall into a difficult cycle: ending the day stressed out, having a hard time sleeping, feeling exhausted and even more stressed the next day – which leads to more problems sleeping.

This chronic sleep-stress cycle does more than make us tired and irritable. Stress is also a trigger for inflammation. At a biological level, our bodies respond to mental and emotional stress as they would to a harmful pathogen, or to a direct physical threat: with a “fight or flight” response that alters immune system functioning and kicks inflammation into higher gear. Over time, chronic stress creates systemic, low-grade inflammation that wears at the health of our cells and makes us more vulnerable to disease.

Gut health matters, too. Indeed, one of the most exciting areas of sleep and health research involves the human microbiome. Our microbiome is the vast, dynamic, ever-shifting collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that live within our bodies. The largest collection of this microbial life resides in our intestines – hence, the focus on “gut health.” This intestinal body of microbiota is often referred to as the “second brain,” because of its profound influence over how we think, feel, and function.

Sleeping well is one way to help maintain a healthy gut. And maintaining gut health – by managing stress, exercising, eating a healthy diet that’s rich in prebiotic (fiber-rich) foods – can help you sleep better. Both those pillars (healthy sleep and a balanced, thriving gut) can work to limit harmful inflammation, and may help deliver long-term protection against disease.

Renowned Clinical Psychologist Dr. Breus is a member of the Six Senses Wellness Board and consults on our Sleep With Six Senses program. Why not arrange a personal consultation with a Sleep Ambassador to get the ball rolling?

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