Rats, Sleep Deprivation, and Chronic Infections

Today, I wanted to talk about rats.  Yup, rats. I’ve actually been thinking about rats a lot recently (weird, right?) because I got interested in the subject of sleep deprivation…and rat studies are where we learn some of the most important things we know about sleep (mostly because it’s unethical to do any of these studies in humans).

Why Is Sleep So Important?

Sleep is a fascinating phenomenon.  This is true mostly because we don’t fully understand a) how it works and b) why it’s so important for us to do it. What we do know is that sleep is integral for assimilating new information, healing our bodies, producing long-last memories, down-regulating the inflammatory response, and balancing the rhythm of hormone production…just to name a few things.

Perhaps most notably, we’ve all heard the importance of sleep when it comes to regulating the immune system.  This is because of studies where rats have been injected with cancer cells in the setting of chronic sleep deprivation and it’s been found that the cancer growth is remarkably faster in these rats than in rats who have been allowed to sleep.  There are also studies that have been done where genetically modified autoimmune disease rats have been sleep deprived and have been shown to be significantly more prone to systemic autoimmune symptoms and complications than their well-rested counterparts.

Rats, Sleep Deprivation, and Chronic Infections

What Is It About Sleep Deprivation That Kills?

What I hadn’t realized, however, is how the rats actually die from sleep deprivation.  What is it about not sleeping that will eventually do an organism in?

Turns out, the rats that were not allowed to sleep for weeks at a time actually died from sepsis (sepsis is the term for an overwhelming systemic (body-wide) infection).  Over time, the studies showed that the immune system got progressively weaker and the physical/biochemical boundaries that keep infections out of the bloodstream began to break down until the rats could no longer mount any sort of response or protection against the offending organisms.

The Practical Takeaways

In a practical sense for those of us struggling with chronic gut or systemic infections, these studies provide us with some very real and very serious takeaways that we can learn from.  While all our efforts with food/nutrient density, stress coping mechanisms, exercise, and gut healing (again, just to name a few) are incredibly important, it’s undeniable when looking at studies like these (even though they are done on rats and not humans) that sleeping should be up there on the list of things we work really hard at optimizing. (Often, this means going to bed earlier…read more about why that is in this post.)

Ironically (and infuriatingly), it often happens that the people who need sleep the most are the ones who have the most problems with actually getting it.  What’s most encouraging about some of these studies that the rats who were allowed to rest, but not sleep, had improvements in their overall health functions than rats who weren’t allowed to rest at all.

This means that even the act of resting on the couch or in bed, meditating, or practicing the shavasana pose in yoga can lead to immune health benefits for those of us who struggle with chronic infections. Likewise, naps have been shown to be incredibly revitalizing in a number of chronic sleep deprivation settings (likely because sleep deprived mammals will fall into deep sleep much faster than well rested ones) so even a little bit of sleep can go a long way.

This is all to say: if you’re having problems with sleeping and struggle with chronic infections, you don’t have to stress out about this information…do the best you can with it and you’ll reap the benefits of your efforts.

And if you don’t have problems sleeping but just don’t prioritize it, you might strongly consider bumping it up on your list of important things to do.  You might just be surprised at what it’ll do for that chronic infection you’ve been fighting.

So there, you thought about rats today as well.  I bet you didn’t think that would happen.

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