Jennifer has written about health topics for Glamour, Health, Woman’s World, Well + Good, and Healthline, among other outlets.
Some infections are getting more dangerous, and we’re getting sicker, despite antibiotics — or perhaps, in spite of them. Strains of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that mutate so they become immune to antibiotics and other medications are known as superbugs.
These infections kill more than 700,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States alone, superbugs cause more than 2.8 million cases and more than 35,000 deaths annually. Global deaths from superbugs could climb to 10 million annually by 2050.
Some of the most common superbugs in recent years have been carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE), klebsiella, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These superbugs pose a threat not only to day-to-day life but also to patients recovering from surgeries or immunity-depleting treatments, such as chemotherapy.
What can we do about it? We can start by sleeping.
A recent Nature journal study shed more light on how regular sleep is important for maintaining our immune system. Sleep can help our bodies function in a way that fights infections — known as our homeostatic immune defense — and responds to illnesses.
Just as getting sleep helps our immune system, not getting sleep can hurt it. Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, says that sleep deprivation might leave us susceptible to illnesses and superbugs. We become sleep-deprived when we are getting less than the recommended amount of sleep for our age group. For adults, that’s between seven and nine hours per night.
“We know that when sleep is disrupted, the ability to fight antibiotic-resistant illnesses, the immune response is altered,” Dr. Avidan says. “And we find that with individuals who have sleep deprivation, untreated sleep apnea, or even insomnia, that has an impact on one’s ability to fight infection, and the immune response is often abnormal.”
Not only does sleep affect immunity to these superbugs, but not getting enough sleep also can increase illness symptoms.
Dr. Jeff Haspel, associate professor at Washington University School of Medicine, points to a study that looked at what happens when sleep-deprived patients were infected with the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. The study found a correlation between being sleep-deprived and really feeling the impact of that cold.
“So if you got less than five hours of sleep, you tended to have more symptoms,” Dr. Haspel says.
The connection between symptoms and sleep may be similar for the symptoms of superbug illnesses for patients consistently getting five hours of sleep or less, he says. And those symptoms can further interrupt sleep.
“For example, people who do shift work — which can throw your sleep-wake cycle off — tend to have chronic health effects that are more negative,” Dr. Haspel says. “And if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re more likely to be hospitalized with pneumonia.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overusing antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance. They “pressure bacteria and fungi to adapt” and kill good germs with the bad. This has helped lead to the rise of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.
Antibiotics themselves can also make us sleep worse, also lowering our immunity.
“We know that certain antibiotics can increase wakefulness,” Dr. Avidan says. “Some antibiotics such as clarithromycin and ciprofloxacin are actually used in patients with a condition called idiopathic hypersomnia, which causes them to have difficulty waking. We know that for some, the antibiotic has a wake-promoting effect.”
Dr. Avidan notes that sleep problems and insomnia have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A 2021 Canadian study found a 37% increase in insomnia from pre-pandemic times to the height of the pandemic.
“We know that the stress of people living in the pandemic is enough to create more insomnia,” Dr. Avidan says. “This is what some have termed COVID- or coronasomnia. People are becoming more anxious, vigilant, and careful. And that level of stress and anxiety often manifests with hyperarousal, which is a stress response we see in those living with insomnia.”
With superbugs on the rise, Dr. Haspel says it’s even more important now to make sleep a priority. Making lifestyle changes to have healthy sleep habits will help our immune system because we’ll be getting better sleep.
Figuring out how to get more or better sleep might feel like a big ask, to say nothing of fighting superbugs. But small changes to our sleep habits count. And many of these changes are within our control.
“A lot of our modern conveniences we enjoy cut into the quality of our sleep, particularly our cell phones,” Dr. Haspel says.
For example, checking our email or social media as we lie in bed doesn’t help us wind down. The light that emits from our mobile devices slows down our bodies’ natural production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel drowsy. Dr. Haspel recommends leaving your phone outside your bedroom when you sleep.
Other small changes can make a difference, too. Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon can help us feel sleepier at night. This can help us stick to a consistent bedtime, and in turn, a more consistent wake time the next morning.
We can’t control superbugs’ growing strength. But we can help defend against illness with a good night’s sleep.
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