Sleep Your Way to Better Health

Woman sleeping on her stomach with her hair spread out on white sheets

Are you trying to lose weight, reduce your risk of heart disease, or improve your productivity? What if there was one thing you could do to help with all of those – would you give it a try? Well, what if I told you that you needed to get more sleep? Sounds easy enough, but why is sleep so important and why is it so hard for us to get enough?

The Importance of Sleep

Getting enough quality sleep is linked to many improved health outcomes. For your overall health, sleep is as important as eating well and exercising, yet it’s often overlooked as a factor in a healthy lifestyle. A meta-analysis of 45 studies concluded that adults and children who were “short sleepers” (<10 hours per night for children or <5 hours a night for adults) have a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who are regularly sleeping enough. This may be because reduced sleep is also associated with reduced leptin (the hormone that tells your body that you’ve eaten enough) and increased ghrelin (the hormone that induces appetite). In other words, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to weight gain.

Additionally, studies have linked decreased sleep with increased risk for heart disease and decreased memory function. In Dr. Matt Walker’s popular TED Talk, Sleep is Your Superpower, he discusses a study where participants who slept a full 8 hours did 40% better on a cognitive task than those who were sleep deprived – that could be the difference between acing an exam or assignment or totally flunking it! Without adequate sleep, your heart and your brain cannot function optimally, so why do we so often skip out on sleep?

Why is Getting Enough Sleep So Hard?

Infographic describing the top healthiest sleeping habits: having a routine, avoid technology, and regular exercise.

Poor habits and modern technology contribute to many of us not getting enough sleep. One of the most fundamental habits that can improve your sleep quality is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even on the weekends. While sleeping in on the weekends feels amazing at the time, developing a habit of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps your body in the long term fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Additionally, exposure to natural light early in the day and avoiding blue light from devices like your phone and computer later in the day also help your body maintain its natural wake-sleep cycle. Lastly, exercising regularly, but no closer than four hours before bedtime, is also helpful for getting quality sleep.

While sleeping can feel like a luxury, it’s not – sleep is absolutely essential to a healthy lifestyle. So the next time you’re feeling guilty about leaving so many things undone on your to-do list list, remind yourself how productive you’ll be by just getting a good night’s sleep.

Peer Edited by Eliza Thulson

A glass of wine a day…does not keep the doctor away
Wine glasses with different types of wine in them.

One day, science shows that coffee is good for you, but the next day, science finds that coffee is bad for you. One day, chocolate is bad for you, and the next, it is good for you. Studies show that red meat is both good and bad for you. As we read the latest news, science seems to contradict itself every day. With all this confusion about science and nutrition how do we know which foods are good or bad for our health? A recent study has tried to simplify the answer for the link between alcohol and health.

One of the reasons for apparent contradictions in science is due to the nature of science. There is no answer sheet to check for the right answer and no textbook to see if your conclusion is correct. Science is completely new, and each study adds a small piece to our understanding of the world. Because each study is limited in what it investigates, occasionally the conclusions drawn from different studies may be at odds with one another. However, once enough science has been conducted, it is possible to “average out” all the information on a particular topic and come to a consensus. This consensus is often a “yes” or “no” answer to a single question, such as “Does chocolate lower blood pressure?” or “Does coffee increase the risk for cancer?” (Hint: the answers are yes, chocolate lowers blood pressure and no, coffee does not increase the risk for cancer!). One way to do this is by performing what is called a metanalysis.

Metanalyses investigate the research on a specific topic (such as a possible link between processed meats and cancer) and combine it to come to a single conclusion. A recent metanalysis studied the link between alcohol consumption and disease by combining information from 592 studies that investigated the risks and benefits of  alcohol.

The most important finding from the study is that even a single standard drink of alcohol per day increases a person’s risk of health problems, such as cancer, stroke, injuries, and infections. Furthermore, two drinks per day lead to a 7% higher risk of dying from alcohol-related health problems, and five drinks per day lead to a 37% higher risk of dying. Because of the study’s design, it is unclear how long these drinking levels must be sustained to increase the risk for health problems; future research should study this question. Although the metanalysis found that moderate consumption of alcohol (1-3 standard drinks daily) reduces the risk of ischemic heart disease and diabetes moderate alcohol consumption still increases the risk of developing over twenty other health complications and diseases. This increased risk explains the finding in this study that alcohol is the 7th leading risk factor for deaths globally, with alcohol involved in 2.2% of female deaths and 6.8% of male deaths in 2016. The disparity in male vs. female deaths may be due to discrepancies in drinking rates, since in many areas of the world, men drink more alcohol than women.

This metanalysis emphasizes the importance of re-evaluating current public health recommendations. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men, and it also suggests that people who do not drink should not start drinking. However, the metanalysis discussed above suggests that we should reconsider these guidelines and avoid recommending alcohol consumption to anyone. This recommendation is unlikely to be a popular opinion, due to the number of people who enjoy consuming alcohol on a regular basis as well as the alcoholic beverage companies who prefer to cite science showing that moderate drinking is healthy. However, the sheer number of deaths caused by alcohol consumption (2.8 million deaths globally in 2016) highlights the importance of a thorough review of alcohol recommendations. Until then, we should individually consider how much and how frequently we consume alcohol, since alcohol does not keep the doctor away.

Peer-edited by Priya Stepp

To Drink or Not to Drink?

Every day the media bombards consumers with different recommendations regarding the amount of food to consume, important micronutrients to keep in mind, and general advice about what you should be putting into your body. It can be difficult, regardless of background, to discern which of these recommendations are worth following and which seem excessive.

One such popular suggestion that permeates healthy living blogs and websites is the “8 by 8” rule regarding the consumption of water: drink eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid a day. This rule has been disseminated and repeated over and over, to the point that many have accepted it as fact without considering that it is unfounded.

More recently, many articles appeared to debunk this guideline, due in part to a recent research article published in August 2016, titled: “Overdrinking, swallowing inhibition, and regional brain responses prior to swallowing”.

The researchers of this study wanted to better understand the mechanism of restoration of fluid balance after a fluid deficit, since typically the volume a person drinks in response to thirst matches the fluid lost. They postulated that the fluid balance is controlled in part by swallowing being inhibited once a person reaches an overhydrated state. The results of their study showed there is an inhibitory mechanism that can limit excessive drinking in humans; participants in an overhydrated state reported that the effort needed for swallowing increased, in comparison to their previous state of thirst. The main conclusion of this study is that the body self-regulates hydration, and it is important to listen to the signs. If you feel thirsty, drink; if you don’t feel thirsty, don’t drink. this study’s sample population was rather small (20 individuals), and the results were self-reported, these findings are important to consider, particularly since there is no research that supports the “8 by 8” rule. Furthermore, as more research is finding, most health recommendations should be administered on a case-by-case basis. It cannot be denied that consuming water is important, since water makes up about 60 percent of a person’s body weight and is a necessary chemical component for many of the body’s reactions to maintain homeostasis. Water is responsible for flushing out toxins, carrying nutrients to cells, moistening tissues, and myriad other important functions. However, it is critical to be wary of blanket recommendations, since overdrinking is a serious health risk that can lead to a condition called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia causes symptoms that range from nausea, vomiting, and confusion to seizures and coma. When navigating health guidelines that saturate the internet, one must consider their origin and most importantly if there is scientific evidence to support the claims made. Even when considering guidelines put forward by seemingly reputable entities, it is important to examine the evidence. Many nutrition-based recommendations, including those concerning daily water intake, are determined by a group of individuals who are not necessarily scientists. These dietary recommendations are sometimes not even based on any scientific evidence but are put forward as fact, and recommended daily water intake is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

A quick google search of the recommended daily water intake shows a plethora of blogs and articles from non-scientific sources. One of the only “.org” website that appears is the Mayo Clinic’s page, which cites the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation, which is similar to the “8 by 8” rule: 1.9 liters of water a day. Upon further investigation, in 2004, the Institute of Medicine put forward a publication with a daily recommendation of 2.7 liters of water for women, and 3.7 liters of water for men. The dietary reference intake emphasizes that this is a recommendation and not a specific requirement, because, again, there is no scientific indicators that support any specific daily volumetric intake of water.

This begs the question, what does one do when the scientific community seems unable to discern the necessary daily water intake? It seems whatever research does exist on the mechanism of fluid balance shows that the body knows what’s best and signals when things are awry. In other words, when you are thirsty, drink!

Peer edited by Joanna Warren and Laurel Kartchner.

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Exercise and Immune Response: An Overview


The relationship between exercise intensity (or volume) and susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is a rotated J-shaped curve.  This means that some regular moderate physical activity decreases the relative risk of infection below that of a sedentary individual.  However, high intensity exercise or periods of much strenuous exercise can increase risk of infection. Fahlman and Engels showed a 45-50% increase in URTI prevalence in college American football players during high volume training periods. The volume of exercise needed to increase chances of URTI is usually only undertaken by higher level athletes.  

Screen Shot 2016-11-02 at 2.32.28 PM

The relationship between exercise volume and upper respiratory tract infections.

How does the immune system function?

The immune system is responsible for defending organisms against infectious bacteria, viruses and fungi (known as pathogens).  The human immune response is made of two components: the innate response and the acquired response.  The innate response is the first, non-specific wave of resistance when encountering an infectious substance for the first time.  The acquired immune response is the trained response of the immune system. This response develops after the body has come into contact with a pathogen for the first time and subsequently educates thymus immune (T) cells and bone immune (B) cells on the shape of the pathogen.  However, after the acquired response has been established, elimination of the pathogen the second time it enters the body can happen in as short a time span as a couple of hours and illness may never manifest.  

The innate response is partly composed of physical barriers such as our skin and mucous membranes.  The primary ways pathogens enter the body are though consumption (food/drink) or inhalation.  Inside the digestive tract and respiratory tract are mucous membranes that create an acidic environment hostile to pathogens.  Beyond the exterior barriers of defense, the innate immune system also has an army of cells that work together to kill pathogens. These cells work by engulfing pathogens and by communicating to other immune cells to increase activity. Lastly, the innate immune response educates T cells and B cells on the pathogen’s signature marker (antigen) so that the next time this pathogen contacts the body, the acquired immune response kicks in quickly.

Antigen pointed out on the cell surface of a pathogen

The specificity and quickness of the acquired immune response is the most critical difference between the acquired and innate responses.   The primary job of the acquired immune response is to prevent pathogens from colonizing, to keep pathogens out of the body, and to seek and destroy certain invading pathogens.  Much of what makes the acquired response so powerful are the T & B lymphocyte cells.   After encountering a pathogen for the first time, the T & B lymphocyte cells are “educated” on the proper response to the pathogen.  After a second encounter, the T & B cells quickly duplicate cells targeted at the specific pathogen.  About 90% of these lymphocytes go to attack the pathogen and communicate to other immune cells to attack while 10% stay back for future attacks.  The “memory” of the  acquired response lasts for years.   

Source: Nic Shea

Functionality of the immune system


We know now how the immune system generally works, but how does the immune system respond to exercise?

During moderate exercise, the innate response will enhance immune cell function. Conversely, during high intensity exercise, the innate response will decrease immune cell function.  Moderate intensity exercise evokes moderate levels of catecholamines (stress hormones) which may increase immune cell levels, while high intensity exercise evokes high levels of catecholamines which may decrease immune cell levels.  However, 2-3 hours after intense exercise, some immune cells are at their highest levels, which might lead to a more productive immune system as long as the exercise session did not exceed an hour.

Nic Shea

The immune response to one session of intense exercise. During exercise immune cell activity decreases. After exercise immune cell activity increases

As for the acquired immune response, it changes in proportion to the intensity and duration of the exercise session.  T cell function can increase after exercise if the session is not too long or too intense.  During long and/or intense exercise sessions, the mobility of T cells is reduced, giving pathogens a longer time to colonize before they are attacked by T cells.

The most important finding in exercise immunology is that beneficial immunological changes take place in response to moderate exercise. With each moderate session of exercise, a boost in immune system activity could reduce risk of infection. On the other end of the spectrum, trained/elite endurance athletes seemed to be more at risk to developing an infection 3 to 72 hours following a very intense session of training.  This 3 to 72 hour timeframe following intense training has been called the “open-window” theory and may be more applicable to individual elite level sporting events. When exercise sessions increase in time or intensity, aspects of an athlete’s innate and acquired immune system function will be depressed but not completely inactive.  What this means is that athletes engaging in hard periods of training are at increased risk of picking up the common cold or flu, but not at more risk of catching a serious illness.

As with nearly everything in physiology, the dose of stress or stimulus dictates the response. This seems to be the case with exercise and immune function.  A moderate amount of activity seems to be beneficial in boosting immune function, but going overboard with exercise may put you at an increased risk for infection.  However, this is mostly a concern for elite endurance athletes.  Most people would reap the benefits of increased immune function associated with increased exercise! 

Peer edited by Michelle Engle and Mimi Huang. 

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