personal story

Why getting the right amount of sleep is essential

Lupus Foundation of America

Resource Content

Autoimmune diseases, including lupus, run in Karen Avery’s family. “My brother has discoid lupus, and I lost my cousin to lupus three years ago. She was only 42—the age I am now,” she says.

Avery was diagnosed with lupus in 1989 while in college. “I remember vividly the day I got sick; I fell asleep in class, and when I woke up my hands were blue. I stood up from my desk, and I was in so much pain, I thought, ‘I must have the flu.’ I have always had sleep issues and great difficulty sleeping at night. Plus, I wasn’t eating right, I wasn’t exercising; I was running myself into the ground,” she says.

Today, Avery is a managing director for Marsh & McLennan Companies, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm based in New York City; she runs a global consulting firm for the company. As if that were not enough, she is a new single mother of one-year-old fraternal twin girls, Erika and Eden.

Avery has been hospitalized four times for lupus flares and believes each was caused by a significant and prolonged lack of sleep.

Although Avery has, for the most part, been successfully managing her disease for years, she has been hospitalized four times since her diagnosis with lupus flares. She believes every flare was caused by a significant and prolonged lack of sleep. For her, getting the right amount of sleep is essential.

What’s in a zzz …?

Until the 1950s, most people thought of sleep as a passive, dormant part of daily life. We now know sleep affects our daily functioning and our physical and mental health in many ways we are just beginning to understand.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 70 million people in the U.S. are affected by a chronic sleep disorder or intermittent sleep problem. NIH reports that women suffer from lack of sleep more than men do; these sleep problems increase in frequency as women age.

The 2015 Sleep in America™ poll, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), found that pain, stress and poor health are key correlates with poor sleep quality and shorter sleep duration.

Add lupus to the mix, and the importance of good sleep takes on an even more important role.

Is sleep related to disease?

Sleep deprivation can be harmful to the immune system. Research done through the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has shown that neurons that control sleep interact closely with the immune system. For example, as anyone who has had the flu knows, infectious diseases tend to make us feel sleepy. This probably happens because cytokines—chemicals that the immune system produces while fighting an infection—are powerful sleep-inducing chemicals. Sleep may help the body conserve energy and other resources that the immune system needs to mount an attack.

“Many of the problems with sleep come about because people take it for granted and skip on sleep so they can do ‘x’ or ‘y,’ and then wonder why they feel poorly."
67% of respondents were concerned that poor sleep impacts their health

Daniel McNally, MD, a pulmonologist and director of the University of Connecticut’s Sleep Disorders Center, agrees that people with a chronic illness, especially those who live with chronic pain and must deal with sleep-disrupting effects of medications, are likely to have more sleep problems on average. “Being able to help these people with ways to sleep better may give them a bit of relief,” he says. 

The most recent Sleep in America poll found that only 31 percent of Americans had ever discussed sleep with their doctor. Meanwhile, 67 percent reported being somewhat or very concerned about the consequences of poor sleep on their physical health. McNally is not surprised.

“Many of the problems with sleep come about because people take it for granted and skip on sleep so they can do ‘x’ or ‘y,’ and then wonder why they feel poorly. I’m always frustrated when someone who should be getting adequate sleep says, ‘Can’t I just take more vitamins?’ ”

OK, so how much sleep do we need?

How much sleep we need depends on many factors, including age. While teenagers need about nine hours of sleep, seven to eight hours of sleep a night appears to be the best amount for most adults. The amount of sleep a person needs also increases if he or she has been deprived of sleep in previous days. Getting too little sleep creates a “sleep debt,” which is much like being overdrawn at a bank. Eventually, your body will demand that the debt be repaid.

We don’t seem to adapt to getting inadequate sleep, either; we may get accustomed to a sleep-depriving schedule, but our judgment, reaction time, and other functions are still impaired.

What’s worse, the practice of “burning the candle at both ends” that is common—and even respected—in Western industrialized societies has created so much sleep deprivation that what is really abnormal sleepiness has become the norm.

But sleep deprivation is dangerous: Sleep-deprived people who are tested by using a driving simulator, or by performing a hand-eye coordination task, perform as badly as or worse than those who are intoxicated.

Don't put off taking control of your sleep

When Avery decided to have her children, she vowed to take control of both her work hours and her sleep hours. To be sure to get enough sleep to prevent her lupus from flaring, Avery has implemented a variety of strategies. 

“Without sleep I will have a lupus flare, so sleep is critical for my overall health and well-being,” Avery says. “The quality of my life has really improved over the last six, seven, eight years, because I really took control,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m going to get more sleep, I’m going to exercise, I’m not going to be too dependent on medication, although I have to take it sometimes; I’m really going to force myself to do these things,’ and it’s made a huge difference.”