Sleep It Off: How The Body Instinctively Heals

Friday Mar 22 | BY |
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Consistently getting too little sleep can leave you at an increased risk for modern-day diseases.

When you have a cold or flu—or even a hangover—your natural instinct is to sleep it off. In twenty-four hours, or a few days at the most, you’re back to normal. Nothing works better.

Sleeping off a minor illness resets your body clock and gives your natural restorative processes a chance to work. And, when you’re sleeping, you can’t eat, so sleeping also gives you a short fast. (All body cleansing should be done with the same principle in mind: complete, undisturbed rest.)

James M. Krueger, a sleep researcher at Washington State University, says: “Heart rate, respiratory rate, the body’s response to oxygen and carbon dioxide, metabolism, immune response, even your posture is different in sleep.” From his view, sleep regulation happens at the level of neuronal assemblies, collections of nerve cells that work synergistically in the brain to control physiological processes.

Immunity also plays an important role during sleep. Cytokines, signaling proteins associated with healing, are released along with neurotransmitters by the neurons, which in turn interact with the neuronal receptors. As the neuron fires, cytokines build up, changing the electrical properties of the cell, and revving up immunity.

Snakes, Medicine, and Self-Healing

In ancient Greece, sick people went to the temples of Aesculapius for healing. In the center of the temple was a pit of non-venomous snakes that we allowed to crawl around at night. These Asclepian snakes were watchful, gentle, and endowed with perennial youth because under shedding skins, new cells appeared.

Tended by healer-priests, it was believed that the snakes had special powers to visit people in dreams that revealed the prescription for recovery, or to spontaneously heal while they slept.

Asclepius was a Greek hero who became the god of medicine and healing. The son of Apollo and Coronis, Asclepius had five daughters, each associated with an aspect of healing: Hygieia (goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (goddess of the healing process), Aglæa (goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment), and Panacea (goddess of universal remedy). All these attributes are necessary for healing.

The signature of Asclepius is a physician’s staff, with the Asclepian snake wrapped around it, which became the winged caduceus of the medical profession. But contemporary MDs have long forgotten the art of healing.

In shamanic traditions, snakes are considered guardians of the underworld—the subconscious mind. What was obvious to the ancient Greeks—that when one goes deep below the surface of the everyday mind, healing occurs—escapes modern medical doctors. Thankfully, many younger doctors are embracing new and intuitive ways of treating their patients, including natural medicine, yoga, and even shamanic healing. And researchers are taking a new look at sleep.

What Happened To The Sleep Cure?

If sleep does wonders, why doesn’t the sleep cure work for modern chronic illness? Most chronic health problems, especially liver disease and viral infections, leave you wasted. The more tired you get, the more you want to rest; but the more inactive you become, the weaker you get. This downward spiral gets you nowhere. So you seek a doctor, hopefully one that is literate with your condition, and who, if he is good at what he does, pushes, pulls, tinkers and tweaks your system back to health.

A clue may be found in our modern, stressful lifestyle. Not getting enough sleep can have profound consequences on your health and mental well-being. Research has shown that people who consistently fail to get enough sleep are at an increased risk for chronic disease.

All my chronic fatigue patients have major sleep problems, including:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness.
  • Waking feeling tired even after sufficient or prolonged periods of rest.
  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • Other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, and narcolepsy.
  • Sleeping more does not result in improvement in less fatigue.

It’s a classic Catch 22: we don’t sleep like our ancestors, which makes us susceptible to disease. If we could sleep it off we’d get better, but we can’t sleep deeply enough to self correct, so we stay sick and tired. Once changes to the way we sleep and the body’s response to sleep become profoundly disrupted, sleep disturbance is part of the illness.

Back To The Past To Heal The Future

Our infection fighting T-cells go down and inflammatory cytokines go up when we are sleep deprived. This shift of immune function makes it easier to catch a cold or flu. Our bodies fight infection with fevers.

During sleep, we seem to get a better febrile response. All mothers know that a child’s fever tends to rise at night. But if we are not sleeping well enough, our febrile reaction is not functioning properly, so we don’t get the immune response necessary to fight infection as best we can.

In my book, Viral Immunity, I dedicate an entire chapter on fever and fatigue. Our ancestral immune system instinctively corrected infections with fever and sleep. Our modern immune system is out of balance. Instead of fever, we get fatigued, but can’t sleep.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Pic

Why we get sick and how we get better should not be a mystery. At least, we should have an understanding of the basics of disease prevention and maintaining health, including the benefits of restorative sleep. Though some people get by on five hours of sleep each night, for optimal wellness you need between seven and nine hours. More than nine, except when sleeping off a cold or flu, is counterproductive.

Treating sleep as a priority, rather than a luxury, is an important step in preventing a number of chronic medical conditions. Perhaps we need a modern version of the Aescelpian temple, snakes included.

Learn More

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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  1. IdaPie says:

    Interesting and valuable topic – as always.
    Silly question but, when I ‘oversleep’ (sleep more than such and such hours a night – more than 8 for me) I get super tired, fatigued and puffy-eyed for the rest of the day – Why is this? Is this some kind of evolutionary advantage? If it is, I don’t see it.. 🙂

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