Healthy Living

Catching Z’s, Repelling Disease: What Happens to Your Body When You Sleep?

Jul. 9, 2024

It’s no secret that sleep is paramount to your health. But what exactly does your body do during sleep that keeps you healthy?

Elizabeth Nocera, DO, a sleep medicine fellow with UR Medicine Comprehensive Sleep Center, reveals some important items on our body's to-do list while we're asleep.

What happens in our bodies when we sleep?

While we're fast asleep, our brains and bodies work hard to reset and rejuvenate, improving various aspects of health and reducing the risk of certain diseases.

Here are five essential processes that occur while we sleep:

1. The brain cleans itself

Brain cleaning itself

When we’re dreaming, our brains are cleaning.

Think of what you might do after hosting a gathering: tidying up, washing dishes, and cleaning up crumbs. Similarly, our brains tidy up after a long day. During sleep, our brains store and consolidate memories, remove waste, and perform other critical functions.

Our brains needs us to sleep so that it can tidy up. “Think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc, Co-Director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine.

2. The risk of certain diseases is lowered

The brain's cleaning process also removes toxic proteins that can lead to diseases like Alzheimer's. Sleep is crucial for maintaining brain plasticity—the brain's ability to adapt and function properly. Proper sleep helps prevent conditions like autism, schizophrenia, and dementia.

3. The immune system gets stronger

The same cells that improve brain plasticity, microglia, are extra prominent when we’re asleep. Microglia are the brain’s first responders in fighting infections.

Those who don’t get quality or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after exposure to a virus, like the common cold. Lack of sleep can also impact how fast someone recovers from being sick.

Did you know?

Circadian rhythms play a role beyond just your sleep routine.

When the circadian clock gets off track it implicates a cancer-signature gene that can trigger lung tumors. A healthy sleep routine is important to preventative health.

About the Study

4. Cancer risk decreases

Disruptions to the circadian rhythm, such as jet lag, nighttime snacking, and irregular work schedules, can increase cancer risk. The World Health Organization has identified disrupted circadian rhythms as a probable carcinogen. Maintaining a healthy sleep routine is vital for cancer prevention.

5. Heart health improves

Good sleep reduces the risk of high blood pressure, a significant risk factor for heart disease.

Healthy sleeping habits can also help reduce inflammation in the cells that line the veins, which could significantly contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.

How can I get better sleep?

From maintaining a consistent routine to being mindful of your environment, there are plenty of ways you can help improve your sleeping habits.

    1. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day.
    2. Exercise regularly.
    3. Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and comfortable.
    4. Don’t lie in bed unless you’re sleepy.
    5. Turn your clock around and avoid checking the time.

Research on Sleep & Health

The Sleep & Neurophysiology Research Laboratory is dedicated to the study of the causes, consequences, and treatments for insomnia. Our goal is to reduce the public health burden of insomnia through clinical and translational research that not only improves insomnia, but decreases the risk it poses for the development or worsening of other illnesses.

About Our Research