Why Sleep is Your Best Tool to Boost Your Immune System & Fight Viruses
Boosting your immune system & improving mental health – the stuff you need to fight any illness!
How do you fight back against a virus you can’t even see? As the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19) marches across the globe, practicing social distancing is a smart first step. But what next? A healthy diet and regular exercise, of course – but what about a good night’s sleep?
Sleep. It’s a crucial component for good health because of the important role it plays in strengthening the immune system. A recognized flu-fighter, sleep helps us fight off viruses and disease and is a crucial boost to recovery if we do get sick. While a good night’s sleep is by no means a cure to COVID-19, it’s an effective, natural immune booster during every day, regular life but especially during a crisis.
Sleep & your immune system – a match made in, well, your body!
Sleep is, on the surface, such a simple thing, but so very important. The good news? It’s something we have control over and it doesn’t cost anything. You just need a cozy, quiet and dark place to curl up and shut your eyes.
While some body functions slow during sleep, like breathing and heartrate, it’s a busy time for your immune system. Being at rest provides a perfect window for your immune system to do some maintenance work and assess the existence of any threats, or antigens. While you’re dreaming of the perfect chocolate souffle, command cells are seeking out and destroying illness-causing antigens. In early 2019, researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany discovered a mechanism that identified the strong link between sleep and the immune system. They discovered T-cells, a type of specialized immune cells that impacts the body’s ability to defend itself against certain diseases.
Other studies have also pointed to cytokines, proteins that are released by the immune system. Some of them help promote sleep, while other types increase when needed to ward off disease. Sleep deprivation is thought to decrease levels of these vital cytokines, as well as other infection-fighting antibodies. In plainer terms, poor sleep causes the body to respond to disease sluggishly – something none of us can afford when facing a pandemic.
University of Washington research conducted an interesting study with identical twins. It showed that the twin who had a shorter sleep duration also had a depressed immune system. “What we show is that the immune system functions best when it gets enough sleep. Seven or more hours of sleep is recommended for optimal health,” said lead author Dr. Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center at Harborview Medical Center.
Protecting your physical AND mental health with sleep in troubled times
During stressful times, like coping with a global pandemic, sleep can be challenging given the amount of anxiety, fear and isolation so many are facing. Mental health can suffer with poor sleep, and sleep can suffer due to poor mental health. It’s a vicious circle that we need to carefully manage.
It’s time to go back to basics when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Need a quick refresher on the best way to get the sleep you need? We can help.
- Establish a bedtime routine. Your pre-sleep habits might include a warm bath or shower, a soothing cup of caffeine-free tea or simply reading a book in a quiet place. An hour before you plan to sleep, start winding down so you and your body are ready for sleep at the same time.
- Turn down the bright, sleep-disrupting light from televisions & cell phones. Though you may be tempted to check the news (or social media) for the latest developments about COVID-19 before you go to sleep, it can ramp up your anxiety and make a restful night’s sleep impossible. Declare your bedroom an electronic-free zone.
- Keep your bedroom dark, quiet & cool. Use eye shades if you don’t have good quality blackout drapes. Consider a white noise machine or phone app to help create a calming environment and remember that the ideal temperature for sleep is 60F-67F (15C-19C).
- Stay away from food & drink that can negatively impact sleep. Anything fried, overly rich, spicy or acidic are ingredients for a night filled with tossing and turning. While you’re at it, avoid carbonated beverages, caffeinated tea or coffee and, of course, alcoholic drinks that might help you fall asleep but will dehydrate you and wake in the middle of the night.
- Get outside. Even while practicing social distancing, you should still go outside to help regulate the circadian system, the “timekeeper” for your sleep and wake cycle. Natural light keeps your body on schedule. While you’re outside, exercise for at least 10 minutes (walking, running, cycling, stretching or gardening) to reap all the best sleep benefits.
- Meditate. Download a guided meditation app on your phone or use a YouTube video to help you through the process. Make it part of your daily routine to calm anxiety and restore a sense of peace.
You’ll be amazed at how these small measures can work together to help you sleep better. They’ll help you to maintain good mental and physical health as we support each other and navigate our way through this current, yet temporary, crisis. And at the end of it, you’ll have improved your sleep habits to stay healthy for a long, long time.