Sleep Your Way to a Stronger Immune System

Sleep

That we need rest is a given. While the world’s main religions don’t all exactly agree on when it should occur, they do all call for a weekly day of rest. Originally offered
as a commandment of God, in practice today all but the most devout tend to take the rest day idea as more of a suggestion, pursuing either work or play seven days a week.

The importance of sleep

Sleep, on the other hand, is not so optional. At the end of the day (pun intended), whatever our willful intentions for continued activity may be, at a certain point our brain and body “turns off” and begins a process not unlike like the night crew at a retail store… that is “restocking the shelves” for the next day’s business. One of those “shelves” in need of nightly restocking is our immune system.

Dr. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, diplomateof the American Board of Sleep Medicine, a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep, and perhaps best known as “The Sleep Doctor” on Dr. Oz, says sleep is one of the single most important factors in whether an immune system is healthy or not. In particular he notes that sleep increases both the quantity AND the effectiveness of our “killer T cells.”

Cancer patients such as myself learn quickly about the importance of T cells, which are white blood cells that play a key role in the body’s immune system and its ability to hunt down and “kill” misbehaving cancer cells. Sleep deprivation equals lower T cell function. In addition, sleep even decreases the response time in which these hunter/killer cells act. It’s always better to kill cancer cells sooner than later.

Sleep contributes to healthy immune system

Along those lines, and of particular of interest during COVID-19 times, sleep has been shown to be an effective way to stimulate the immune system so as to repel viral and
bacterial infections. A 2019 study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco determined that poor sleep and the resulting impact on the human immune system was the number one factor in whether someone would actually become sick after being exposed to a virus.

In addition, there exists historic study data that suggests that if one did not sleep well the night before a flu shot, that the effectiveness of receiving a flu shot is drastically reduced. Concern in medical circles exists that even if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, that a lack of sleep will minimize its effectiveness. I am not a big fan of allof the vaccines in the marketplace anyway, but the point still remains that even the vaccine industry sees the lack of sleep as a problem for their products’ desired effectiveness.

Parasympathetic

Ok, so we get it, we need sleep… but what is optimum sleep and how do we achieve it? To sleep well, we need to shut the brain down and move to what’s called the parasympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system controls our overall body
homeostasis and our bodily functions at rest. In other words, it’s responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” mode. This, in comparison to our sympathetic nervous system, controls our body’s responses to a perceived threat and is responsible for the
“fight or flight” response.

The hormone cortisol often comes up in discussions of the fight or flight mechanism in that it is our main stimulating and alerting hormone. Of course, two things that we don’t want when we are seeking sleep is to be alerted and stimulated. It’s because of that that cortisol can get a bad rap. While it’s true that elevated levels of cortisol can negatively influence the sleep-wake cycle, it’s not always certain whether it is the elevated levels of cortisol that are impacting the sleep or it’s the poor sleep that is elevating the levels of cortisol. Either way can be possible, and either way it’s an unhealthy cycle to get started.

The sleep-facilitating hormone melatonin is another player in the complex system known as the HPA Axis, short for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This endocrine trio works to regulate sleep and wakefulness. To achieve the restful sleep that supports our immune system, we need our HPA Axis teammates all playing nicely together.

Prepping for sleep

Preparing for sleep is a process just as is waking up. Nothing other than a drug can cause us to be instantly sleepy, but for some reason we still seem to have the unrealistic expectation that we can prepare for sleep like turning off a light switch.
Reversing that expectation and applying it to waking up seems as ridiculous as hearing your alarm clock and expecting to become immediately lucid enough to jump on a business conference call and give a major report. That does not happen.

Instead, we have process of gradually waking. A cup of coffee or green tea. Perhaps a few laps in the pool or a mile or two on the treadmill, then a shower… whatever your morning ritual, over time you gradually prepare for the alert part of your day.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense then after spending the next 16 hours in stimulating, alert activities that at the end of that we can just expect to turn our main breaker off. We need to create an evening ritual that works to reverse the day’s activity and
relax us to the point that we easily return to the sleeping part of our day. I call this process “waking down.”

Let’s take a look at some enhancers and detractors of rest; behaviors that have been shown to encourage healthy sleep and some practices to consider avoiding in your evening “wake down” ritual.

Stress

Stress is listed first for a reason. It’s because, universally, it seems to be the biggest factor in sleep deprivation. Mitigating stress is your first move.

Some people find stress relief in exercise. If you do, that is good and you should continue the regimen that you are doing or begin one that you enjoy. When you do exercise, be sure to end your workout at least four hours before your bedtime to
allow for the natural cortisol released to have time to dissipate.

Alcohol can be a stress reliever, but it’s probably not the best one. I’ll comment more on why drinks before bedtime aren’t the first choice in a minute.

In the meantime, a better choice to relieve stress are breathing exercises. One exercise recommended by experts was developed by the Navy SEALs. It’s called the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique. It was created to aid soldiers in reducing anxiety. To implement this relaxation regimen, first make yourself comfortable in a chair or in your bed. Slowly expel all of the air from your lungs and keep them empty for four seconds.

Then inhale slowly, through your nose, for the next four seconds and gently hold the air in your lungs for another seven seconds without creating pressure. Then, over the following eight seconds, slowly release the air from your lungs and them start the exercise over again. Usually after five minutes of this you will feel the stress leaving you. The most measurable physical difference is that this exercise will lower your heart rate.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Another technique that helps some prepare for sleep is a process that entails the progressive tensing and relaxing of muscle groups, beginning with the either your head and progressing eventually to your feet and toes or from your feet to your head. Both ways are equally effective. If this technique interests you, there are audio programs that guide you step-by-step available online.

Enjoy 15 minutes of morning sunlight

Sleep experts spend a great deal of time and effort researching our body clock. The official name for this internal time-keeping effect is circadian rhythm. Because of
this biological timekeeping, what we do when we wake up can impact how readily we find healthy sleep in subsequent evenings.

A technique that helps reset our internal body clock is to experience at least 15 minutes of sunlight in the morning when you awaken. Research shows that this simple activity helps to regulate the proper production timing of the sleep hormone
melatonin.

Electronic Curfew

Give yourself an electronic curfew of at least 90 minutes before going to sleep. Avoid news and media that might stimulate you or cause you stress. Even if your portfolio is
tanking in afterhours trading, you cannot do anything about it until the market opens in the morning anyway. Beside that you will address any challenge better with a good night’s sleep. Television is fine as long as the content is relaxing and enjoyable. Avoid horror movies or programming that evokes a stimulating reaction.

Along this same line of thinking, your 90 minute curfew should also apply to blue light emitters such as your computer, cellphone, or tablet. Put them away as you wake down for the evening. Much has been written about the mental stimulation caused by blue light. I have even heard it suggested that one wear blue blocking eyewear while reading in bed before sleep to further minimize the possibility of stimulation.

Meditate

Because I could spend the most time on this topic, I will spend the least. There are hundreds of mediation techniques and systems by which one can turn of the seemingly endless parade of thoughts racing through our highly stimulated minds. Take some time to investigate and experiment with these to find what works best for you.

Gratitude list

What are you thankful for? Composing a gratitude list is a successful method of inducing sleep. Studies show that positive, grateful thoughts induce happier dreaming, too. If you are one who practices morning affirmations, there is nothing wrong with repeating them as a part of your wake down regimen.

Maintain a consistent schedule

Even when you can sleep in, try not to. Consistency encourages our circadian rhythms to fully engage. On the other hand, constant changes cause constant tiredness, which has a major effect on the immune system’s ability to fight disease.

If you are working from home right now, it may be easy to hit the snooze button a few more times because you don’t have to shower or commute. It’s better for your sleep habits, however, to resist that temptation and get up at your regular time. Use your newfound time for selfish purposes. Do things that you never had time to do before when you had to spend all that morning time getting to your workplace.

The only recommended exception for this is if you are actually sick. If you do get sick, disregard your normal sleep schedule and sleep as much as possible to enhance your
immune system. If you are able, add a minimum of two additional hours to your normal sleep duration.

Avoid stimulants and depressants

For waking down, it is always better to avoid stimulants and depressants. Stimulants tend to stimulate anxieties, which further increases stress. Not the direction we need to go. For optimum sleep it’s recommended that no caffeine be consumed after 2 p.m. Now, that’s not just referring to coffee and energy drinks. That includes caffeinated soft drinks, chocolate bars, and any number of things that sneak caffeine into their list of ingredients.

Regarding the effects of alcohol on sleep, I’ll pick back up here as I promised earlier. A recent national study showed that 11% of those polled used alcohol as a sleep aid at least a few nights a week. While it’s true alcohol will make one drowsy, there is a difference between going to sleep and passing out. Do not use alcohol as a sleep aid. In fact, if you do drink, there are considerations regarding how long before you sleep that you should cease drinking.

Dr. Breus recommends finishing your final drink at least one hour per alcoholic beverage before your regular sleep time. For example, if you consume three glasses of wine in an evening, the last glass should be consumed at least three hours before bedtime. This waiting period gives your body time to metabolize the alcohol.

Dehydration affects sleep

Alcohol dehydrates you, which does not help with sleep either. When you are dehydrated, you will naturally drink more water to offset the dehydration. In either case, you are more likely to wake up in the night to go to the bathroom, whether it’s from the liquid of the drink, the water you drank because you were dehydrated, or both. The net result is the same—your sleep cycles are interrupted and you run the risk of not falling back to sleep.

Sleep studies also show that having alcohol in your system keeps you from reaching the deep stages of sleep. Technically speaking, having alcohol before bedtime will increase your NREM sleep (Stages 1 and 2) and reduce your REM sleep.

Remember that REM sleep helps you organize and store your memories. Too little REM sleep can be devastating for the brain, body, and immune system. And, don’t forget REM sleep is the sleep stage where the most calories are burned.

Hot baths

Hot baths have long been used as a relaxant for sleep, and there seems to be some science that supports this practice. Data shows a hot bath initially raises the body’s
core temperature. Upon stepping out of the bath, our core temperature then plummets, which signals the brain to release melatonin. Nice.

The addition of relaxing essential oils like lavender and minerals like magnesium can further enhance help one’s sleep. Israel’s Dead Sea has an amazing concentration of
healthful minerals. These Dead Sea minerals are packaged and sold, and make a wonderful water additive to your nightly hot bath ritual.

I experienced this effect firsthand in March of this year while traveling in Israel. A Dead Sea resort where I stayed offered a large heated pool of mineral water piped directly from the adjacent sea. After only a few minutes in the hot mineral bath I was so relaxed I could hardly keep my eyes open. My legs were almost too rubbery to walk. I was ready for bed! It took everything I had to shower, dress, and join my
group for dinner.

Candles and relaxing music can enhance your bath experience. In addition, properly selected podcasts and audio books can provide relaxing bath backgrounds.

Keep your sleep environment ‘clean’

Your sleep environment is not just limited to your bedroom. It is your entire home. Work to minimize clutter and busy-ness where you spend your wake down time, and of course, especially in the bedroom.

Keep bedding clean. Clean sheets just feel good, so they help induce sleep. Sheets should be washed a minimum of once a week, but twice a week is better (especially if
you tend to perspire in your sleep). Use your hottest wash cycle to kill bacteria. Mattress and pillow protectors will minimize viral and bacterial penetration. If your resources allow it, employ a HEPA air filter and a humidifier. (Either whole house or at least for the bedroom) These items are both beneficial to sleep. An essential oil diffuser with relaxing oils is also wonderful. Before I got my diffuser I at least put a dot of a wonderful blend of relaxing oils on both sides of my neck.

Maintain a ‘cool’ sleep environment

Sleep experts tell us the cooler the sleep environment, the better quality the sleep is. In cooler times of the year and where practical, open your windows for cooler outside fresh air. As you can see, much has been learned in recent times about sleep and there are numerous resources for additional information to what has been provided here. While some of the tactics suggested may take some planing, a number of them like a hot bath and the breathing exercises can easily be enjoyed tonight.

What are you waiting for? Sweet Dreams!

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Ric Coggins is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who grew up on a one-acre garden tended by his father, who was a regular contributor to Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening and Farming magazines. Ric continues his father’s “green” traditions on a one-acre organic garden urban homestead in Mesa he calls The Fool on the Hill Farm.

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