Getting Quality Sleep Is More Important Than Ever For Your Immune System
Although it is always important to be conscious of the health of your immune system, it's even more so while we are in the midst of a pandemic. Because of the restrictions placed on our normal lives while sheltering in place, we face a number of challenges that affect our immune health: Many of us are not moving or exercising as much since we are stuck inside, the lack of sunshine may be affecting our vitamin D levels, and, for a number of reasons, we're experiencing shifts in our stress hormones.
However, one thing that most of us still have control over is the ability to create good sleep behaviors. I can't emphasize enough that good-quality sleep is especially important right now to support a healthy and balanced immune response.
Why is sleep important for a healthy immune system?
All of our bodily functions are based on a 24-hour circadian rhythm. Our sleep-wake cycle is part of this system and is regulated mostly by the presence of dark and light. The immune system1 is directly connected to that cycle: At night when it gets dark, there's a drop in our stress hormone cortisol, along with hormones from our sympathetic nervous system like epinephrine and norepinephrine. At the same time, hormones connected to immune function, such as melatonin2, are elevated when we sleep. In addition, melatonin acts as a free radical scavenger and helps repair any damaged cells.
While our body is resting, the immune system cells can also focus all efforts and energy on a strong attack against viruses and bacteria. Also, sleep enhances the formation of memory antibodies to bacteria and viruses, to help build a stronger immune system for the future.
Conversely, lack of sleep can have a negative effect on our immune system. For example, sleep deprivation is associated with a rise in susceptibility to the common cold3. One study that worked with 153 male and female participants found that those with shorter sleep duration in the weeks leading up to exposure to a rhinovirus were less likely to be resistant to the illness.
Matthew Walker, Ph.D., sleep scientist and author of Why We Sleep—Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, notes in his book that "after just one night of only four to five hours of sleep, your natural killer cells—a main player in viral killing—drop by 70%."
How can you help promote better sleep?
At the present time, many of us are dealing with a multitude of challenges to our sleep, whether it's stress from the barrage of news and social media or disruptions to our regular work patterns, exercise, and eating routines. As a result, many of us are staying up later at night, sleeping in, or taking naps. All of this throws a massive wrench into our normal circadian rhythm—an integral part of which is sleep.
Nonetheless, there is plenty we can do to safeguard our sleep and optimize the effectiveness of the immune system:
Create a schedule daily and stick to it.
Add in calming and sleep-enhancing supplements.
One great way to ease yourself into sleep is via calming adaptogens and magnesium supplements.*
I also love herbal teas and tinctures, such as valerian, passionflower, hops, and lemon balm before bed.
Create a soothing nighttime ritual.
It doesn't have to be long and complicated. It may be just a quick body scan meditation or some yin yoga stretches. I also like to journal before bed to dump any stressful thoughts out of my brain before I sleep. Using calming essential oils like lavender and geranium can also be helpful for sleep and a nice addition to your evening routine.
Optimize your melatonin.
If you use a tablet for reading, make sure that you always use the backlight dimming feature and/or wear blue-light-blocking glasses one to two hours before bed. You can also use special bulbs in your bedside lamps that filter out blue spectrum light. This will allow for the natural rise of your immune-activating hormone melatonin.
Don't hit the snooze button.
However you choose to support your rest routine, just remember that it's especially important to prioritize sleep right now and set your immune system up for success.
Dr. Heather Moday received her medical degree from Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. She completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in allergy and immunology. She completed a fellowship in integrative medicine with the Arizona Integrative Medicine program and is board-certified in integrative and holistic medicine. She completed her functional medicine training with the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Kalish Functional Medicine Fellowship.
She started the Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, where she practices both traditional medicine and integrative medicine. You can learn more about Dr. Moday through her blog and website and follow her on her YouTube channel, Functional Medicine TV.