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Strengthen your immune system by sleeping

In my clinic over the past few weeks, more people are telling me that they are struggling to get enough sleep because they fear Coronavirus will make them ill or die. 

What concerns me as a Psychologist is that this will make their situation a whole lot worse given that a lack of sleep can adversely affect the immune system. Evidence is clear that a lack of sleep means you are less able to fight off bugs’.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, some people are finding it even harder to sleep. Research shows that there is a complex link between sleep-wake cycles and our immune systems. The amount of sleep we get impacts directly on how well our immune systems work, and also on how parts of the immune system control our sleep.

Long term loss of sleep can supress our immune function; as whilst you sleep, your immune system produces protective, infection-fighting substances such as cytokines. It uses these substances to combat foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. These cytokines also help you sleep, giving your immune system more energy to defend your body against illness. Chronic sleep loss decreases the body’s production of protective cytokines, lowering the body’s response to infection, increasing our vulnerability to disease and it may take you longer to recover from illness.

In addition to the effect on the immune system,  research suggests people are at greater risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, stroke and heart attacks, also diabetes, obesity, depression and other chronic conditions. Lack of sleep is associated with memory and cognitive impairment and at increased risk for road traffic accidents.

So, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things we can do to improve our immunity and defend ourselves from viruses and diseases….

Dr Sue’s 10 science-based strategies for successful sleep

1) Routine is important, often this is the first thing to go. Try to keep a consistent sleep/wake schedule, even on weekends. Sticking to your work-week sleep and wake schedule over the weekend is a good idea where sleep is concerned. Staying up and sleeping in later than normal can shift your body’s natural clock in the same way that cross-country travel does. This so-called social jet lag can make it extra difficult to fall asleep when Sunday night rolls around, making for even more unpleasant Monday mornings.

2) Journaling  With 24 hours news, the coronavirus is reported on constantly which can fuel our anxiety. Be careful who you take notice of. Listen to expert health information from the medical and nursing colleges and from the Department of Health and the World Health Organization. Do not listen to unknown people whose only qualification is a Twitter account. There is no reason to suppose they know what they are talking about and they can just end up scaring and confusing everyone else. Spend some time, clearing  your mind by writing in a journal/ notebook a few hours before bed, what went well, what didn’t go well, what can I do about it? And a to do list for the next day.  This is important as it will stop our mind mulling over the day and worrying about tomorrow

3) Switch off – Dim the lights and turn off all your devices — smartphones, laptops, TVs, all of which belong outside the bedroom — about 60 minutes before bedtime. Bright light is one of the biggest triggers to our brains that it’s time to be awake and alert, so start sending the opposite signal early. With coronavirus fresh in everyone’s mind, you may wish to consider cleaning your smartphones, laptops etc regularly. Don’t watch the news all the time. Keep up with the world but do it in short bursts. Do not have 24-hour news on all the time. Turn off the hourly bulletins on the radio. Constant news will just stress you and you won’t miss anything important by taking time off. 

4) Your bed is only for sleep and sex – this is so you build the association between your bed and sleep, rather work or reading for example. Could reading in bed be considered as a form of relaxation? Yes… and no. The newspaper, a page-turner, a mystery or any other book that demands your emotional and intellectual attention may be more distracting than relaxing. I would suggest opting for lighter reading, not the newspaper before bed, and keep it to the couch or your favourite comfy chair.

5) Relaxation – Break the anxiety cycle that you may find yourself in, worrying about the coronavirus and its effects, by practising relaxation regularly. Take deep breaths, some simple breathing exercises may do the trick. Breathing deeply mimics how your body feels when it’s already relaxed, so after inhaling and exhaling for a few rounds, you just might find yourself feeling calmer. That’s because deep breathing stimulates the body’s naturally-calming parasympathetic system. Alternatively you could Visualize, imagine or think about  yourself somewhere calm, relaxing and sleep-inducing. This deep relaxation method can slow brain wave activity, coaxing you toward sleep.

6) Put on some socks – A good night’s sleep will regulate your temperature; this helps the body maintain the ideal temperature for preventing any external disease from adversely affecting the body. Some people have the unlucky lot in life of colder-than-comfortable extremities. Research suggests  having warm hands and feet seems to predict how quickly you’ll fall asleep. Speed up the process by pulling on a pair of clean socks before getting into bed.

7) Don’t stress about sleep – We’re certainly not saying to shrug off your shuteye like it doesn’t matter, but don’t stress yourself out about getting adequate time in bed, either. The more anxious you get about not getting to sleep or getting enough sleep, the more difficult it will be to get any sleep. Perhaps go to be with the aim of resting rather than sleep, this will reduce our stress and anxiety about sleeping, improving our immune system.  

8) Avoid the snooze button – If we don’t get enough non-REM and REM sleep our physical, mental and emotional health is compromised, as our bodies including our immune system are slowed down therefore their performance is not optimal. We are often tempted to just keep pressing the snooze button however, sleep caught between soundings of that alarm is just not high-quality sleep. The snooze button often disturbs REM sleep, which can make us feel groggier than when we wake up during other stages of sleep. You don’t have to launch out of bed in the morning, but setting the alarm for a slightly later time and skipping a snooze cycle or two could bring big benefits.

9) Get some sunlight first thing in the morning if you can – There’s nothing quite like bright light to trigger your brain to stay awake and alert. Getting some natural light — you’ll want to aim for about 15 minutes — first thing in the morning can help night owls reset their biological clocks and ease into sleep a little earlier. Sunlight will also increase vitamin D which can boost the immune system. 

10) Consider therapy – Remember there is a difference between concern over a dangerous and worrying situation and uncontrollable feelings of worry and even panic. Maybe your sleep troubles are a little more serious and could use the insight of a professional. Cognitive behavioural therapy is considered the gold standard when it comes to treating insomnia, and usually involves meeting with a therapist for various sleep assessments, keeping a sleep journal and adjusting some of your bedtime habits. Other people find hypnotherapy successful.

For more help improving your sleep, try https://sleepwellwithdrsue.com or contact me.

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