Sleep, Stress and Your Immune System
By Anne Grier, RN, BSN & Functional Nutrition Health Coach
Sleep, why are you so hard to get?
I fell asleep at bedtime without a problem, on the early side, about 9:30pm, I was tired. However, it’s 3am and now I’m wide awake staring at the ceiling, or rather, flipping from one side to the other, hoping that the right position will make me sleepy. It’s not working. I have a song playing in my head, I have a scene from Chicago PD that I watched before bed that was a little too stimulating and disturbing also playing in my brain. I’m worried. I have worried thoughts about my kids missing school, missing their activities, their friends. I’m worried about how long this will all take to return to “normal”. What will “normal” even look like? Next thing I know, it’s 4 am and I’m still awake. At some point I do fall back asleep but I wake in the morning feeling exhausted, slight headache, slight nausea, and irritable. This is stress, and it interferes with your most precious time for immune system building- during sleep.
Sleep and your immune system
We all want a robust immune system. We take targeted supplements to strengthen our immune system and we prioritize our nutrition. While those are both highly valuable for immune support, nothing will beat the importance of sleep for a strong immune system. Our immune system has specialized cells, known as T cells, which work to recognize and kill infected cells. These cells work more effectively during sleep. Also cytokines, which are chemical messengers that signal further immune response between cells are both produced and released during sleep making sleep ever more critical for a strong immunity.
Stress and sleep- polar opposites
Stress is inevitable, we experience it regularly and all handle it differently. Stress is a sympathetic nervous system response, better known as “flight or fight”. This aspect of our autonomic nervous system is important, we do want to be able to go into “fight or fight” when there is an event that calls for it. The common example is being chased by a lion, which certainly doesn’t happen very often. But the problem is that our bodies experience this sympathetic response when we have a big presentation, when we are cut off in traffic, when we argue with our spouse, when we are worried about something, and the list goes on and on. It’s too much for our systems, it’s too much of the hormone, cortisol. We certainly want cortisol, but we want it in the right amounts, depending on the time of day. High cortisol inhibits our ability to sleep. We want cortisol to go down in the evening so that melatonin will rise and we are primed and ready to sleep. We want our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in so that we can “rest and digest”. In order to get into “rest and digest” we must reduce our stress, we must be able to turn off the “flight or fight”.
Essential steps for restorative sleep
1. Reduce your stress (Easier said than done!)
In order to have melatonin rise and for our body to be ready for sleep, we need the hormone cortisol to fall. When we are stressed cortisol is high and usually too high for sleep. We want cortisol to be high in the morning when we wake up so that we have energy for the day but in the evening we want it to fall.
A few ideas: adopt a meditation practice, journaling before bed to get your thoughts out on paper so they are not swirling in your head, gratitude journal, exercise, diet (low sugar, low alcohol and high in nutrients). Another blog post coming on stress reduction since it’s a tough one for all of us!
2. Dark and quiet room
A calming, quiet, dark room coaxes us towards sleep and is what our circadian rhythm wants. Screens, night lights, light from other rooms, and even street lights tell our body that it’s not actually night time. White noise apps or earplugs might be helpful with a snoring partner or loud traffic outside.
3. Eliminate screens before bed
The blue light from screens tells our brain that it’s not time to sleep. Melatonin is suppressed. Melatonin controls your sleep and wake cycles and although it does not put you to sleep, it plays a large role in a night of good sleep. Blue light blocking glasses are also a great idea!
Exercise is beneficial for sleep but not too close to bedtime. If it's under 3 hours from bedtime, it can put your body into an aroused state, making going to sleep tougher.
5. Stop caffeine by 2pm
Genetically, we are either fast or slow metabolizers of caffeine. The cut off is 2pm as a general rule but you can always experiment with an earlier cut off and see how it affects your sleep.
6. Avoid eating 3 hours before bedtime
Especially grains and sugar will raise your blood sugar which delays sleep and will cause a blood sugar dip later in the night which can cause you to wake up.
7. Keep it cool
Keep the room temperature between 60-70 degrees. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 65 degrees as the optimal sleeping temperature of a room. Ideally your body temperature should drop throughout the night.
8. Calm it down
Do something calming an hour before bedtime. This might be meditation, herbal tea (the herbs Valerian, Passionflower and Skullcap are the most well known for sleep support), a warm epsom salt bath, a relaxing book, journaling or gratitude. I do not recommend watching Chicago PD or any other stimulating movie or TV show! Maybe I’ll start to take my own advice!