Sleep: The Underrated Immune Booster

Vitamin C and zinc quickly became the supplements of choice when COVID-19 hit, and considering that the virus will be sticking around for a while, this might be a trend with some longevity. In times of uncertainty, we look to the things that we can control, which means going for all the vitamins, minerals and supplements we know will help to support our bodies and immune systems. While these will assist in taking care of your wellbeing, there’s an even more basic, tried-and-tested immune booster that tops any fancy supplement or superfood. It also happens to be totally free, and in unlimited supply...

Sleep.

And not just any old slumber, but high-quality, health-optimising and restorative sleep.

We’ve all experienced the incredible benefits of a good night’s sleep, and it’s safe to say that not much compares. Aside from allowing us to feel revitalised, cognitively alert and emotionally balanced (a pretty impressive list of pros), quality sleep also acts as armour, helping us to ward off infections and illness.

When you are sleep deprived, you are not only more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria, but you also have to deal with a substantially longer recovery time in the event that you do fall ill. It’s time for us to acknowledge and bring awareness to the true importance of proper sleep so that we can optimise our health and happiness, and live a life of vibrant wellness.

The question now becomes, “What is the optimal amount of sleep?” This is a difficult one to pin down, and the answer will vary from person to person according to a wide range of factors, including age, overall bodily health, and emotional and physical stress levels. It is generally recommended that we get between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. In fact, research shows that if you are getting less than six hours per night, you are more than four times as likely to catch the common cold.

The immune system’s activity ramps up while we sleep, which can sometimes result in night sweats, signalling that it’s hard at work! Cytokines (proteins that act as messengers for the immune system) are also produced and released during sleep. With sub-optimal sleep (i.e. six hours or less), our hormones can be disrupted and a low-grade inflammation response initiated. If left unresolved, this can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

The pace of today’s world has forced many of us into deciding that sleep is expendable. However, as with bad debt, the ramifications are not only real, but compounding. There are no corners to be cut when it comes to getting your shut-eye, and it is absolutely vital that your sleep pennies are banked.

Even more important than the number of hours for which we sleep is the quality of our sleep, and our alignment with natural circadian rhythms. Our bodies follow a well-calculated and efficient sleep cycle, and any disruption of this cycle (even a quick midnight bathroom break) has an impact on our returns.

The four sleep stages are: wakefulness, light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep. Deep sleep is the most regenerative and restorative stage, and should ideally occur between 10 pm and 2 am, which also coincides with the darkest hours of the night. You should aim to have the middle of your sleep cycle falling between these hours, as you will be optimally aligned with natural sleep cycles, and thus maximise your ‘sleep yield’. REM sleep is associated with dreaming and creativity – it’s often a space where we receive insights and those ‘Aha!’ moments. Typically, REM sleep is experienced in the early hours of the morning, and ends with waking. To sleep through the night is innate and natural, but thanks to our fast-paced, stress-packed lives, this is often seen as a luxury rather than an essential.

For much of this year, many of us have been feeling heightened levels of anxiety and stress, which not only directly impact our immune systems, but also affect our sleep. Isn’t it strange that when we finally have ‘more time’ for sleep, it becomes more elusive than ever? This is almost certainly due to anxiety and the inability of the body and mind to calm down, which is necessary for us to fall asleep and stay asleep. Now, more than ever, it is vital to establish what we call sleep hygiene - taking any and all steps necessary to promote and support better sleep.

HERE ARE 10 SIMPLE TIPS YOU CAN IMPLEMENT ON A DAILY BASIS TO HELP YOU MOVE TOWARDS A BETTER RELATIONSHIP WITH SLEEP…

1. Stay hydrated. Opt for plenty of warm water and herbal teas during the day. It’s preferable to get most of your liquid intake during the first half of your day to avoid the night-time bathroom run.

2. Stock up on immune-boosting nutrients such as zinc, selenium, vitamin C and vitamin D. You should also make sure to include plant-based whole foods in your daily diet, as they are abundant in these nutrients. Great examples of superfoods and herbs to add are baobab powder, camu camu berry and adaptogenic herbs.

3. Limit alcohol intake and try to have your drink earlier in the evening rather than late at night. Alcohol may temporarily relax us, but it can disturb our sleep (especially if consumed in large quantities).

4. Eat a well-balanced diet that favours a generous intake of nourishing, fibre-rich plant foods. Keep dinners light, as a heavy digestive load can disturb sleep quality. A soup or broth is a great evening meal option.

5. Make time for creativity and doing the things you love. This reduces stress and supports happier, more restful sleep.

6. Keep fit and active. Exercise directly impacts our quality of sleep. Go for cardio earlier in the day, as this amps up your system, and opt for more relaxed exercise (such as yoga) in the evening, as this helps to calm the body and mind.

7. Set a bedtime for yourself. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Our bodies love routine, and this is an effective way to really capitalise on sleep. Plus, once your body has settled into a routine, you will find little need for an alarm clock.

8. Create an evening wind-down ritual. With the increase in hand-held technology and blue-light devices in the bedroom, we’ve lost touch with natural daily cycles, and are left with revved up nervous systems late at night, which is not conducive to relaxation and sleep. Try turning down the lights as the sun goes down and opting for a Himalayan salt lamp to provide a warm, gentle light. This signals to your body that bedtime is approaching. To promote relaxation, take a bath with some calming essential oils like lavender, and sip on some chamomile tea whilst retiring to bed with a good book.

9. Avoid any high-stimulation activity just before bed, such as checking emails or watching action-packed TV.

10. Cultivate a gratitude practice. Write down your list of ‘gratefuls’ from the day. Going to bed with a grateful heart and a peaceful mind eases any resistance that we have built up during the day, and allows us to drift off happily into dreamland.

You may also want to consider seeing a health coach, who can guide you in making lifestyle changes that could directly benefit your ability to get that precious shut-eye. If you are really having trouble getting healthy sleep, you may need to consult a doctor or sleep therapist.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate is a passionate wellness advocate who believes that the key to living life well is in supporting innate wellbeing by choosing pure, natural foods. She stands by the beliefs that “health is wealth” and “food is medicine”, and has made her love for wholesome living a central theme in her life. She has a background in retail, having been on the marketing team for a number of prominent health food brands. In 2017, she helped to open a trendy ‘gut-healthy’ cafe in Chelsea, London, that continues to grow in success and popularity. Kate now works as a marketing and communications consultant in the wellness industry, including as interim Marketing Manager at Wellness Warehouse. As an internationally-accredited health coach, she uses her experience in integrative nutrition to support wellness seekers in making long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes.

Contact [email protected] or follow her @_well_rooted_ on Instagram for more.