More than two years after the emergence of a pandemic, we are still dealing with outbreaks of Covid-19 – and that means building and maintaining a strong immune system should be a top priority.
As an immunologist and functional medicine physician, I always remind my patients that while genetics, diet, and exercise all play a role in our immune response, sleep is one of the most effective ways to prepare your body to fight infections.
Without adequate sleep, your stress hormones can become deregulated, affecting your weight, gut health, and immune defense.
Sleep: Shut down your body, boost your immune system
Exercising is not enough to get quality sleep. I see patients who go to the gym every day who have made sacrifices like eliminating alcohol or sugar, but still can’t sleep well.
In fact, 50 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder, and one in three adults in the United States gets less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep.
This, unfortunately, affects our health in many ways. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make us tired the next day, it also creates inflammation and increases our risk of disease. It has been linked to increased rates of hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and cancer.
How to sleep better
The good news is that as soon as you start prioritizing sleep, your immune system can rebound quickly.
Here are six things I do every night to ensure a good night’s rest:
1. Reduce digital devices
You might be shocked at how much time you spend surfing the web, watching TV, and mindlessly scrolling on your phone. Once you’ve become honest about what you do with your time, think about how you can cut back on those non-essential activities and reallocate time to sleep instead.
I also suggest putting your phone and computer in a drawer at the same time every night. Human behavior experts have found that being successful in making healthy lifestyle choices is less about innate willpower and more about creating a lifestyle that makes those decisions easier.
2. Create an optimal sleep environment
Your bedroom should be your sleep sanctuary. You don’t need expensive sheets, a weighted blanket or a cooling pillow. A comfortable mattress, high-quality pillow and soft bedding will do just fine.
If you have any indicator lights on electronics in your bedroom, cover them with black electrical tape. If you have bright streetlights outside your window, use blackout curtains. If you hear traffic noise, use a white noise machine to drown it out.
Finally, make sure your bedroom is nice and cool (the optimal temperature for sleeping is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18.3 degrees Celsius).
3. Calm the mind before bedtime
Insomnia is often caused by ruminating on things that didn’t happen or might never happen.
One way to calm your mind and body is to journal before bed. Dealing with your worries by writing them down helps clear your mind of stressful thoughts so they don’t keep you up at night.
Breathing exercises can also help. If I’m in an anxious or worried state, or just a little amplified, I use the 4-5-7 breathing technique:
- Sitting calmly, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth near the back of your upper front teeth and exhale with a “whoosh” sound.
- Inhale through your nose for a silent count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale through your nose for a count of eight.
- Repeat this cycle three more times, for a total of four rounds.
4. Experiment with magnesium
Magnesium is often referred to as the “relaxing” mineral, thanks to its proven ability to fight insomnia.
You can always take a magnesium supplement, but one of my favorite ways to use it for sleep is to take a hot Epsom salt bath. Magnesium sulfate is the main component of Epsom salt, and by penetrating your skin and muscles, it can have a relaxing effect.
Even the simple act of soaking in a hot bath helps you fall asleep faster.
5. Wear blue light blocking glasses
Blue light impairs your body’s ability to prepare for sleep because it blocks a hormone called melatonin that makes you sleepy.
And given the excessive amounts of blue light in our homes (i.e. smartphones, tablets, computers), blue light blocking glasses are essential for me. Wearing these glasses has been shown to significantly improve sleep quality and decrease insomnia.
The best glasses typically have yellow or orange lenses and block higher percentages, some up to 90%, of blue spectrum light. My favorites are the Swanswick glasses, but there are also several good manufacturers and prescription options.
6. Do easy stretches
Performing stretches or restorative yoga before bed can help relieve pain, high blood pressure, restless leg syndrome, and anxiety. A few poses are enough to engage your parasympathetic nervous system and help you sleep better.
I love doing leg up poses. And the best part is that you really only need about five minutes to make a big difference.
Dr. Heather Moday is a board-certified allergist, immunologist and functional medicine physician. She is also the author of “The Immunotype Breakthrough: Your Personalized Plan to Balance Your Immune System, Optimize Your Health, and Build Your Lifelong Resilience.” Follow her on Instagram @theimmunityMD and Facebook.