More than two years after the emergence of a pandemic, we’re still struggling 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 doctor, 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 infection.
Without adequate sleep, your stress hormones can experience dysregulation, affecting your weight, gut health and immune defense.
Sleep: Power down your body, power up your immune system
Exercising isn’t enough to get high-quality sleep. I see patients who go to the gym every day and have made sacrifices like eliminating alcohol or sugar but still can’t get great sleep.
In fact, a whopping 50 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder, and one in three adults in the U.S. get less than the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep.
This, sadly, is affecting our health in so many ways. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make us feel tired the next day, it also creates inflammation and increases our risk for disease. It has been linked to increased rates of hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and cancer.
How to get better sleep
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. Cut down on digital devices
You might be shocked by how much time you spend surfing the web, watching TV and mindlessly scrolling on your phone. Once you’ve gotten honest about what you do with your time, think about how you can cut down on those nonessential activities and reassign time for sleep instead.
I also suggest putting your phone and computer in a drawer at the same time every evening. Experts in human behavior have found that being successful at making healthy lifestyle choices is less about innate willpower and more about creating a lifestyle that makes these decisions easier.
2. Create an optimal sleep environment
Your bedroom should be your sleep sanctuary. You don’t need expensive linens, a weighted blanket or a cooling pad. A comfortable mattress, high-quality pillow and soft bedding will do just fine.
If you have 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 can 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 about things that haven’t happened — or may never happen.
One way to calm your mind and body is to journal before bedtime. Processing your worries by writing them down has been found to help clear the mind of stressful thoughts so they won’t keep you up at night.
Breathing exercises can help, too. If I’m in an anxious or worried state, or just a little amped up, I use the 4-5-7 breath technique:
- Sitting calmly, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth near the back of your upper front teeth and breath out with a “whoosh” sound.
- Inhale through your nose to a silent count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven, and breath out 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 “relaxation” mineral, thanks to its demonstrated ability to combat insomnia.
You can always take a magnesium supplement, but one of my favorite ways to use it for sleep is by taking a warm 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 just soaking in a warm bath helps you fall asleep faster.
5. Wear blue light-blocking glasses
Blue light messes with 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., from smartphones, tablets, computers), blue light-blocking glasses are an essential for me. Wearing these glasses has been shown to significantly improve sleep quality and decrease insomnia.
The best glasses usually have yellow or orange lenses and block higher percentages, some up to 90%, of blue-spectrum light. My favorites are Swanswick glasses, but there are several good manufacturers and prescription options as well.
6. Do some easy stretching
Implementing stretching or restorative yoga before bedtime can help with pain, elevated blood pressure, restless leg syndrome and anxiety. Just a few poses can engage your parasympathetic nervous system and help you sleep better.
I love doing legs-up-the-wall poses. And the best part is that you really only need five or so 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 Health, and Build Lifelong Resilience.” Follow her on Instagram @theimmunityMD and Facebook.