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Creating Better Sleep Habits to Strengthen Immunity

Apr. 15, 2020

Making sure your body has a chance to rest and recover from the day is important for your immune system to function at full strength.


When we sleep, our bodies produce a protein called cytokines, which target infection and inflammation, creating an immune response. Our bodies also produce T-cells during sleep, which are white blood cells that play a critical role in our body’s immune response to an infectious disease such as COVID-19.

Ideally, our bodies require seven to nine hours of quality sleep to recharge and to keep our immune system strong. Jennifer Rose V. Molano, MD, UC Health neurologist and associate professor in the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Integrative Health and Wellness affiliate, reminds us, “Prioritizing sleep and allowing your body to rest can stabilize your mood, energize you and fuel your resilience, especially during these challenging times.”

Here are a few tips on how to maintain better sleep habits:

Consistent, High-Quality Sleep

Consistency is one of the most important elements in getting a quality night’s sleep. As with any habit, our bodies get used to a routine. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps your body create a routine that promotes better sleep. Making sure not to nap (or limit naps to no more than 30 minutes) during the day will also help to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.

The Myth of “Catching-Up” on Sleep

This consistency is more important than we might think. Many people operate on the myth that you can “catch-up” on lost sleep by sleeping more one night after one or more nights of restlessness or little sleep at all. This is not the case. Too much sleep throws off this consistency even more, making it more difficult to find quality sleep the following night.

Sleep Consistency and Hormones

Your body and brain are driven by consistent release and recovery of hormones. The release of many types of hormones on a regular basis play a role in overall health. Consistent sleep acts as the regulator that determines how and when many of these hormones are released.

Our modern lifestyles are a major factor in our own sleep deprivation, but consistent high-quality sleep is a non-negotiable element for a long, healthy and happy life.

Change Your Sleeping Environment

Environment plays a large role in sleep quality. We tend to have more restful sleep in a quiet, dark and cool room. Try blackout curtains, a sleep mask, earplugs or a fan to help create the ideal sleep environment.

Light

Our circadian rhythms or internal body clock are trained to respond to light. Prior to the technology of artificial light created by electricity, humans' sleep-wake cycles were tuned to the natural day-to-night cycle of the sun. When the sun goes down, and it becomes night, our brain releases melatonin that helps us to feel tired and incentivize falling asleep. When the sun comes up the next morning, our eyes and skin react telling our bodies to release chemicals that incentivize wakefulness. This is why even a small amount of artificial light at night can disrupt normal sleep.

Environment Temperature

Similar to the above, our bodies are naturally tuned to fall asleep and stay asleep in cooler environments because the natural temperatures that occur at night are cooler than those that occur in the daytime. The regulated temperatures of our modern homes can confuse this, but luckily there are ways to program our thermostats to mimic the type of temperature changes that occur outdoors. The use of an extra fan can also help with this.

Sound & Noise

Noise cancellation is another important factor in promoting consistent quality sleep. Helpful methods for blocking out noises can also include using a white noise machine. Pro tip: a box fan can act as both a noise canceller and a cooling agent in your sleeping environment.

Body Temperature

Body temperature can impact your sleep cycle. Your body temperature drops when initiating sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep, taking a warm bath or shower (which can also promote relaxation) before bed to cause a decrease in body temperature afterward. This is thought to help initiate the sleep cycle.

Blue Light

Blue light causes alertness, keeps our brain awake and prevents melatonin production. Blue light is emitted from the screens (phones, computers, and TVs) we tend to look at right up until we try to fall asleep. LED lights and fluorescent bulbs are also thought to have the same effect on our sleep cycle. Try to limit exposure to these types of light at least one hour before bed.  Blue light reducing filters or glasses may be helpful, but, ideally, it is best to discontinue any electronics before bedtime. 

  • Blue Light Reducing Device Screen Filters
    Many smartphones, televisions, and computer monitors now come built-in with blue light reduced filters. You can even set your phone to switch to this mode at a certain time, like when the sun goes down.
  • Blue Light Reducing Eye-glasses
    If you don’t have, and don’t want to spend the money on, newer electronics with blue light filters, consider getting blue-light filtering eye-glasses. If you already wear glasses, you can even opt for a blue-light filtering coating for your next set of lenses.

Caffeine: Sleep’s Chemical Enemy

Caffeine is a stimulant that directly weakens your signal to go to sleep. Try to avoid consuming any caffeine sources past 2 p.m. to help you fall asleep at a reasonable hour. Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, and even chocolate. Decaffeinated beverages still have a little bit of caffeine that can keep people awake at night. Look for caffeine-free alternatives.

  • The Role of Adenosine
    Caffeine has a multitude of effects on the brain and body but the most relevant culprit for affecting quality sleep is its effect on blocking adenosine. Adenosine is a molecule found naturally in the body that binds to receptors in the brain. When this happens naturally we begin to feel tired. Caffeine is also a molecule that has a similar shape as adenosine and, when consumed, blocks the adenosine from finding its receptor. You can picture a race each time you consume caffeine. Adenosine and caffeine both compete for the same spot in the brain. Caffeine, being the stronger contender, always takes the podium. Good luck sleeping now!

Exercise & Sleep

Exercise is thought to not just help you fall asleep faster, but it is also shown to improve the quality of your sleep by increasing the time spent in a deep sleep. The deep sleep stage of the sleep cycle helps to boost immune function and aids in controlling stress and anxiety. Although gyms are currently closed to keep us safe, taking a walk outside or doing a virtual fitness class at home are great options for getting in a daily workout. Avoid strenuous exercise close to bedtime however, as that can have the opposite effect on sleep quality by raising your body temperature and heart rate.

Aromatherapy: Promoting Relaxation

Aromatherapy may promote relaxation and sleep. Lavender is a widely used scent that may increase the quality of sleep and can decrease anxiety. Cedarwood scent may increase sleep time and reduce waking up too early. Some scents such as rosemary or sandalwood may act as a stimulant, so try to avoid those in aromatherapy blends. These essential oils can be found in pillow sprays, pressure point roll-on applicators or room diffusers.

Meditation: Turn off the “Monkey Mind”

Meditation and breathing exercises such as the 4-7-8 technique have been shown to promote relaxation and sleep. Meditation can improve control of the parasympathetic nervous system which reduces how easily you’re awakened and allows you to rest.

Journaling: Meditation Through Writing

Write it down. During stressful times, racing thoughts can make it difficult to turn our minds off at night. Research has shown that writing down whatever thoughts keep replaying in your mind can allow your mind to rest, which in turn may allow you to fall asleep.

Sleep-only Room

Designate a sleep-only room. Keeping a designated area in your house just for sleeping can help encourage consistency in routine and help promote quality of sleep. Save the movies and snacks for the couch, and only crawl under the covers when it is time for bed.

Conclusion: Build a Routine

Maintaining consistent sleep habits, along with a healthy diet and exercise, can help boost your immune system to keep you healthy. Consistency can only be built through habits, and habits are built through routine. Building a consistent night-time routine can act as the way of informing your body that it's time to begin winding and down and releasing the proper hormones for restful, quality sleep. So turn off your phone screen, pour out the coffee, take a warm bath with lavender aromatherapy. Follow any of the methods above to tell your body it's time to rest, but all we ask is that you keep it consistent. You will feel energized and ready to take on the day when the morning comes back around.