More than two years after the onset of a pandemic, we are still grappling 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 prime your body to fight infection.
Without adequate sleep, your stress hormones can become misregulated, affecting your weight, gut health, and immune system.
Sleep: switch off your body, strengthen your immune system
Exercise is not enough to get quality sleep. I see patients who go to the gym every day and have made sacrifices like eliminating alcohol or sugar quiet can’t sleep well.
In fact, a whopping 50 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder, and one in three US adults gets less than the recommended seven hours of sleep.
Unfortunately, this affects our health in so many ways. Sleep deprivation not only makes us tired the next day, but also causes inflammation and increases our risk of disease. It has been linked to increased rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and cancer.
How to sleep better
The good news is that once you start prioritizing sleep, your immune system can recover quickly.
Here are six things I do every night to ensure a good night’s sleep:
1. Reduce digital devices
You might be shocked at how much time you spend surfing the web, watching TV, and mindlessly scrolling your phone. Once you’re honest about what you’re doing with your time, think about ways to reduce those nonessential 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 in order to successfully make healthy lifestyle choices, it’s less about innate willpower and more about creating a lifestyle that facilitates those choices.
2. Create an optimal sleeping environment
Your bedroom should be your sanctuary. You don’t need expensive linens, a weighted blanket, or a cooling pad. A comfortable mattress, a quality pillow and soft linens are all you need.
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 device to drown it out.
Finally, make sure your bedroom is nice and cool (the optimal sleeping temperature is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18.3 degrees Celsius).
3. Quiet the mind before bed
Insomnia is often caused by rumination about things that didn’t happen — or maybe never will.
One way to calm your mind and body is to journal before bed. It has been found that processing your worries by writing them down helps clear the mind of stressful thoughts so they don’t keep you up at night.
Breathing exercises can also help. When I’m in an anxious or worried state, or just a little excited, I use the 4-5-7 breathing technique:
- Sit quietly, 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.
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven, and breathe 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 proven ability to combat insomnia.
You can always take a magnesium supplement, but one of my favorite ways to use it to sleep is with a warm bath of Epsom salts. Magnesium sulfate is the main ingredient in Epsom salts and can have a relaxing effect by penetrating the skin and muscles.
Even a warm bath will help you fall asleep faster.
5. Wear glasses that block blue light
Blue light interferes with your body’s ability to prepare for sleep because it blocks a hormone called melatonin that makes you sleepy.
And given the excessive amount of blue light in our homes (e.g. from smartphones, tablets, computers) blue light blocking glasses are essential to me. Wearing these glasses has been shown to significantly improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia.
The best glasses typically have amber 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 light stretches
Stretching or restorative yoga before bed can help with pain, high blood pressure, restless legs syndrome, and anxiety. Just a few poses can activate your parasympathetic nervous system and help you sleep better.
I love doing legs-on-the-wall poses. And the best part is that it really only takes you about five minutes to make a big difference.
dr Heather Montag is a state-certified allergist, immunologist and doctor for functional medicine. She is also the author of “The Immunotype Breakthrough: Your personalized plan to balance your immune system, optimize your health, and build lifelong resilience.” Follow her on Instagram @theimmunityMD and Facebook.
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