There are a few things that pop into mind when we think of building-up immunity, like hand-washing, drinking lots of fluids and eating an immunity-boosting diet to name a few. While these are all notable habits, there’s another that is just as important but often flies under the radar – sleep.
There is strong evidence that sleep improves immune function. Sleep deprivation makes you more susceptible to infection and it also makes it more difficult for the body to heal if ever you do fall sick. But getting quality sleep does more than just keep immune function strong, it is also needed to prevent numerous chronic diseases that can arise from sleep deprivation such as type II diabetes and hypertension as well as help to manage weight.
In a nutshell, though you are fast asleep, your body is hard at work and we owe it to ourselves to protect this sleep by any means necessary. Here’s how.
Tips for better sleep
Reset your inner clock
Your circadian rhythm or biological clock is the 24-hour period your sleep/wake cycle is built upon. Based on signals it receives (such as light), your biological clock tells your brain when to turn on melatonin production and induce sleep, and when to pull back and stay awake. An out-of-sync inner clock can leave you feeling fatigued and groggy in the short-term and have severe impacts on health over time.
If you’ve ever been jet lagged or sprung back time for daylight savings then you’ve felt the repercussions of an offset biological clock. But there’s another culprit disruption our inner rhythm: our hyper-connected digital lifestyles. We wake up to alarm clocks hours before sunrise, expose ourselves to artificial light long after sunset and stay up late scrolling social media and bingeing on Netflix. These modern behaviours are putting us are at risk for circadian rhythm and sleep disruption.
A simple way to reset your inner clock is to expose yourself to natural daylight early during the day and minimize the amount of artificial light you are exposed to in the evening.
- Expose yourself to natural sunlight as early as you can in the day, by taking a walk outdoors for example.
- Dim the lights in the evening as the sun goes down.
Stick to a digital curfew
Exposure to artificial light in the evening delays sleep onset and shortens sleep duration, which doesn’t amount for much in terms of quality sleep. For these reasons, it is beneficial to minimize light exposure as you approach bedtime. Moreso, it is important to avoid blue light, the kind emitted by things such as smartphones and computers, which can be the most disruptive to sleep.
- Turn off electronics 1 hour or more before bed
- Invest in blue-light blocking glasses if you must work in the evening
- Adjust the brightness on your smartphone to emit a warmer/yellower light after a specific time. (This is the NightShift function on iPhone)
The darker, the better
Light, even a faint nightlight, is enough to disrupt sleep. Have you ever slept in a hotel room? It is so dark, you cannot see so much as a hand in front of your face. This is preciesly what you want to replicate in your room.
- Invest in darkening shades
- Keep phones out of the bedroom
- Turn bright alarm clocks away from you, or cover them
Commit to a routine
It wasn’t until I became a mom that I truly believed in the effectiveness of a bedtime routine. They work like a charm for children and they can work for adults too if we commit.
- Establish a hard bedtime and wake time and stick to it, seven days per week
- Create a calming wind-down routine, in the hour leading to bedtime
Create a calming environment
To set the stage for a night of sound sleep, you want create a relaxing environment as part of your evening routine.
- Read before bed. Opt for fiction instead of non-fiction, which can be too stimulating
- Take a bath
- Diffuse essential oils, such as lavender
No caffeine in the afternoon
Do you feel energy-zapped around 2 pm? This afternoon dip is a normal side-effect of our circadian rhythm. Although you may be tempted to caffeinate this feeling away, resist the urge. The average half-life of caffeine is 6 hours or more depending on your predisposition. So although you may not feel it, the stimulating effects of caffeine can linger well into the evening.
How to conquer the afternoon slump?
- Take a brisk walk and get oxygen to your cells
- Have a balanced snack with protein and fibre
- Opt for green tea instead of coffee. Although it contains roughly the same amount of caffeine, green tea also contains L-theanine, a compound that balances out the jitteriness of coffee by promoting relaxation instead.
Avoid large meals before bed
Having a large meal right before bed can disrupt sleep if your digestive system is still hard at work, moreso if you are subject to heartburn. Try timing your last large meal of the day two or more hours before bed.
Eat carbs at night
Still hungry? Opt for a small, easy-to-digest snack made from carbohydrates and some healthy fats. Yes, you read that correctly. Carbohydrates are the optimal choice in the evening because they are easy-to-digest and induce a state of calm that promotes sleep. Sliced pear with walnuts or apple nachos are some favourites.
Nayyab Asif et al. ,Human immune system during sleep Am J Clin Exp Immunol. 2017; 6(6): 92–96.
Potter GD et al. Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Disruption: Causes, Metabolic Consequences, and Countermeasures. Endocr Rev. 2016 Dec; 37(6): 584–608.