How Sleep Supports your Immune System

In the last week, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are struggling with their sleep. Anxiety around around Covid-19, commonly known as Coronavirus, is seeping into their sleep.

Concern for love ones, money and job worries, general anxiety about the uncertainty ahead - the ripples beyond the virus are real and already having an impact on many.

In this time of concern, I wanted to highlight one of the free things that we can all be doing. (Hint: It doesn’t involve happy birthday, hand sanitiser or toilet roll hoarding.)

Understanding the immune system
When we go to sleep overnight, a beautiful synchronised dance begins within our bodies. Hormones are released, cells are produced, memories are stored, muscles are repaired: although you are asleep, your body is far from it.

An important part of this magical dance is your immune system. Although your immune system is working around the clock, studies have shown that different types if cells are produced at different times of the 24-hour circadian cycle. While we sleep our immune system is working hard to produce cytokines. Cytokines are a critical part of healthy immune system, working to regulate immunity, inflammation, and the production of blood cells, platelets and bone marrow.

Right, stay with me!

When we are achieving adequate amounts of sleep - that’s 7 to 9 hours for adults - our immune system produces the perfect amount of each cytokine to keep us fighting fit.

When we aren’t sleeping enough however, our immune system stops working so efficiently. It begins to increase pro-inflammatory markers - these are the cells that produce fever, inflammation, tissue destruction and worse.

With chronic sleep loss, the increase in pro-inflammatory markers build up over time to weaken the immune system putting you at greater risk of disease and illness.

The fact is that although you might feel fine day to day surviving on less than seven to nine hours, on a deeper cellular level you aren’t getting away so unscathed. For optimal health, including a strong and functioning immune system, we need good sleep.

Help - Anxiety is keeping me up all night!

If you're struggling to sleep due to anxiety and worry, you're not alone but fortunately there are some manageable steps you can take.

Tune in and turn off with your evening routine. Give yourself at least an hour to wind down, clear your mind and prepare for sleep. That means if corona virus news is causing you concern, try to get off your phone/laptop and stop reading or watching the news.

Implement a a relaxing bedtime routine. A long bath or shower, followed by a bit of pampering and luxuriating should do the trick. Seek out scents and aromas that spark joy, wear your favourite pyjamas, and light a candle for the hour before bed. 

Studies have also shown that relaxation exercises can be a simple yet effective way to manage these stress responses. Much like a muscle, the more you do these exercises the more effective and easier they will become. Try these exercises below next time you cant sleep:

Body Scan 
This exercise can be done on the floor or in bed. Lie in a comfortable position, covering yourself with a blanket and resting your head on a cushion. Close your eyes and focus your awareness on steadily breathing in and out. Starting at your feet, notice the sensations – pressure, pain, tingling, tightness – that you are feeling. As your mind wanders, notice it happening and then slowly return focus to your body. Continue moving your attention up your body, noticing the points where you contact the floor, and exploring the sensations all the way up to your head. When you have finished scanning your entire body, close your eyes and carry the increased awareness with you through the rest of your day.

Mindful Meditation 

This simple exercise will help you increase awareness of your thoughts and feelings, which has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety. Begin in a comfortable position in a chair or on the floor. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the present moment, focusing on your breath. Inhale deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth. As thoughts or concerns drift through your mind, allow them to pass through and return your focus to your breathing. Continue for five minutes, or until you feel ready to finish.

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