With over a million (and climbing) cases worldwide, the CoronaVirus is a worrisome pandemic which has given all of us some pause and time to think. With many of us worried about becoming ill or infecting loved ones who may be at greater risk, many are considering means to help ourselves, our families and our communities stay healthy. Important public health recommendations are requiring many of us to significantly change our lifestyle, which is affecting our eating, exercising, socializing patterns and increasing our stress levels. But, there is one key health behavior which can not only help protect us during this challenging time when we are all home-bound, but it is also best done when we are at home. And that is our sleep - a natural immune booster.
The link between sleep and our body's defenses
A multitude of research studies have provided abundant scientific evidence to the guarding and restorative processes which occur during sleep.
Many of us are not aware that the human immune system is very active at night. Cytokines are the immune system’s superheroes; they fight infections and inflammations daily. These tenacious protein warriors are both produced and released during sleep.
When we don’t get enough sleep, fewer cytokines are released and able to do their job, leaving our body more vulnerable and prone to viruses and other illnesses, including catching a bad cold, a case of the flu or even COVID-19. Therefore, it is crucial that we get enough quality sleep to make sure they operate at their full capacity.
Think of a time when you couldn’t get proper shuteye at night or after pulling an all-nighter. You probably felt low in energy or even weak or down for part of the next day. That is because many restorative processes take place mostly and sometimes even solely during the night. For example, one way that our body fights infections is with a fever: during sleep, the body is able to create an optimal fever response, which is why most fevers tend to rise at night. However, if our nightly slumber is interrupted or shortened, then we can’t battle the infection as best we can.
Better sleep for a strengthened immune system
Studies show that people who sleep less than 7 hours per night are 3 times as likely to develop a cold as those who sleep 8 hours or more. Additionally, chronic sleep loss has been linked to reduced response to various vaccinations, amongt them – the flu shot. In one study, after as little as one night of partial sleep loss, the immunologic response to an Influenza A vaccination was diminished by over 50% compared to the response in those who maintained a regular sleep schedule. And if that’s not enough, a lack of proper sleep has been implicated in a wide range of chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, all of which have been stated as potential risk factors for COVID-19.
Illustration: Macrophage releases cytokines.
It’s not just the cytokines, however, that are negatively affected by insufficient sleep. Some studies found that sleep loss can have long-lasting (over a year) effects on other components of the immune system (e.g., antigen-specific T cells and Ag-specific immunoglobulin G1), thus, further debilitating your natural ability to combat threats to your health. Although, given the newness of the coronavirus, there are no studies to know if sleep specifically protects you from this condition. However, based on models of other viruses, skimping on sleep will make you more susceptible to it and less able to generate an effective immunological response when needed. Moreover, lack of sleep has also been shown to affect how quickly you recover if you do get sick. So tonight, when you are tired, rather than delaying bedtime or extending your screen time, prioritize your sleep and boost your natural immune capacity.
How much sleep is "enough"?
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 7-9 hours of sleep is the recommended amount for an adult. Note that sleeping for longer than recommended has also been shown to have detrimental effects on people’s health, so don’t overdo it!
But in fact, getting a proper nightly rest is also about the quality of your sleep and not just quantity. So the next question is, how to go about improving the quality of your sleep?
To get you started, we gathered some easy-to-apply tips that you can do at home:
- Reduce stress – Try breathing exercises, meditating, reading a book or listening to relaxing music.
- Exercise – Wherever and whenever you can, indoors or outdoors. Build a 15-30 minutes work-out plan that you can commit to and implement easily at home (e.g., push-ups, crunches, squats, lunges or even yoga stretches).
- Keep a balanced diet – Try to eat healthy and avoid heavy, fatty meals during the two hours prior to your bedtime.
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption - Especially during the 3-4 hours leading to your bedtime.
- Keep a regular bedtime and wake-up time routine - It will help your body maintain a healthy day/night cycle, helping you get optimal sleep amounts, and keep your cytokines well-regulated.
- Get some natural light – Sunlight is a known sleep regularizar and natural mood elevator. If possible, try to get 10 minutes of natural outdoor light every day. You can also sit at your terrace or near a sunny window.
- Nap – If you cannot get enough sleep at night, try to catch up during the day. Just make sure it is a short nap and not too close to bedtime so it does not interrupt your nighttime sleep.
At this time, our best weapons against the virus are social distancing and personal hygiene, so we do not get infected by the virus at all. But at the same time, your strongest defense against the virus is to strengthen your immune system. Therefore, a good night’s sleep may be of special importance at the moment, especially in a time when many of us are forced to adopt new routines which include working from home. It can do wonders to improve our mood, cognitive functions and overall health during this challenging time.