Quality Sleep, Your Immune System, and the Coronavirus Outbreak

By Dr. Michael Breus|March 24, 2020|

The coronavirus outbreak that has devastated China and left the world scrambling for answers has also reinforced the important role sleep plays in building our immune systems.

In a nutshell: Making sure we consistently get a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways we can improve our immunity and defend against viruses and disease. Sleep is a natural immune booster.

I’m not saying sleep is a panacea for coronavirus. What I am saying, though, is this is an opportunity to remember the fundamentals. There’s no debate sleep is a vital component of staying healthy.

Sleep is necessary for your immune system to run as efficiently as possible:

Sleep Fosters T Cell Production

  • T Cells are white blood cells that play a critical part in the immune system’s response to viruses. Sleep deprivation, meanwhile, stops T Cells from responding efficiently — and makes it more difficult for the body to fight back against illnesses.
  • The immune system’s response time is also improved by getting a good night’s sleep.
    • By completing the four sleep cycles, you’re supporting the release and production of cytokine, a multifaceted protein that helps the immune system quickly respond to antigens.
  • Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco highlighted this last year.
    • Their findings indicated poor sleep was the number one factor in determining whether someone would get sick after being exposed to the cold virus.

The coronavirus outbreak has understandably become a worldwide story in the last few weeks.

By getting a full night of sleep, we help our bodies best fight back against potential threats. Here are our thoughts, based on science, on how to stay safe and healthy.

7 steps to Get a Good Nights Sleep- During a Pandemic

1)  Give yourself an electronic curfew of 90 min prior to lights out: this will put you on a MEDIA DIET before bed (and slow your information flow), keep you away from blue light, and if you wear blue light blocking glasses, help you wind down before bed.
2)  Consider meditation or relaxation while falling asleep-techniques to calm your brain before bed.
3)  Compile a gratitude list (while lying in bed, in the dark): many people think stressful thoughts as they fall asleep ( which makes sense it’s the first time all day you get to think by yourself), but that causes increases in our fight or flight hormones, so thinking less stressful or positive thoughts can help reduce these stressful feelings and help with sleep (improves deep sleep and more positive dreams).
4)  Keep your schedule consistent: the more consistent your wake-up time, the more consistent your overall body function. Avoid extra napping if you are home bound-it will only disrupt your nighttime sleep.
5)  Lower stimulants and depressants: caffeine and alcohol- if you are already stressed out, adding caffeine to the mix is NOT a great idea, it will only increase the unwanted side effects. Alcohol, while making you feel sleepy, does NOT get you quality rest, which will make you feel even more stressed with a hangover the next day and less able to fight a virus.
6)  Take a Hot Shower of Bath 90 min before bed: wash off all those germs and increase your core body temp, which will decrease once you get out of the tub, and help produce natural Melatonin.
7)  Make sure your environment is clean: use filtration for air, wash sheets 2x a week (in HOT water), try to do an overall deep cleaning of your bedroom, you will be spending a lot of time there!

3 ways to reduce stress during the Pandemic

If, like most people, you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep because of stress and worry and all the craziness going on), you’ve experienced firsthand the strong connection between anxiety and insomnia. Stress routinely tops the list of sources of sleep problems, according to patients.

Stress and sleep exist in a bi-directional relationship. Just as stress and anxiety trigger insomnia and other sleep problems, lack of sleep increases stress and anxiety. Poor sleep makes us more vulnerable to the symptoms of anxiety, including:

  • Irritability and short-temperedness
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Struggles with motivation
  • Trouble with concentration and memory recall
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased emotional reactivity

Relaxation exercises have been shown highly effective in reducing stress and improving sleep. Here are my 3 go-to stress reducers for times of stress:

Breathing

Deep, slow, self-aware breathing is an ancient, powerful way to clear the body of stress and tension, and a great way to relax as part of a nightly transition to sleep. Deep breathing kicks off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, including reducing muscle tension, slowing breathing rate and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and metabolism.

A breathing practice can be as simple as taking a series of even, slow inhale and exhale breaths as a regular routine during the day, or whenever you feel anxious or stressed. There are also a multitude of structured breathing exercises. Here is one of my favorites.

4-7-8 breathing

In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed:

  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale slowly, for 8 seconds
  • Repeat several times

What does the act of deep breathing do for the body and mind, to relax and promote healthy sleep? By taking a deep inhale and holding your breath, you’re increasing the body’s oxygen level, allowing your body to have to work slightly less hard to function. A long, slow exhale has a meditative quality to it that is inherently relaxing. That slow exhale is also very similar to the pace of breathing your body adopts as you’re falling asleep. By deep breathing before bedtime, in a way you’re mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset, and nudging your body and mind toward its all-important period of rest.

Guided imagery 

Think about tasting a tart or sour food–maybe sucking on lemon or a lime, or swallowing a teaspoon of vinegar. Really imagine this experience: the smell, the taste on your tongue, the sensation as the food hits your throat. What happened? You likely had a physical reaction to this fantasy. Maybe your lips puckered, or your mouth watered. That is the power of imagination, and of guided imagery. When we imagine something, our bodies respond as though they were actually experiencing that imagined moment.

Guided imagery is a mind-body technique that can be used to reduce stress and promote sleep. Guided imagery exercises engage all the senses in a focused period of imagination. This powerful mind-body tool helps to connect the conscious mind with the unconscious mind, and helps the mind direct the body toward positive, desirable responses. Guided imagery can be tailored and targeted to different goals, including to relieve physical and mental stress, to reduce anxiety, to prepare for and bring about sleep. Guided imagery is another terrific component of a nightly pre-bed routine. Spending a few minutes engaged in a soothing, restful guided image journey—such as imagining floating peacefully in a calm ocean, being rocked by gentle waves and covered by a warm breeze—can help you gently separate from the stresses of the day and prepare the mind and body to sleep.

There are several different levels and forms of guided imagery that range from visualizations to more organized and targeted imaginative scripts and storytelling. It’s possible to learn guided imagery on your own. It can also be valuable to seek the assistance of a therapist or practitioner in developing a guided imagery practice.

Progressive relaxation

This mind-body relaxation technique is a simple, striking way to become familiar with your body and the places where you hold stress and tension. Progressive relaxation involves working one at a time with different areas and muscle groups of the body, first tensing and relaxing them. This practice cultivates an awareness of what both tension and relaxation feel like in your body. With that awareness you become better prepared to address that physical tension and any mental or emotional stress that accompanies it.

Used as part of a nightly power down routine, progressive relaxation can help you release physical and mental tension that, left unaddressed, can interfere with sleep. A typical progressive relaxation routine starts at the lowest point of the body—the feet—and works gradually up to the top of the head, tensing and relaxing every area of the body along the way.

Stay safe, Sleep Well, Sweet Dreams