Over the last decade or so the link between gut health and immunity has become well documented. This makes sense when considering approximately 70%-80% of human immune cells reside in the GI tract. If your gut is colonized with an abundance of beneficial bacteria, in theory, your immune system will be healthy. The prebiotic fiber abundant in superfoods feeds the good bacteria. Happy, well-fed friendly bugs in your gut equals a healthier you. Recent research reveals another solution for building and maintaining a strong immune system: consistently getting a good night’s sleep.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the ways sleep and immunity are connected. We’ll also recommend some tips for sleeping more deeply at night so you can feel refreshed in the morning.
The Connection Between Sleep & The Immune System
If you’re passionate about natural health, the link between sleep and immunity is probably not all that surprising. What may come as somewhat of a surprise is just how recent the link between sleep quality and immune function was established in research studies.
Over 2400 years ago, Hippocrates, the legendary Greek physician, orated on the connection between sleep and disease states. But it’s only been in the last 30 years or so that sleep studies focusing on immune interactions began.
And here’s the basics of what we know about sleep’s connection to immune health… In a nutshell, people who don’t sleep well are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. And if you do get sick and you’re not sleeping well, recovery time can be delayed.
Again, this might not come to you as a mind-blowing revelation. But what you may not be familiar with is the exact mechanism of how sleep affects the immune system. So let’s dive in and explore...
While you sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines. Cytokines have developed somewhat of a negative connotation. This is because people with high levels of inflammation have excess levels of cytokines.
In fact, serious respiratory complications from the flu and viruses such as bacterial pneumonia, which can be deadly, are triggered by what’s called a cytokine storm.
Cytokine storms are an overreaction of the immune system.
But some cytokines are actually involved in helping you fall asleep. Levels of certain cytokines rise when you have an infection. The same is true when you’re experiencing stress.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, this deprivation may decrease the production of immune-boosting cytokines. And it might not just be you that feels sluggish after not getting a good night’s sleep. Your antibodies and immune cells that fight infections become less active (or their numbers are reduced) when you’re sleep deprived.
Sleep & The Inflammation Response
In a person with a healthy immune system who is fighting an infection, cytokines can actually help you sleep more deeply. This deeper sleep is ammunition for your immune response.
In fact, getting consistent high-quality sleep is proven by research to be associated with a reduced infection risk. But chronic sleep deprivation can lead to systemic low-grade inflammation. Consequently, poor sleep quality is associated with certain diseases marked by excess inflammation, such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, and neurodegeneration.
How To Get Consistent Good Sleep
Which begs the question, if you’re not consistently sleeping well, what are you supposed to do?
Well, if you want to try the natural route, here are some things you can try:
With a plethora of sleep and meditation apps, it’s never been easier to at least try getting more restful sleep. If you’re not a good sleeper, put some good faith effort into meditating every day, both morning and night.
Instead of watching TV and then going straight to bed, power off your phone (airplane mode), computer and TV by 10 p.m. Then, take 30 minutes to meditate or follow along to a relaxation app.
The point of meditation is not to become enlightened or perfect with your thoughts. That will never happen anyways. Rather, the point of meditation is to focus on your breath and be in the present.
Thoughts will arise and that’s ok. Just refocus on your breath and try not to think about anything. If you go 10 seconds without thinking about anything, that’s a great success!
Just like anything else in life, whether it’s learning how to play chess or guitar or surfing, meditation takes time to “get it.” Commit to doing it daily for at least 30 minutes and after the month is over, you will likely notice a profound difference in your stress levels. You may even notice that you’re sleeping a little better.
It’s up to you whether or not you want to try prescription medication for sleep. The potential side effects of pharmaceuticals are cause for concern to some people. For centuries, herbal formulas for sleep have successfully helped countless people. But these days, you don’t need to steep foul-smelling herbal concoctions; you can pop some pills just as you would with modern medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) formulas nowadays come in convenient capsules or tablets with concentrated herbal extracts.
Te Xiao Zao Ren An Mian is one of the most famous formulas in Chinese medicine for sleep. The individual herbs in the formula contain compounds that have sedative effects, but are not tranquilizing. The formula, theoretically, calms the Heart, the organ system that controls an individual’s spirit and vitality. Healthy Heart, better sleep, according to Chinese medicine. (Heart is capitalized to distinguish the system from the Western organ.)
Although related to meditation, deep breathing can be done without a smartphone app or YouTube video. For many people, an overactive sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) is the reason for chronic poor sleep. Studies suggest that slow, deep breathing may, according to research in Frontiers in Psychology, “Attenuate the ‘mismatch disease’ of autonomic hyper-arousal and help people deal with the arousing pressure to sleep.” In other words, taking slow deep breaths can help you chill out and sleep better.
In one review of 34 research studies on exercise’s influence on sleep quality, 29 of them concluded exercise promoted increased sleep efficiency and duration. And the good news is that if you’re not a big fan of breaking a big sweat, the researchers determined that the benefits of exercise on sleep are derived regardless of the mode and intensity of activity. In other words, you don’t have to do boot-camp workouts for deeper sleep; a leisurely walk will do.
But consistency is the key. Also keep in mind that breaking up your exercise routine into a few, shorter intervals is just as effective as one long workout.
Try taking two short leisurely walks at night. One immediately after dinner to normalize your blood sugar levels, and then another short walk before bed to encourage deeper sleep.
Although researchers don’t completely understand how exercise improves sleep quality, here’s what is known: exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get. Slow wave sleep refers to the state of rejuvenative, deep sleep.
High nutrient-dense foods contain a bevy of enzymes, amino acids, hormone-influencing compounds and vitamins and minerals that impact sleep quality and quantity.
Barley grass powder, which is just one of 55 nutrients in our award-winning Superfood Powder, contains several sleep-promoting compounds, including GABA, calcium, tryptophan, zinc, potassium, and magnesium. According to Medical News Today, a 2018 study concludes barley grass may promote sleep and may help prevent or provide a therapeutic role for chronic diseases.
Remember, when you’re looking at the nutrition facts of a certain food product, the label doesn’t always tell the whole story. Perhaps one day, food labels will include a sleep-quality score. Until then, make sure you’re consuming superfoods on a daily basis. (The easiest way to get your daily dose of superfoods is this.)
One of the best ways to support and maintain a strong immune system is by getting consistent, good-quality sleep. And, of course, by consuming superfoods.