Patients are often surprised when we discuss the need for adequate sleep to maintain the immune system. We are all used to thinking about our diet, computer/screen habits, and supplements or herbs as having a lot to do with building a strong immune response, but – sleep? Yep! Sleep (and often the lack thereof) has a huge impact on the strength of the immune response our bodies can mount against outside invaders. Are you or someone you know struggling with ADHD sleep issues? Pregnancy sleep issues? COVID-19 stress sleep issues? Quarantine stress sleep issues? Are you or someone you know an insomniac or even struggling with minor insomnia? Read on……
How does sleep affect our Immune System?
In a western medical sense, there are a number of things that occur during the various stages of sleep. One of the most influential is the creation of what are called “cytokines” within the body. Cytokines are proteins that target infections and inflammation. These increase as we get good, sound sleep. (https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-your-immunity) When our sleep is restricted, especially if poor sleep becomes a chronic issue, less of the beneficial cytokines are released and instead the body puts out pro-inflammatory cytokines. In the same study that demonstrates this, researches also found that sleep and the circadian rhythm seems to have a role in communications between the central nervous system and aspects of the immune system. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/)
In Oriental Medicine, strong immunity is part of the roll of the Spleen and Lung organ systems. These two systems–like all the other organs–actually are related to our mental outlook on life. Ancient masters of Oriental Medicine spoke of subtle aspects of a person’s mental outlook “going to the organs” during sleep “to shelter and consolidate their energy”. What we know in a more modern sense: during sleep, blood flow increases to all the organs. This increased blood carries the necessary worker cells and building blocks to maintain healthy organ tissue. When sleep is less than what is required by a person’s body, less of this beneficial work is performed; over time the tissues are not maintained in a healthy state. They are unable to resist invading organisms because their function is decreased.
How can a person get better sleep?
If you struggle with sleep quality there are a number of things you can do to correct it:
- Develop a regular sleep/waking schedule.
- Go to bed and get up at about the same time(s) each day if possible.
- Turn of electronic devices a good 1-2 hours before sleep as the blue light emitted by these devices interferes with our body’s ability to go into sleep mode.
- Keep evening meals light, trying not to eat within 1-2 hours of bed time. The activity of the digestive system can keep you from falling asleep easily. Also, food in the stomach can contribute to acid reflux when you lay down.
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine and excessive alcohol consumption before bed. Both of these will keep you awake, or cause inconsistent and interrupted sleep.
- Have a quiet, dark, slightly cool sleep area that is just for sleeping. For example, keep television and computer use to other areas of your home.
If you are having issues with sleep quality, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help. A complete intake and diagnosis can help pinpoint the cause and start you on the road to better sleep and a stronger immune system.