Sleep, Stress & Immunity

A while back I wrote a blog about food and how eating a well balanced diet can contribute to a healthy immune system and can help ward off illness.  In addition to what we eat, how we live also has an impact our body’s ability to stay well and decrease our risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Two lifestyle factors that standout in regards to the research available on immunity are sleep and stress.

We all know that not being well rested feels lousy. Research has shown that there is a direct link between the quality and quantity of our sleep and our immune system.  One study from UCLA found that even a small amount of sleep loss can trigger increased inflammation and cause tissue damage.

When we sleep a variety of disease fighting substances, like hormones and certain chemicals, are released or created.  When we don’t get enough rest, these substances are decreased making us more susceptible to viruses or bacteria we are introduced to.  When we do get sick it may take longer to recover because we lack what we need to defend our bodies in times of need.

As an aside, sleep can also help impact our appetites through its impact on levels of the ghrelin and leptin, hormones that play an important role in our feelings of hunger and fullness.  Ghrelin functions in increasing appetite and signaling us to eat.  Leptin does the opposite, and suppresses the appetite and tells your brain you are full.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased levels of ghrelin – the appetite and hunger stimulator – and lower levels of leptin.  As a result, your brain tells you you are hungry, even though you don’t actually need food at the time, and your body stores more calories you eat as fat to provide your body with energy when you do need it.  Ultimately, lack of sleep can cause you to feel constantly hungry and not use the calories you eat efficiently.  Not what we want, right?

The recommendation for adults is to shoot for 7 to 8 hours per night and children should get 9 to 11 hours.  If you aren’t getting anywhere near that much or are just a little shy, start small and turn the TV off just 30 minutes earlier.

Stress can impact every aspect of our lives, including getting the good and restful sleep we need.  In recent years the medical community has started to embrace more fully the connection between mind and body and the impact it has on our overall health.

Multiple studies have shown a clear relationship between increased stress levels, depression, and loneliness and decreased immunity.  As people’s stress levels go up their ability to fight off antigens (foreign bodies – like bacteria and viruses) is reduced, making them more susceptible to illness.

Two of the questions I ask clients in the initial paperwork they fill out are:  What is your stress level – low, medium, or high? and how do you cope with stress?  Some people have very clear and beneficial ways of dealing with stress, but many others don’t.  Stress management and coping strategies are critical for not only keeping our immune system strong but also for helping us live a vibrant and enjoyable life.

So what can we do about it?  Stress is a part of life, but the key is in how you manage both the chronic and long-term stressors that you encounter. Some of the things we choose to do to relieve stress may only compound the problem and in the end create more stress and negative emotions – like eating emotionally, excessively drinking, or smoking.

Instead of finding things that may just temporarily relieve stress or put a bandaid on our problems look for more permanent and effective ways to cope.  For many – including myself – exercise is a stress reliever.  Deep breathing, meditation (give the app Stop, Breathe and Think a try), yoga, reading, journaling your thoughts and feelings, or even just listening to good music are all proven stress relievers too.  The most important thing is to seek out what works for you.

Sleep and stress are intertwined.  Not getting enough sleep only makes stress worse and often when we are stressed we don’t sleep well.  The habits surrounding sleep and stress can be particularly challenging areas to change.  Like with any habit that we are interested in changing just focusing on changing a few small things at a time is usually the best way to make lasting change.  Your body and mind will thank you and you’ll boost your immunity to illness in the process.