At times like these, it’s easy to overlook the simplest of solutions.
The marketplace has been alive for years on ways to boost our immune system. And the current pandemic only serves to highlight its importance.
But while solutions abound (among them, vitamins B, C and D, curcumin, echinacea, selenium, mushrooms, garlic, astragalus), the most important immunity aid might just be a good night’s sleep.
Earlier this month TED curator Chris Anderson interviewed brain scientist Matt Walker (director of the Center for Human Sleep Science) to discuss why sleep matters now more than ever. Walker makes clear: “From an immune health perspective, we know that sleep essentially sharpens every tool in that box, sleep essentially restocks the weaponry in your immune arsenal, giving you the greatest chance to fight off infection.”
How Should We View Sleep?
I must admit, I’ve always regarded sleep as something as an inconvenience, a kind of indulgence. Walker firmly rejects that notion: “It’s not an inconvenience, sleep is an investment, sleep is an investment in your physical health and your mental health.” He adds, “Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a nonnegotiable biological necessity. It is your life-support system, and it is Mother Nature's best effort yet at immortality.”
• Regularity is king. Try to go to bed, and wake up, at the same time every day, weekends included.
• Keep it cool – “Your body needs to drop its core temperature by about two to three degrees Fahrenheit to initiate sleep and then to stay asleep.”
• Strive for 7-9 hours per night.
• Avoid alcohol (“it’s the enemy of sleep . . . it’s sedation, not sleep.”)
• Sleeping pills should no longer be the first line of treatment; cognitive behavior therapy has more long-lasting impact.
• Try not to check your phone for the first five minutes of the day (“. . . so that you don’t train your brain to think, OK, every night when I go to bed the first thing I’m going to be doing is receiving anxiety in the morning.”)
• And melatonin? “If you’re transitioning between time zones,” says Walker, “that’s when melatonin can be really useful.” And some evidence exists, he says, that it provides a benefit to the elderly. But “one has to be a little careful because melatonin isn’t regulated by the FDA,” notes Walker, who cited one study which found a
stunning variance from what the label said and the actual melatonin dose — from 80% less to almost 460% more. The proper dose? Walker recommends 0.5% or less, which is far lower than the often recommended 5 mg or 10 mg.
After a Bad Night’s Sleep? Walker’s tips:
• Try not to sleep in the next day. The reason? “Your body has a 24-hour clock and it expects regularity, it thrives best on regularity and if you start to change your wake up time, you will confuse that 24-hour clock.”
• Don’t necessarily go to bed any earlier the next night.
• Resist the urge to nap during the day, especially late in the afternoon.
Still Struggling with Sleep?
• Get out of bed. “If you’re in bed, and been awake for 20 or 30 minutes, perhaps, the advice is, take a break. Stop trying to fight sleep. . . . You would never sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why would you lie in bed waiting to get sleepy?” explains Walker. You might tell yourself: “Tonight is not my night . . . get out of bed, only return when you’re sleepy.”
• Create a wind-down period. Preparing to sleep, Walker points out, is “more like landing a plane,” so do meditation, take a shower, create some kind of ritual. A warm bath works, Walker said, because it drops your core temperature.
• Remove the clocks. “Remove all clock faces from the bedroom,” Walker suggests. “It’s fine to have an alarm clock … but try to take away any information about sleep.”