6 things this immunologist does every night to sleep better and strengthen her immune system

More than two years after the emergence of a pandemic, we are still battling Covid-19 outbreaks – and that means building and maintaining a strong immune system must be a priority.

As an immunologist and functional medicine physician, I always remind my patients that while genetics, diet, and exercise play a role in our immune response, sleep is one of the most effective ways to prepare your body to fight infections.

Without adequate sleep, your stress hormones can be disrupted, affecting your weight, gut health, and immune defense.

Sleep: Shut Down Your Body, Energize Your Immune System

Exercise is not enough to get high quality sleep. I see patients who go to the gym every day and have made sacrifices like eliminating alcohol or sugar, but still can’t sleep well.

In fact, 50 million Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder, and one in three adults in the US gets less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep.

This, unfortunately, is affecting our health in many ways. Sleep deprivation not only makes us feel tired the next day, it also creates inflammation and increases the risk of disease. It has been linked to increased rates of hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and cancer.

how to sleep better

The good news is that once you start prioritizing sleep, your immune system can recover quickly.

Here are six things I do every night to ensure a good night’s rest:

1. Reduce digital devices

You might be shocked at how much time you spend surfing the web, watching TV, and scrolling without thinking about your phone. Once you’re honest about what you do with your time, think about how you can reduce these non-essential activities and reassign your time to sleep.

I also suggest putting your phone and computer in a drawer at the same time every night. Experts in human behavior have found that being successful in making healthy lifestyle choices is less about innate willpower and more about creating a lifestyle that facilitates those decisions.

2. Create an optimal sleep environment

Your bedroom should be your sleep sanctuary. You don’t need expensive sheets, a heavy blanket or a cooling pad. A comfortable mattress, high-quality pillow, and soft bedding will do just fine.

If you have electronic indicator lights in your room, cover them with black electrical tape. If you have bright street lights outside your window, use blackout curtains. If you can hear traffic noise, use a white noise machine to drown it out.

Finally, make sure your bedroom is nice and cool (ideal sleeping temperature is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18.3 degrees Celsius).

3. Calm the mind before bed

Insomnia is usually caused by ruminating about things that didn’t happen – or may never happen.

One way to calm your mind and body is to journal before bed. Processing your worries by writing them down has been found to help clear your mind of stressful thoughts so they don’t keep you up at night.

Breathing exercises can also help. If I’m anxious or worried, or just a little excited, I use the 4-5-7 breathing technique:

  1. Sitting calmly, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth near the back of your upper front teeth and exhale with a “whoosh” sound.
  2. Inhale through your nose for a silent count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale through your nose for a count of eight.
  3. Repeat this cycle three more times, for a total of four rounds.

4. Experiment with magnesium

Magnesium is often referred to as the “relaxation” mineral, thanks to its demonstrated ability to fight insomnia.

You can always take a magnesium supplement, but one of my favorite ways to use it for sleep is by taking a hot bath of Epsom salt. Magnesium sulfate is the main component of Epsom salt and, as it penetrates the skin and muscles, it can have a relaxing effect.

Even just soaking in a hot bath helps you fall asleep faster.

5. Wear blue light blocking glasses

Blue light interferes with your body’s ability to prepare for sleep because it blocks a hormone called melatonin that makes you sleepy.

And given the excessive amounts of blue light in our homes (ie from smartphones, tablets, computers), blue-light blocking glasses are essential for me. Wearing these glasses has been shown to significantly improve sleep quality and decrease insomnia.

The best glasses often have yellow or orange lenses and block higher percentages, some as high as 90%, of blue spectrum light. My favorites are Swanswick eyewear, but there are also several good manufacturers and prescription options.

6. Do some easy stretches

Implementing stretching or restorative yoga before bed can help with pain, high blood pressure, restless leg syndrome, and anxiety. Just a few poses can engage your parasympathetic nervous system and help you sleep better.

I love doing leg poses on the wall. And the best part is that you really only need five minutes to make a big difference.

Dr. Heather Moday is a board-certified allergist, immunologist, and functional medicine physician. She is also the author of “Immunotype Discovery: Your Personalized Plan to Balance Your Immune System, Optimize Health, and Build Lifelong Resilience.” Follow her on Instagram @theimmunityMD and Facebook.

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