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Sleep – A Key Link in Optimizing your Immune System and Wellbeing

by Emma Lane(more info)

listed in sleep and insomnia, originally published in issue 264 - August 2020


The pandemic may be affecting your sleep at night. Anxiety is a leading cause of sleep dysfunction, and not getting enough sleep and recovery generally will have negative effects on your health. Sleep plays an important role in supporting a healthy immune system, and the two are closely connected. Lack of sleep will increase the likelihood of infection and then being ill can disrupt your sleep further, which in turn slows down your recovery.

Sleep and Regeneration

Sleep is one of the body’s first line of defences against infectious disease. During sleep, the body produces and releases proteins called cytokines (a type of protein) that fight inflammation and infection. When we are exposed to infectious pathogens, have inflammation, or experience chronic stress, the body increases production of these cytokines effectively creating an immune response to offset illness. Sleep deprivation hinders this immune response as the body makes fewer cytokines. This for instance can increase the risk of catching a virus, such as the common cold, therefore not getting enough sleep impacts the body’s ability to naturally fight off infections.

Sleep disturbances are linked with early stages of infection; irregular sleep patterns could signal that the body is beginning to fight off illness. Lack of sleep generally slows down the immune response and allows illness to progress further. The benefits of sleep are both preventive and restorative.

In the last 50 years, the average amount of time we sleep each night has decreased by 1½ - 2 hours from over 8 hours of sleep every night to under 7. That’s a staggering drop – equivalent to a full month of continuous sleep every year.

This leaves a significant sleep deficit that is never resolved and from what we know about how lack of sleep affects our brains, hormones, and immune system, it may be the single greatest contributor to chronic illness in general.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation

  • Impaired immune system;
  • Irritability;
  • Excessive yawning;
  • Decreased reaction time;
  • Memory lapses;
  • Cognitive impairment;
  • Low dopamine levels which will manifest as low motivation, trouble waking in the morning, sugar cravings, low sex drive etc;
  • Decreased heart rate variability;
  • Risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes;
  • Body aches.

There are profound benefits to getting a good night’s sleep regularly, such as:

  • Brain detox and health;
  • Stress regulation;
  • Good immune function;
  • Disease prevention;
  • General wellbeing and vitality.

Sleep and Regeneration

Sleep ensures the regeneration of new tissue and cells.  It literally creates the space necessary for healing, helping the body to defend itself against neurodegenerative disease and long-term mood disorders.

In a recent animal study, researchers at the University of Rochester’s Medical Center showed that sleep helps us to clear toxic, metabolic waste from the brain.

In other words, sleep is an essential part of detoxification and renewal. While the rest of the body uses blood and lymphatic fluid to take away toxic waste from cells, the brain isn’t equipped with this lymphatic plumbing. Instead, the brain relies on cerebrospinal fluid, which flows through the brain and spinal cord. Cerebrospinal fluid and the brain’s immune system make up the glymphatic system.

The glymphatic system filters out waste and harmful metabolites that play a role in disorders that affect the brain, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers tracked the flow of fluid between brain cells and through the central nervous system. They found that brain cells contract which increased the space between the cells from 14% of brain volume to 23%. That translates into a 60% increase in space between the cells.

During sleep, the cells are bathed in larger amounts of cleansing fluid than during waking hours. When the brain is not able to clear out waste, it accumulates in the brain.  This waste is toxic, and can instigate mechanisms like inflammation and cell death.

Sleep Quality and Cycles

Eight hours of good sleep feels different from eight hours of poor sleep. Good-quality sleep is largely uninterrupted, allowing the brain and body to cycle through all stages of sleep three-five times per night. When this occurs, we are able to achieve refreshing sleep.

Normal sleep is characterized by discrete episodes of non-REM and REM sleep that alternate several times during the night. Like so many biological processes, these cycles represent an ultradian rhythm – a recurrent period or cycle repeated throughout a 24-hour day – that last approximately 90 minutes. The majority of Stage 3 sleep occurs in the first half of the night, while the REM periods become increasingly longer as the night continues. Thus REM sleep tends to predominate in the second half of the night.

Non-REM sleep is composed of three distinct stages of sleep, each defined by its unique EEG, eye movement, and muscle-tone patterns.

Stage 1 Sleep

As we close our eyes and prepare for sleep, the eyes begin a slow rolling movement, and muscle tone relaxes. Stage 1 sleep is very light. People may still be aware of environmental noises and have some active, though progressively disjointed, thoughts or visual images. If sleep is not interrupted here, Stage 1 serves as a brief five-minute transition between waking and Stage 2 sleep.

Stage 2 Sleep

This stage may last 15-30 minutes: there are few eye movements, and muscle tone is unchanged from Stage 1.

Stage 3 Sleep

This stage, which is also known as deep sleep, may last 20-40 minutes. If depth of sleep is measured in terms of how difficult it is to rouse someone from sleep, this is the deepest part of sleep.

REM sleep occurs after approximately 80-90 minutes of sleep. Muscle tone decreases dramatically. The entire body is in a state of semi-paralysis. The most striking feature of REM sleep is the appearance of sharp eye movements to the left and right, as well as up and down. These REM sleep periods can last from as little as 5 to 10 minutes, to 30 minutes or more.

Establishing consistent circadian rhythms is a key component to optimize flowing through these phases of sleep each night and getting the beneficial immune responses. The advised time to go to sleep is 10:30pm. We are hard wired and have many key biological processes that are affected by our circadian rhythms. Optimal physical repair takes place between 10:00pm and 2:00am, and psychological repair between 2:00am and 6:00am (see diagram A). Aim for eight or nine hours of restorative sleep every night.

Normal Anabolic/Catabolic Hormone Levels

Diagram A: Normal Anabolic/Catabolic Hormone Levels


Stress and the HPA Axis

An important reason to get a good night’s sleep is the influence it has on the HPA axis. The HPA axis consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. This system constantly monitors the body for stress feedback.

Studies have found that lack of sleep will interfere with our ability to regulate stress. Poor sleep has been shown to throw off normal cortisol production and disrupt the HPA axis. Getting consistent, high quality sleep supports a favourable cortisol rhythm during the night that will in turn support the HPA axis and promote a healthy stress response.

When you are stressed from whatever source, it will have a detrimental effect on your sleep and health in general (see diagram B).


Exaggerated Stress Response

Diagram B: Exaggerated Stress Response


Disease Prevention

Poor quality sleep is associated with blood sugar dysregulation, poor dietary habits and it also increases the risk of becoming obese by up to 89% in some cases. All of these peripheral effects of poor sleep will put unnecessary stress on the heart.

Added to this, poor sleep has been shown to increase the chances of stroke and coronary heart diseases significantly, as well as increasing inflammation. The blood sugar dysregulation that occurs with poor sleep leads to higher insulin levels which drive up inflammation. The higher the inflammation level in the body, the more likely you are to oxidize cholesterol into dangerous arterial plaques.

Here are some tips to create the best opportunity to experience great quality and consistent sleep.

Support your Circadian Rhythm

  • Go outside first thing in the morning and expose yourself to sunlight throughout the day at regular intervals. This is congruent with our biological 24-hour clock and will set you up for a natural release of melatonin at night; 
  • Avoid artificial lighting (especially blue green-coloured light) Doing this is just as important for optimal sleep as getting regular doses of sunlight during the day;
  • Artificial light is detrimental to health for several reasons. Artificial light that does not contain full-spectrum illumination does not stimulate the body in the same way that sunlight does. Sunlight exposure is an important bio regulatory stimulus (meaning it helps the body regulate its own processes) that most artificial lighting doesn’t provide;
  • The main reason why artificial lighting is bad for the human body is when it is blue-spectrum lighting. Many of us are aware of this now, that mobile phones, TVs, and computers give off intense blue light that has been shown to inhibit melatonin production in the brain by up to 80%! Electronic use before bed has also been shown to slightly increase cortisol and body temperature which is the opposite of the body’s natural sleep response. Therefore, dimming lights down and avoiding screens in the evening will dramatically improve your sleep.

Create a Bedtime Routine

  • Create a night time routine that you follow consistently before getting in bed. It doesn’t have to be overly complex. It could simply be a nightly wind down routine, spending time with family, chatting, a light stretching routine, gratitude journaling, meditation, breathing practices, relaxing magnesium flake bath, leisurely reading with appropriate low lighting and or blue-green light glasses. The key is consistency and finding a routine that works for you.

Set up a Regular Sleep Routine

  • Consistently match your sleep schedule to nature’s circadian rhythms: asleep by 10:30 pm and awake seven to eight hours later;
  • Your ideal bedtime is 10:30pm. If you’re going to bed much later than that, start going to bed earlier in quarter-hour increments every few days until you get to 10.30.

 Sleep in the Darkest Room Possible

  • Turn off all night lights and block bright illumination from street lights etc;
  • Utilize blackout blinds;
  • If needed, sleep with a good eye mask.

Don’t Drink Caffeine after 2 p.m.

  • Caffeine is a stimulant. It enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine and has a stimulating effect within 15 minutes after it is consumed.  The half-life of caffeine is around 5-7 hours which means it takes that long for half of the caffeine consumed to stop effecting your system. The effects of caffeine can last 10-14 hours before fully wearing off. Limit your overall caffeine intake. Consume any caffeine early in the day and definitely not after 2pm.

 Stop Eating Three Hours before Bedtime

  • However, if you’re NOT sleeping through the night, trying a light snack within an hour of bedtime may be helpful. Just a few bites of that evening’s leftover dinner is sufficient.

Monitor your Device Use

  • Install a blue/green-light filter on your devices;
  • Wear good quality blue/green-light glasses if watching tv after 8pml
  • WIFI should be turned off at night;
  • Avoid close screen activity two hours before bed;
  • Stop all electronic activity at least one hour before sleep;
  • Put your devices on airplane mode, ideally turn off until morning and leave in a different room;
  • Limit electrical devices in your bedroom and make sure they are turned off at night.

Ask someone if you snore or are a mouth-breather at night

  • If the answer is yes, talk with your dentist;
  • It may be a good idea to get a sleep apnoea check;
  • Snoring and mouth breathing make for a poor night’s sleep.

Track your Sleep!

  • Track your sleep at night;
  • A heart rate variability monitor is a great way to check the quality and quantity of your sleep as well as many other wellbeing factors;
  • Try out the Bella beat Leaf, Garmin or OURA ring for basic tracking;
  • Tracking your sleep helps you spot trends and activities that are affecting your sleep and therefore your health;

You can easily support your sleep and your health just by making some positive changes in your daily routine. Start slowly and build in the above suggestions to create better wellbeing and immune protection for the long term.


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About Emma Lane

Emma Lane ND Dip NT CMTA C.H.E.K IV HLC3 PEA RSA – Founder and Director of the Lane Wellness Group – has more than 30 years’ experience in the industry, working as a Naturopath, Naturopathic Nutritionist and Functional Medicine Practitioner. She is a registered practitioner of ISEAI (The International Society for Environmentally Acquired Illness). Emma has two busy practices in the north of England and central London and is also the Founder and Director of Integrative Health Education and PCI Europe. Emma regularly lectures around the world and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with other practitioners. She works closely with Dr Omar Amin, a world-renowned professor of parasitology. Emma is qualified to practise across a wide range of natural health sciences including Naturopathy, Naturopathic Nutrition, Functional Medicine, FSM (frequency specific microcurrent) Neuro-linguistic Programming, Timeline Therapy, Hypnotherapy, Auricular Acupuncture, Functional Corrective Exercise, Sound Therapy and Energy Healing. For further information please contact Emma on Tel: 01924 242 851 and via Energize, Mind, Body;    Holistics Online,    Parasite Testing,    Integrative Health Education ,   Lane Wellness Group

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