Authored by Bob Wright, M.A.T. – Director of Education at Hilton Head Health
If I were to ask you, what are the most important things you can do to improve your health, lower the risk of chronic diseases, manage your weight, and build a strong immune system, you would probably say to eat right and exercise. Some might add to manage stress and avoid smoking and excess alcohol to the list- and you would be right. What is likely missing from your list is getting the right amount and quality of sleep.
In fact, with our current concern about the Coronavirus, sleep might actually be the most important health behavior to focus on. First of all, sleep might be what Charles Duhigg, author of the book the Power of Habit, calls a Keystone Behavior, which is a behavior that might be more important than others because it influences those other behaviors. For example, as important as we know it is to exercise regularly and plan and prepare healthy meals, it is hard to get motivated to do either if you’re exhausted. Without adequate sleep, other healthy behaviors that can influence our immune system might go by the wayside. But the more direct way that sleep can affect health in general and with infections like the Coronavirus, is its impact on our immune system. It is important to acknowledge that there is no evidence that sleep directly influences the risk of contracting the Coronavirus or treating it, but there is overwhelming evidence that sleep strongly influences our immune system in general and our resistance to respiratory conditions specifically. Mathew Walker Ph.D. is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at USC Berkeley and the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. In his book, Why We Sleep, he cites several studies demonstrating the impact of sleep on the immune system.
In one interesting study, the researcher exposed subjects in the study to the cold virus. The amount of sleep experienced the week prior to that exposure dramatically influenced the rate of contacting the cold. Those averaging >7 hours per night had a 17% chance of catching a cold, those getting 6-7 hours a 23%, 5-6 a 30%, and those getting <5 hours a night had a 45 % chance of catching a cold. In another study, those whose sleep was restricted to 4 hours a night for 6 nights, produced half the antibodies when given a flu vaccine compared to those who slept 7-9 hours the week before being vaccinated. Alarmingly, these studies point out that in as little as 1 week of restricted sleep, immune function can be significantly impaired. Researchers also found that women who averaged 5 hours of sleep per night were 70% more likely to develop Pneumonia that those averaging 8 hours per night.
As mentioned earlier, there is no research documenting a direct correlation between sleep and the Coronavirus, but the relationship between sleep and a properly functioning immune system can not be ignored.
Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Diseases Control 1/3 of adults were not getting enough sleep before the coronavirus pandemic. Worries about our health and our family members, concerns about jobs and finances, the feeling of isolation that can come for social distancing all can make even more challenging today than ever to get the sleep we need.
The National Sleep Foundation (www.sleepfoundation.org) provides the following guidelines for sleeping well during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Establishing a routine can facilitate a sense of normalcy even in abnormal times. It’s easier for your mind and body to acclimate to a consistent sleep schedule, which is why health experts have long recommended avoiding major variation in your daily sleep times.
Sleep-specific aspects of your daily schedule should include:
In addition to time spent sleeping and getting ready for bed, it can be helpful to incorporate steady routines to provide time cues throughout the day, including:
Sleep experts emphasize the importance of creating an association in your mind between your bed and sleep. For this reason, they recommend that sleep and sex be the only activities that take place in your bed.
This means that working-from-home shouldn’t be working-from-bed. It also means avoiding bringing a laptop into bed to watch a movie or series.
On any given night, if you find that you’re having a hard time sleeping, don’t spend more than 20 minutes tossing and turning. Instead, get out of bed and do something relaxing in very low light, and then head back to bed to try to fall asleep.
Frequently changing your sheets, fluffing your pillows, and making your bed can keep your bed feeling fresh, creating a comfortable and inviting setting to doze off.
Exposure to light plays a crucial role in helping our bodies regulate sleep in a healthy way. As you deal with disruptions to daily life, you may need to take steps so that light-based cues have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm.
If you’re home all day, you may be tempted to take more naps. While a short power nap early in the afternoon can be useful to some people, it’s best to avoid long naps or naps later in the day that can hinder nighttime sleep.
It’s easy to overlook exercise with everything happening in the world, but regular daily activity has numerous important benefits, including for sleep.
If you can go for a walk while maintaining a safe distance from other people, that’s a great option. If not, there is a wealth of resources online for all types and levels of exercise. Many gyms and yoga and dance studios are live-streaming free classes during this period of social distancing.
It might not seem critical to your sleep, but kindness and connection can reduce stress and its harmful effects on mood and sleep.
Despite all the bad news that you may come across, try to find some positive stories, such as how people are supporting one another through the pandemic. You can use technology to stay in touch with friends and family so that you can maintain social connections despite the need for social distancing.
Finding ways to relax can be a potent tool in improving your sleep. Deep breathing, stretching, yoga, mindfulness meditation, calming music, and quiet reading are just a few examples of relaxation techniques that you can build into your routines. If you’re not sure where to get started, check out smartphone apps like Headspace and Calm that have programs designed for people new to meditation.
Another relaxation strategy during this pandemic is to avoid becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus-related news. For example, you can try techniques including:
Keeping a healthy diet can promote good sleep. In particular, be cautious with the intake of alcohol and caffeine, especially later in the day, as both can disrupt the quantity and quality of your sleep.
If you have severe or worsening sleep or other health problems, it is advisable to be in touch with your doctor. Many doctors are increasing availability via email or telemedicine to allow patients to discuss concerns without having to physically visit their office.
With news about the novel coronavirus moving at a mile-a-minute, it’s important to have resources for trusted, evidence-based information. Two such sources include the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their sites offer key information about COVID-19 including how to keep your family and community safe and how to avoid coronavirus myths.
Director of Education at Hilton Head Health