importance of sleep
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The Importance of Sleep

With our focus turned toward health and boosting immunity, sleep, and its role in supporting the immune system, is top of mind more than ever before

By Nancy Coulter-Parker

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Well before the pandemic, we were tired. Stress, work, the demands of family life, lack of exercise, poor sleep hygiene—the reasons for insomnia are many. While adults aged 18 to 64 typically need seven to nine hours of sleep, 35 percent of us report getting less than seven hours, according to the Sleep Foundation. And almost half of all Americans report feeling tired during the day three to seven days per week. While the events of 2020 and 2021 certainly did not solve our troubles with sleep, they did give many of us pause to think about the habits that support a strong foundation for good health and a robust immune system.

From the time we were young, we’ve been told how important a good night’s sleep is. Dr. Orna Izakson, N.D., founder of Celilo Natural Health Center in Portland, Oregon, likens the role sleep plays to building a house. “A foundation is the thing you set the house on, so the house doesn’t fall over or bend out of shape. Foundations are the fundamentals,” she explains. When it comes to the human body, Izakson adds, “We all know what those foundations are whether we address them or not—it’s eating well, clean water, fresh air, good food, moving our bodies and sleep. Without these things, the house gets wonky.”

Sleep, however, is one of the foundations we have some funny ideas about. We often talk about how little we can get away with because it gets in the way of the things we want to do—adventures, work or whatever our awake priorities are. Yet, the reality is when our sleep improves, from being too little or too much, we have more in the tank to do the things we want to do, explains Izakson. Not to mention, the health consequences of poor sleep are plentiful—metabolic dysfunctions, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety and other cognitive issues, to name just a few. Studies have shown sleep deprivation to impair judgment in a way that it’s akin to being legally drunk.

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Sleep and Immune Health

Sleep plays an important role in immune health. How? Izakson explains that sleep helps consolidate memory and learning. Imagine putting your books on a table to study, then closing them and walking away when you go to bed. “The brain redistributes things while you sleep; it closes and puts them back on the shelves and labels them in your mental index,” she says. With immune health, Isakson says, “What seems to happen is the same kind of memory consolidation for the immune system during sleep.” She references one study for hepatitis B vaccines that revealed good sleep after vaccination led to an improved immune response. “You got more bang for the vaccine buck if you slept well that night. In this sense, sleep is helping to calibrate the immune system,” she says.

How does this happen? At night, our immune system ramps up, producing inflammation even when we are not sick or injured. The purpose is to help build a more robust immune system and actively work at fighting or warding off antigens. Sleep, says Izakson, is an opportunity for the immune system to make more cells, get organized and move immune cells to different places where they can be most effective. The hormone melatonin, well-known for managing circadian rhythm and helping us sleep, is a natural anti-inflammatory, both promoting this self-repair each night and keeping inflammation’s effects in check. “The trick is that inflammation should be able to go up as high as is needed to do its thing and drop back down. But if we don’t sleep properly, inflammation doesn’t go back down,” she explains, and our natural circadian rhythm also gets out of whack. Inflammation by itself is not evil. It’s inflammation that isn’t effective and lingers beyond doing the things it needs to do that is a problem.

A Sleep Routine

So, what is the key to a good night’s sleep? Having a good sleep routine, says Izakson. In its most ideal form, this means going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. “Your body is a dog. It wants to do what you tell it. You just have to be consistent with your messaging,” she explains. “When we are in good routines, it reduces stress. You don’t have to think about bedtime or mealtime, it’s always at the same time. It lowers stress on our bodies to have good routines, with sleep, eating, exercise and everything.”

Getting morning sunshine shortly after waking, ideally at the same time every day, also helps. Bright light shuts down melatonin production, which tells your body you’re awake. Conversely, when it’s time to go to sleep or wind down, start lowering the lights, which signals the body to make melatonin in preparation for sleep. When we stay up late watching TV or playing on our devices, it prevents melatonin production. In terms of cognitive behavioral therapy, Izakson says, the idea is to be active and use energy during the day so you are tired at night. It’s about establishing a pattern so that the day is about being awake and the night is about being asleep.

When it comes to sleep aids, there are natural supplements that can help us sleep or, at the very least, relax. Yet Izakson cautions, that what works for one person may not work for others; it’s important to consult with a healthcare practitioner to find the best supplements for your needs. Here are a few recommendations:

Natural Supplements for Better Sleep:

Melatonin: A hormone, melatonin has many potential uses, including functioning as an anti-inflammatory. For sleep, it should not be used like a sleeping pill, but rather to help reset circadian rhythms. “It’s really about helping to establish that sleep routine, and it is usually used in low doses. It’s about resetting your clock so your body can make its own melatonin and reset appropriately,” says Izakson. How to take: 0.5–2.0 mg, approximately 4 hours before bedtime.

Magnesium: This mineral has been shown to calm the nervous system, and help with muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome and even a busy brain. “We need magnesium for a whole bunch of processes in the body,” explains Izakson, who often sees people exhibiting signs of low magnesium. Magnesium is safe to use, with the worst side effect being diarrhea if you take too much—primarily when you take magnesium citrate. Other types, magnesium glycinate, malate or threonate, do not have this effect. Start below the recommended dose and increase from there. How to take: In powder form, 0.5–2 tsp daily or 310-320 mg for women, 400–420 mg for men.

Chamomile: An ancient medicinal herb, chamomile (even chamomile and lavender) tea can be a gentle and effective aid for sleep. It’s something you can buy at the store, or you can buy chamomile and lavender in bulk and make your own tea at home. “Chamomile calms the nervous system and improves digestion,” says Izakson. It is also safe to give to kids.  How to take: 1 cup of tea, approximately 45 minutes before going to bed.

Linden Flower: Commonly referred to as linden, studies have shown this herb to calm the nervous system, and it can be taken for anxiety and sleep. It is often taken as a tea or in capsule or tincture form. “It tastes and smells good,” says Izakson. How to take: 2–4 grams per day.

Valerian: Commonly found in teas and sleep formulas, valerian is a popular recommendation for sleep. Izakson cautions that one in 10 people find valerian to be agitating, and it does not help them sleep. So be sure and talk to your doctor before taking it.  How to take: 400–900 mg of valerian before bedtime.

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