The sleep-stress-immunity connection

Written by Dana Remedios RHN, RNCP, NNCP

Clearly, these are WEIRD times. Times of shifts and changes. Yet, even if we cannot connect to things that make us feel normal, we can look to connect to the things that give us hope, make us feel calm, peaceful, and directed towards goodness. So, lets attempt to get centered, take a breath, and shake it out, shall we?

I think we can all agree that our ability to chill out, as a society, has room for improvement. By and large, people are jumpy. There is general sense of tension in the air. This is incredibly important to recognize and to address, since we know that sleep and immune functions, stress and relaxation are all connected to one another. When we struggle to relax, or struggle to sleep, our ability to heal is compromised. 

A recent scientific paper states that “The field of PsychoNeuroImmunology has clearly demonstrated that the physiological response to psychological stressors can dramatically impact the functioning of the immune system, thus identifying one way in which susceptibility to or severity of diseases are exacerbated during stressful periods.” 

In other words, the smart people studying the sleep, stress and immunity connection essentially emphasize that staying up worrying is the least helpful thing one can do in this scenario. When we are stressed, it impacts our sleep, and lack of good sleep impact our hormones, and our hormones impact our sleep, which impacts our stress, creating a never-ending loop of doom. In fact, sleep loss affects us so deeply, many suspect we have a lot more to learn about its importance. 

Sleep quality touches systems besides the nervous system, impacting the entire body. I acknowledge it is easier for some of us to stay out of this wired-but-tired loop naturally, and that we are all being impacted differently by the current situation. We may have the genetics or the life circumstances that make it easier for us to stay calm, or we might not. But it is possible to do something about it!

So why don’t we all take a moment to reflect? 

  • What are we grateful for in this situation?
  • What has been taken from us, that requires mourning? 
  • And what has been surprising? 

Maybe you are grateful for being able to work from home with conditioning treatment in your hair (no, just me?) or spend more time with your pets. 

Maybe you are mourning the loss of time in nature (definitely me) or a trip that was planned. 

Maybe you were surprised that a VIRUS is what finally forced your university to deliver classes remotely or your grandparents to learn to video chat.

Whatever the case may be, expressing our fears and our gratitude can be a relief and a happiness booster. It is not only a way to feel better, it is an important piece of the puzzle of vibrant health. You see, digestion, detoxification, and immunity are only turned on when your body is in a parasympathetic (ie: relaxed) state, and stress takes us out of that state and puts us in a sympathetic dominant (ie: tense) state.

That is not insignificant! This could be why proper rest is important for our immune response. Yet when we hold too much tension it can send us off into that gloomy spiral that not only impacts our sleep, but also our ability to detoxify, our mood, heart health, weight and more. Stress can be physical, emotional, nutritional, mental, chemical, and also what you see and hear – which is why taking a break from the news and those polarized Facebook debates are part of your health prescription. 

When you are under stress, it burns through some nutrients like B complex, vitamin C, and magnesium, at a faster rate. You might notice that you feel the tension build in your body and become more prone to muscle cramps or infections. B complex supplements and magnesium help to support the nervous system and can be helpful to have on board.

Another impact that psychological stress has on our physiology is our immunity via our microbiome. Mental and emotional stress impacts our gut bacteria, contributing to increases in markers of inflammation - even when there is no infection. What is also super interesting is that we are learning that some of the classic herbs for relaxation might work by modulating the microbiome away from inflammation! 

A wonderful product called Stressveda™ has natural, food-sourced B Vitamins, which are important for the stress response, and a potent, clinically proven extract of ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb known to help people feel calmer and sleep more easily. To help you sleep, because we all know that sleep is essential for a strong immune system, there is SleepEssence, a lavender-scented, herbal liquid with other relaxation superstars like lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, and skullcap that can help in cases of restlessness or insomnia due to mental stress.

Because the effects of stress on sleep and relaxation are bi-directional and reciprocal, making improvements in one area will potentially improve the other. Good sleep can help to minimize the impacts of stress and is a powerful modulator of our immune system. The reverse is also true; lack of good sleep can impact levels of proinflammatory cytokines, such as C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis factor, and IL 1 and 6.

Because relaxation and sleep are so integral to your overall wellness, you owe it to yourself to take a moment to practice moving into a relaxed state. Try shaking out your body, setting up your room for deep sleep, feeding your microbiome with plants and herbal extracts, practicing gratitude or laughter, or taking a news fast, whatever you intuit will benefit you most. Breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold, repeat. These shifts and changes hold a lot more promise for us when we are feeling good.

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