Some people just can’t seem to shake a cold. As soon as they start to feel better, they get hit with a scratchy throat and stuffy nose all over again. Unsurprisingly, these are often the same people who are bogged down by stress and have a sleep schedule that’s in shambles.
If this describes you, read on to learn the science behind how stress, sleep and the immune system are all connected. We’ve also offered up our best tips for boosting immune health!
The effects of stress on immunity
The body’s stress response and immune system are closely linked. When you experience a stressful situation, your body increases cortisol levels so you’re prepared to fight off whatever threat lies in front of you. This might prove useful against a ferocious predator, but the stressors of modern life are more benign things like bad traffic and work meetings. Even when there’s no real danger, your body gets physically prepared to deal with stress.
The consequences of stress are very physical, as well—namely how it affects the immune system. Heightened cortisol levels suppress the immune system and make it difficult to fight off infections. Stress can inhibit inflammatory responses and lower your white blood cell count. Once you become infected, stress can even increase the rate at which the virus spreads to other cells in the body. All that’s to say, if you’re stressed a lot, you’re more likely to get sick.
Tips for stress relief in your daily life
Avoiding stress altogether isn’t realistic. Stress is a normal part of life, so it wouldn’t do you any good to run away from it! Instead, learn to manage stress in a healthy way so that your immune system can flourish.
Here are a few simple techniques to try:
- Change your approach to stress: The body’s instinctual reaction to stress is releasing a flood of cortisol into the bloodstream. Subdue the cortisol and resulting immune response by changing how you react in the heat of the moment. Find a quiet place to relax, take deep breaths and meditate for a few minutes. Observe your thoughts and emotions free of judgment. Accept the situation you’re in, then allow the stress to pass on by.
- Focus on what’s within your control: Daily factors that cause the most amount of stress are often the ones over which we have zero control. The fact that we can’t control the situation might even trigger more stress! Rather than trying to control things you can’t, focus on what you can control—your thoughts, your reactions and what you do moving forward. Mastering control over yourself will empower you to take stressful situations in stride.
- Carve out time for yourself: Self-care often falls by the wayside. But as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup! Daily calming rituals will help you maintain your composure when stressors stand in the way. Start by savoring the simple pleasures and existing in the present moment. Instead of downing that coffee in the car, sit at the kitchen table with a cup in hand. After work, get in some mild exercise like a sunset walk or quick yoga session.
Poor sleep and your immune system
Have you ever noticed that a cold makes you tired? That’s because good sleep is crucial for proper immune function. Getting adequate amounts of sleep each night improves the effectiveness of T cells, a part of the immune system that’s responsible for attacking cells infected with a virus.
On the other hand, falling short of the recommended seven hours can inhibit T cell response. A stress hormone called adrenaline has been associated with sleep disturbances and trouble falling asleep. Increased levels of adrenaline lessen the “stickiness” of integrins, a protein that helps T cells adhere to and neutralize infected body cells. Thus, consistently poor sleep quality makes you more susceptible to getting sick.
Tips for getting a good night’s rest
There’s no cutting corners when it comes to good sleep. No amount of coffee is a substitute for seven solid hours!
Work these tips into your sleep schedule for sounder nights and a healthier immune system:
- Optimize the bedroom for sleep: Too many of us have fallen asleep watching TV with the lights on and the heat blasting. Leave electronics in the living room and reserve the bedroom for sleep Set the thermostat low, block out intrusive light and wear ear plugs if you often hear disruptive noises at night.
- Take an herbal sleep aid: Sleep supplements taken right before bedtime naturally boost your body’s melatonin production. Unlike alcohol, herbal ingredients calm the nervous system in a way that helps you fall and stay asleep.
Stress and sleeplessness are all too common and, in some cases, completely unavoidable. Nevertheless, we must learn to manage our stress levels and attain adequate sleep in order to stave off the ever-present germs in our environment. Better to maintain a healthier version of you than to muddle through a cold!