When it comes to your immune system, there are many factors that can play a role in how effective it is. However, there are two components that are decidedly more important than the others: stress levels and sleep quality. Having high-stress levels and poor or little sleep can result in your being sicker, longer. So, if you want to do the best for your immune system, it is crucial to focus on improving these areas as much as possible.
Before we get into how stress impacts the immune system, let’s first take a look at how stress affects the body as a whole.
The way the body reacts to stress all stems from the “fight or flight” responses that our earliest ancestors needed in order to survive. If a big animal was coming at them, they needed to either fight the animal or run away, and the body prepared for either situation through the release of hormones.
The two stress hormones are cortisol and adrenaline. The release of these hormones into the body results in a faster heart rate and breathing rate, meaning your body can bring in more oxygen and pump this oxygen-rich blood to the extremities (the arms and legs) faster.
This reaction is great in a situation where your stressor is something that needs to be fought or run from, but in many cases, the thing causing us stress is not something that we can respond to in this way, which is why we suffer from the effects of chronic stress.
Chronic stress can be harmful to the immune system because it alters your body’s cytokine balance, induces low-grade inflammation, and suppresses immune system cells. This results in an immune system that is suppressed and dysregulated. So, the immune system does not work as often as it should and when it does turn on, it does not work correctly. Our article on improving your immune system has some helpful tips separate from those here.
The time when you are sleeping is essential for the immune system to work on repairing itself so that it is ready to face any foreign invaders that it comes into contact with during the day.
In addition, if you are currently sick, time spent sleeping is when the body can really focus on healing and fighting the infection you have. This is why resting is so important when you feel under the weather.
Research has also shown that a lack of sleep results in a lower production of white blood cells, which are an important aspect of the immune system and help the body identify and fight infection.
Other studies have found that those who are sleep deprived are more likely to get sick, further cementing the connection between sleep and immune function.
There are many connections between sleep and stress. For one, being stressed can make it harder to fall asleep. When stressed, you might find that when you lay down to go to sleep, it provides your mind the perfect opportunity to reflect on everything that brings you stress instead of getting the shut-eye your body needs.
In addition to making it harder to fall asleep, stress also impacts the quality of your sleep so that you end up feeling tired despite how many hours you are sleeping. When your sleep quality is not great, your body is not as effectively able to fight foreign invaders, meaning you may be more likely to get sick. In fact, sleep deprivation can be just as damaging to the immune system as being under stress.
If you want the best for your immune system, you will want to reduce stress levels and get more quality sleep, and in many cases working on one area can also help to improve the other.
The below habits are healthy lifestyle choices that can help reduce stress and improve your sleep, which as a result, benefits your immune system.
Exercising regularly serves a double purpose. The first is that it can help reduce stress levels because when you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that are natural painkillers.
Remember those stress hormones that the body releases when you’re in a state of stress? Since we don’t use the stress state to attack or run, these hormones of cortisol and adrenaline can build up in the body. This buildup amplifies the stress reaction in the body, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. When you exercise and use energy in the way intended by the stress hormones, you help to reduce their presence and ease your body away from its stressed state.
The second benefit of exercise is that it can help improve your sleep quality and make it easier to fall asleep. Remember those endorphins that your body releases when you exercise? Not only do endorphins improve your mood, but they also improve your ability to sleep. Combine the endorphins with the natural muscle fatigue that you experience after a workout, and you’ll be sleeping better in no time.
So, by exercising regularly, you can improve these two aspects that have the potential to negatively impact your immune system, killing two birds with one stone.
Want to really reap the benefits of exercise? Try exercising outside. Research has found that exercising outside has a more significant effect on stress levels than exercising indoors. So if this is something available to you, try to fit it into your workout schedule and enjoy the additional mental health benefits.
If your stress levels are too much for you to handle, seek help through a counselor. With counseling, you have the opportunity to talk through your stressful situation with a trained professional who can provide guidance on managing your stress.
Another option is to reach out to friends and family who can offer support on the situation you are going through.
Your sleep hygiene refers to the healthy sleep habits you adopt, many of which play an essential role in how easily you fall asleep and how restorative the quality of your sleep is.
One habit of good sleep is creating a sleep environment that is conducive for sleeping. This means ensuring that you are sleeping in a dark and quiet place without any distractions.
It’s also beneficial to avoid any electronics for the hour before bed, as the blue light produced by them can suppress melatonin production, making it harder for you to fall asleep and resulting in lower quality sleep.
By improving your sleep hygiene and getting more sleep, your immune system will flourish, and you may just find that your stress levels reduce too. Reducing your stress level throughout the day will further improve your sleep quality and let your immune system function as optimally as it is meant to.
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