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Sleep + The Immune System

Reassess your approach to sleep and make it a priority to protect your well-being.
Taryn Toomey lying on a bed

Sleep is the third pillar of health, alongside nutrition and exercise. We often take it for granted yet it is the essential ingredient to maintaining a functioning brain and body. Over the last decade, sleep has moved down the priority list for many of us. Not only are we sleeping less at an average of 6 hours 35 minutes a night but over 50% of us also struggle to drop off.

This issue is further exacerbated when major events in our lives create uncertainty. It causes us to become unsettled and stressed, making it ever harder to get the sleep we need. When this happens, it’s a good time to reassess our approach to sleep and make it a priority to protect our well-being.

We all know good sleep makes us feel better, but we may not have considered the powerful role it plays in helping build our immune system. Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast we recover if we do get sick.

When the immune system is strong, it helps us fight malignancy, prevent infection and fight off sickness. This powerful internal defense system has a multifaceted role. It identifies pathogens including viruses, parasites, bacteria and fungi, and removes them from the body. It neutralises harmful substances that come from outside the body and it combats major changes within the body such as serious illnesses. It is activated when it recognises antigens or toxins. This triggers a response where the immune system develops antibodies or cells specifically to fight the invader.

If we keep our immune system strong, it helps us defend against viruses and strengthen the body’s ability to fight infection. There are several things we can do to boost our immune system, such as exercise, eating healthily, drinking less alcohol and taking vitamins. We can also make sure we consistently get a good night’s sleep. It is an effective and natural immune booster.

During sleep, our immune system releases proteins called cytokines. These clever proteins target infection and inflammation, effectively creating our immune response. When we have an infection or inflammation, or are under stress, certain cytokines need to increase. If we don’t get enough sleep, our production of these protective cytokines may decrease, thus lowering our immune response. In addition, certain infection-fighting antibodies and cells are also reduced during periods when we don’t get enough sleep.

With all this in mind, we’ve put together a few ways to help keep your immune system in fighting order:

Make sleep a priority.

We are all guilty of compromising our sleep, but if we re-prioritise it, then we put our health and well-being first. The optimal amount for most adults is seven to eight hours of good sleep every night. Teenagers need nine to 10 hours of sleep and school-aged children need 10 or more hours of sleep.

The simplest way to increase the amount of sleep is to make small adjustments to your sleep schedule. Bringing your bedtime earlier by 15-30 minutes and setting your alarm 15-30 minutes later gives you an additional half an hour to an hour’s extra slumber.

Focus on quality sleep.

The quality of your sleep is just as important as the length of it. If you are experiencing difficulties falling or staying asleep, you may need to revisit your sleep routine. Over the last few years, we have been working with Dr Jessamy Hibberd who uses Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to support clients with their sleep. There are also plenty of things you can do at home to improve the quality of the sleep you are getting. Read more about to how reset your sleep routine.

Temperature check.

If you find yourself waking up during the night, do a temperature check. Being too hot or too cold disturbs sleep patterns and leads to restless nights. With the changing seasons and the warmer weather beckoning, many of us have not replaced our winter bedding with a lighter weight or material. A duvet with a lower tog will help prevent overheating which could make all the difference to how you sleep. It’s also worth considering what your bed is made from. Natural materials are best as the are breathable so allow better air flow than man-made fibres such as foam. Horsetail hair and wool, in particular, are effective in wicking moisture away from the body, helping you to stay cool.

Sleepy foods.

Consuming sleepy foods before bedtime can help you drift off. Although many foods contain sleep promoting compounds, only a few have high enough concentrations to affect a our sleep cycle.

Cherry, almonds and walnuts are naturally high in the hormone melatonin which controls your sleep and wake cycles.

Kiwi fruit contains many sleep promoting qualities such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and serotonin.

Oily fish is a good source of vitamin D and omega-3 which helps regulate serotonin.

Proteins such as turkey, fish and chicken are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that increases serotonin levels.

Small changes to your sleep routine can make big differences and help get your immune system in good order. If you want to read further on how to sleep, we recommend Dr Jessamy Hibberd’s book This Book Will Make You Sleep.