Do you often find yourself bragging about your lack of sleep? Perhaps you’ve overheard a work colleague gloating about their ability to run on 4-5 hours of sleep?
I know this sounds crazy, but I know plenty of people who do – even when working 24/7.
The thing is, its actually not a joking matter.
This is serious stuff.
There are MANY REASONS why sleep is critically important on our health, but one of the most poignant is that lack of sleep can obliterate your immune system – the very system that is designed to keep you well.
It’s also bi-directional, meaning an overactive immune system can lead to poor sleep.
It’s why I want to discuss an area of your immune system called inflammation, and the connection it has with lack of sleep.
So first up – you may be wondering, what exactly is inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural biological response from the immune system to fight off pathogens that cause illness and disease, and to help the body heal from injury.
In other words, it’s a good thing because it’s essential for keeping us alive and well.
However, it becomes a problem if it’s ongoing, or happens too often, or at the wrong times.
This is because chronic, systemic low-grade inflammation is associated with various disease such as autoimmune disease, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer because the body’s immune system is in continual fight mode.
WHAT TRIGGERS CHRONIC INFLAMMATION?
There are many triggers including poor diet, lack of exercise, environmental toxins, stress and you guessed it …. poor sleep and circadian disruption.
Prolonged sleep deficiency (e.g., short sleep duration, sleep disturbance) and circadian disruption has been shown to weaken our body’s defence system making us more prone to catching a cold, or developing an infection. However, they can also reduce important immunity cells called T-cells, whilst increasing inflammatory markers such as tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), interleukin 10 (IL-10), and C-reactive protein (CRP).
There was even a study published in Biological Psychiatry (2008), which showed how just one night of insufficient sleep is enough to activate pro-inflammatory processes in the body.
Not an ideal situation, especially if you’re a shift worker, but extremely important that you’re aware of so that you can put into place strategies to support your sleep which will in turn, help to reduce inflammation in your body.
HOW CAN WE REDUCE IT?
Whilst I’m the first to admit this is no easy feat, especially when working 24/7, (for example, we may not be able to change our rosters to ones which are more “sleep enhancing!”), there are certainly things that can make a difference.
1. Prioritise your sleep – I think you knew this one was coming, but seriously, we have to stop bragging about how little sleep we’re getting!! This is not something to be proud of given the impact it has on our immune system, so begin to take a hard look at your sleep practices to see where you may be giving some sleep away. Eg; excessive time on electronic devices, drinking alcohol before bed, not allocating any “wind down” time prior to bed etc.
2. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods – the food that we eat can either reduce inflammation in our body, or heighten it (e.g; highly processed and refined foods), so if we’re sleep deprived, it makes sense to increase our intake of foods that are going to dampen inflammation. Here’s a handful of examples:
– Avocados are packed with potassium, magnesium, fibre and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, along with carotenoids and tocopherols, which have been linked to reduced cancer risk. In addition, one studied showed when people consumed a slice of avocado with a hamburger, they had lower levels of the inflammatory markers NF-kB and IL-6 than participants who ate the hamburger alone. Pretty amazing huh!
– Blueberries contain a type of antioxidant called anthocyanins, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.
– Broccoli is rich in sulforaphane, an antioxidant that fights inflammation by reducing your levels of cytokines and NF-kB, which drive inflammation.
– Capsicums are loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants such as quercetin which have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
– Mushrooms are rich in selenium, copper, and all of the B vitamins, but also contain phenols and other antioxidants that provide anti-inflammatory protection.
But of course there are many, many more. The main takeaway is to eat more whole-foods which don’t contain unrecognisable ingredients which are highly inflammatory on the body.
3. Spend more time outdoors – besides the feel-good boosting effects of just being outside in the fresh air, research has shown that grounding – when we place bare feet on the ground, enables negatively charged electrons from the earth to be absorbed into the body neutralising free radical damage. It’s why grounding can be effective in helping to reduce chronic inflammation.
Given most of us spend every waking moment with our shoes on – getting outside shoeless can be a great strategy to not only boost the immune system, but sun exposure (especially in the morning) will help to reset those very disrupted circadian rhythms making it a win-win for anyone working 24/7!!
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