If you read my post-Staying Healthy last time, you know that hydration and nutrition play a huge role in supporting your immune system. In this post, we’ll discuss the lifestyle factors, like sleep, stress, and movement, which contribute to immune health…make no mistake, these are JUST as critical as nutrition to our body’s ability to fight off invaders. Let me remind you that I am not a doctor; I am a mom and Nutritional Therapist looking for all the ways I can help my family and my clients.
Aside from a nutrient-dense diet, getting enough sleep could be the single most important component in staying healthy. Studies show that regularly getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep can prevent infection; conversely, inadequate sleep (less than 6 hours a night) has a direct correlation to systemic inflammation, which we know to be at the root of all disease. Our immune system, including our antibody formation, is directly tied to our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock; therefore, if we aren’t getting enough sleep, we aren’t producing the antibodies needed to recognize and subsequently fight invaders. Sleep is also crucial for the detoxification processes. Again, our circadian rhythm is our internal body clock…it is how our body prioritizes when to perform different functions. For example, when we are awake, we must prioritize things like energy production and digestion. But when we sleep, the body turns its focus to things like tissue repair and detoxification. None of our systems, including our immune system, can function at capacity if there is a toxic burden, so giving the body time to unload toxins is imperative. For a much more in-depth look into the science behind sleep as well as how to encourage the sleep-wake cycle, you can read this article. https://www.thepaleomom.com/the-new-science-of-sleep-wake-cycles/
Chronic stress also wreaks havoc on the body, keeping us in a constant sympathetic, or fight or flight, state. While the body was designed to recognize and mitigate, stress, it was not designed to stay in a perpetual state of stress. Let’s look at a scenario: your ancestor, in his quest to find food, came upon some danger, perhaps a bear. The body’s natural response would be to kick into gear and prepare him to either fight or run from the bear (or to prepare for healing in case the bear caught up with him). Hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine come to the rescue, increasing blood flow to the heart and muscles and elevating blood sugar by releasing stored glucose into the blood for needed energy. Once he escapes the bear, the body recognizes that it is no longer in danger, and all functions return to normal. This a very simple explanation of a fascinating, intricate process designed by our Creator; it is what allows us to escape and survive dangerous scenarios. Today, we have so many stressors: over-booked schedules, stressful jobs, money problems, not to mention the processed foods so readily available to us and now COVID-19. Stress can come in the form of good things as well, like raising a family or planning a life event such as a wedding. The problem occurs when stress comes at us from all angles and at all times; while our brain can, our body cannot, tell the difference between being chased by a bear and trying to work full-time while also caring for a family. Without the ability to rest and digest, those hormones, which were meant to come in quickly, do their job and then exit, remain elevated, resulting in chronic elevated heart rate, dysregulated blood sugar, leaky gut, and/or inflammation. This can lead to a suppressed immune system among other serious issues.
So, what do we do? While we cannot eliminate all of the stress, there are simple ways to put you in a parasympathetic, or rest and digest, state. One of the simplest yet biggest impacts on stress management is to slow down at mealtimes. Before you eat, it’s important to sit and breathe first. Getting into a habit of praying before a meal will ensure you have taken the time to prepare your body for its next job of digestion, and proper digestion has huge positive impacts on your immune system. Also, taking a few minutes each day to do one or more of the following will make great strides in helping to manage stress: regular breathing exercises (breath in through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8); doing something you enjoy other than media; moderate exercise such as walking, yoga or Pilates; massage therapy; spending time with a loved one or even a pet, and finally, spending time in nature. As always, overall health goes back to diet, so don’t forget that a whole foods diet is key in how our bodies are equipped to deal with stress.
Movement and exercise are not interchangeable. While exercise is important, even critical, to boost our immune system, an hour of exercise each day will not make up for an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. If you have a job that keeps you sitting for much of the day, taking a minute or two each hour to move around makes a big impact in undoing a sedentary lifestyle. As in stress management, moderate exercise is key to a healthy immune system. Activities such as walking, yoga, Pilates, moderate weight exercises, and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) are all excellent ways to contribute to immune health. Keep in mind, strenuous exercise is a stress to the body; if you are already chronically stressed or fighting infection, more moderate exercise will better serve you.
We are in uncertain times, no doubt. While we cannot control much of what is going on around us, we can control how we treat our bodies – getting proper nutrition and water, getting enough sleep, taking steps to manage stress, and getting proper exercise will make great impacts on our health. God intends us to not just live but to live in His abundance. Stay well, friends.