While the world’s attention is firmly fixed on ways to prevent exposure to the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, there is an equally important health issue which requires immediate attention: the importance of a healthy immune system in combating viruses. A recent article in Bloomberg titled, “99% of Those Who Died From Virus Had Other Illness, Italy Says,” illustrates a point in the war against the coronavirus that is at times overlooked: the status of one’s immune system and overall health determines morbidity and mortality.
Our immune system has evolved to protect us against all viruses including coronaviruses. It is imperative, particularly at this time that we take all the necessary steps to support our immune system.
I begin with a comment about the importance of rest on the immune system, and the negative impact of stress
If you needed another reason to get a good night sleep, this might be it. Sleep plays a big role in how well your immune system functions. During sleep, your body produces cytokines which are molecules that help stimulate your immune system and improves the function of immune cells known as T cells. T cells are immune cells that identify and kills viruses.
This is why, people who do not get enough sleep take longer to fight off viral infections.
In a 2017 study, researchers took blood samples from 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep patterns and found that the twin with the shorter sleep duration had a depressed immune system.
Stress on the other hand, is harmful to the immune system: stress hormones like corticosteroids and other hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are released when a person is stressed inhibit the proper function of T cells.
How much sleep do adults need?
Adults need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep, but 8 hours is ideal, however according to the US Center of Disease Control one out of 3 Americans do not get enough sleep.
Tips on how to get enough sleep and how to reduce stress:
Try and go to sleep at the same time each night and to get up at the same time each morning- this reinforces your circadian rhythm and tells your body when it’s time to snooze. It also ensures that sleep inducing melatonin is released by your brain at just the right time.
2. Try to limit screen time right before bed, ideally, you should only use your bed for sleep (and sex) but nothing else. For me, this means not reading the front page of the NY Times before bed.
3.Try not to nap in the late afternoon, unless you need to catch up on last night’s sleep in which case, limit naps to 30 minutes.
4. Try to limit your caffeine intake. Although green tea and coffee have important antioxidant properties (this will be discussed in a later post), I try to limit my intake to one or two cups of either beverage, early in the morning.
5. Limit alcohol intake, particularly late in the day. Although alcohol may make it easier to fall asleep, it interferes with your sleep cycle, specifically with REM sleep which is a very restorative part of sleep.
6. Get your body tired by exercising regularly, but due to the release of endorphins during exercise, some people may be better off exercising early in the day. This is a consideration only in some people as I personally fall asleep like a baby after an evening work out.
7. Being quarantined is stressful, but meditation, reaching out to friends and families online or by phone, and exercising regularly as mentioned above (yes, this is possible even in a tiny New York City apartment) will help manage your stress level.
8. Finally, be kind to yourself: This is a tough time for everyone. I am also a big fan of giving myself a hug: I/we deserve it and need it right now.
Until next time. Stay Well, Stay Healthy, Stay Well Rested,
Cascya Charlot, MD