Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What's the Connection between Sleep, Exercise and the Immune System?

When we get sick – with an infection, other illness or traumatic event – we want to sleep more.  It’s a natural reaction seen in other animals as well.  Recent research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that sleep helps to facilitate the immune response by increasing resistance to infection and survival after infection.  This research was done on fruit flies – but don’t discount it too quickly.  The genetic pathways found in these insects are preserved in mammals.  The take-home message from this work is that when you get sick – sleep as much as your body tells you to.

Research at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health showed that healthy young adults restricted to 4 hours of sleep per night for 5 days  showed marked changes in their immune systems, with pro-inflammatory changes and an increase in allergic reactions and asthma.  Sleep deprivation also affects metabolism, leading to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. 

What are some natural ways to get enough sleep?  If you work at home and can’t sleep well at night, try a nap during the day – any time from 10 to 30 minutes may revive your day.  Regulate your 24 hour (circadian) rhythms by exposing yourself to bright light n the morning – sunlight or a ‘happylight’ during foggy days or the winter.  Before bedtime, wear blue-blocking glasses for an hour, while you read, compute, play music or watch television.  When you block the short blue wavelengths of the light spectrum with these orange colored glasses, you prevent the suppression of your natural melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain’s  pineal gland, located behind your eyes.  Melatonin outflow promotes good sleep. As an anti-oxidant, it has many salutary effects on the body, which we have suppressed with the artificial light of light bulbs, televisions, tablets et al.  Go to the website to read about the benefits of normal melatonin release - by wearing the glasses for an hour or more before bedtime.  You can get a pair that will fit over your regular glasses and allow you to read, compute, or watch TV.  You can also take 1-3 mg of melatonin as a sleeping pill - start with the lowest dose.  This is safer than prescription sleeping pills such as Ambien or Valium.

Exercising  is another way to induce melatonin release and help sleep.   Morning exercise may be the most effective in increasing melatonin secretion in the evening, but exercise at any time of day can work for many people.  Here’s another benefit of exercise – a recent study from UCLA showed that maintaining muscle mass through resistance exercise (or plain hard work such as lifting, or farming) is more important than BMI (body mass index) in determining the risk of death from any cause.  So – turn your compost, get out those weights, take a Pilates class or do pushups to increase your muscle mass.

I will be away for a few weeks; my column will resume on Monday, May 26th. Keep eating those colorful vegetables and fruits, a brassica vegetable every day, herbs, olive oil, pre and probiotic foods, and nosh on nuts.  Get some blueblocking glasses for evening use, and thereby improve your sleep. They are widely available on the Internet; I think the ones at LowBlueLight are the best – but more expensive. If you are sleep deprived at night, remember that taking a daytime nap does not mean you are lazy  - just look at your dog or cat..  Write me a comment and I’ll reply. 

Sadja  Greenwood, MD – back issues on this blog

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