For many of us, stress is inevitable and especially now during these uncertain times. Whilst we currently can’t control the stressors we face; we can control our response to it. The stress response is essential to life but if stress persists and this stress response stays constantly switched on, this is when acute stress turns into chronic stress and health starts to suffer as a result. Stress can challenge your ability to maintain healthy gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, reproductive, and immune system health.
Stress and the Immune System
In stressful situations, the effectiveness of the immune system is partially suppressed by stress hormones such as cortisol. This enables energy to be used more effectively for the fight or flight response. It appears T lymphocytes, including regulatory and killer cells responsible for recognising and killing diseased cells or foreign organisms in the body, are particularly sensitive to these signals. Suppression of the immune response leads to increased susceptibility to infections by viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. It is therefore vital that we support a healthy stress response in order to support a healthy immune system.
There are many positive things we can do to support our stress response but the first thing we should focus on is sleep. Stress can adversely affect sleep quality and duration, while insufficient sleep can increase stress levels. More than a quarter of us experience poor sleep. A good night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life as it enriches our ability to learn, memorise, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, fine-tunes our metabolism, regulates our appetite and most importantly restocks our immune system. Fortunately, there are things we can do to put sleep back on the agenda and make it top of our priority list. The main thing is practicing good sleep hygiene. This means doing things which are known to improve sleep and avoiding those things which disturb sleep.
Sleep Hygiene Tips
• Programme your body clock: keep regular sleep hours. Most of us need between seven and nine hours of sleep and especially if we are fighting an infection or recuperating.
• Create the right environment: your bedroom should be cool (between 18°C and 24°C) and free from noise and light. Consider blackout curtains, an eye mask or ear plugs if necessary. Ensure your mattress and pillows are comfortable, supportive and clean.
• Introduce relaxing activities: writing ‘to do’ lists for the next day can organise your thoughts and clear your mind. Gentle exercises such as light stretches can help relax the muscles and meditation, music and breathing exercises can help relax the mind. A warm bath (not hot) will help your body reach a temperature that’s ideal for sleep. Consider adding chamomile or lavender essential oils which have calming and sleep promoting properties.
• Embrace morning light: opening the curtains or getting outside soon after waking cues your brain to start the day. Research shows that greater exposure to sunlight induces deeper sleep. During the winter months consider a light box which mimics outdoor light.
• Exercise and keep active: as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can dramatically improve sleep quality and duration. It’s a great stress buster too!
• Avoid energetic exercise 3 hours before bed: demanding physical activity can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol which is associated with increasing alertness making it difficult to fall asleep.
• Avoid large meals 2 hours before bed: your digestive system will continue working and sleep may be disrupted even if you don’t wake up. If you feel hungry try a light snack such as a sliced banana on an oat cake 45 minutes before bed.
• Avoid blue light 1 hour before bed: dim as many lights as possible and avoid electronic blue lights, such as TV, tablets and mobile phones. Darkness releases melatonin, the brain chemical that makes us sleepy.
• Avoid nicotine and alcohol: these act as stimulants meaning you will spend less time in deep sleep and more in the less restful REM stage leaving you feeling tired the next day.
Natural Sleep Aids
Alongside the above tips, there are also some natural sleep aids we can include to promote a successful night’s sleep. These nutrients are particularly useful at supporting a calm, relaxed state and can help to contribute to restful sleep.
Often referred to as nature’s tranquiliser, magnesium is the key nutrient for sleep and yet worryingly, is also one of the most deficient. Poor soil and extensive food processing methods now mean that we are facing widespread deficiencies of this important mineral. Magnesium supports bodily levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) - a vital chemical messenger that promotes sleep.
An essential amino acid, present in virtually all plant and animal proteins. It is used by the body to make serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that is crucial for healthy sleep. Low levels of serotonin can lead to a disruption of circadian rhythms and restless sleep.
A little known amino acid found in large quantities in tea, particularly green tea, theanine has scientifically been shown to increase relaxing brain waves. Best taken in supplement form rather than in tea, to avoid the stimulating effects of caffeine and ideally a couple of hours before bed, theanine helps to reduce mental and physical stress and can help to promote relaxation and harmony.
• Lactium® (Milk Protein Hydrolysate)
Milk Protein Hydrolysate is the unique ingredient in milk responsible for its calming effect on babies. With known anti-anxiety properties and free of side effects, this innovative supplement is proving to be a useful natural sleep aid, particularly useful for individuals suffering from mild stress and anxiety.
Best known as a component of beer, this sedative plant has been used traditionally for centuries because of its calming, sedative effects and may be a useful herbal support for those struggling to wind down before bedtime.
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