Boost your Immunity with Better Sleep

What is the best way to give your immune system a boost? Get a good night’s sleep, says Matthew Walker, a neurologist PhD, in his book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleeps and Dreams.”

Improving the duration and quality of your sleep is an important goal in these anxious times of coronavirus.  Sleep provides a significant boost to our immune systems, along with many other benefits, making Walker’s message more relevant than ever. 

Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley where he directs the Center for Human Sleep Science.  His book is a deep dive into the science of sleep and also a fascinating and accessible read.  Bill Gates called it one of his top 5 recommended books of last year.

Walker addresses the process of sleep, why the different phases of sleep are necessary to health, and how modern life and technology disrupt healthy and natural sleep patterns.  He points to many of the problems caused by lack of sleep, from “drowsy driving” (responsible for more avoidable deaths than alcohol and drugs combined) to medical errors committed by sleep-deprived doctors.

Sleep is truly the most important foundation of health.  Diet and exercise are only effective with proper sleep.  Most people need at least 7 hours of sleep to function optimally and maintain cognitive performance.  But it remains elusive for so many of us, especially older people. Aging often atrophies the same brain areas that ignite both sleep and cognitive ability.  Poor memory and poor sleep are significantly related. 

As we sleep, we cycle between NREM and REM (Rapid Eve Movement) sleep. The NREM stages are the dreamless sleep, in four stages of increasing depth, leading to REM sleep. Deep REM sleep provides a “stunning electrical harmony” that is restorative on so many levels.   During these recurring cycles, the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system.  Walker’s own research has shown significant benefits especially within the last two hours of an eight-hour night of sleep when some of some of the richest benefits are reaped. 

Cycles of deep sleep are key to brain maturation and memory consolidation at every stage of life, from babies in the womb through adulthood.  As we age, however, we hit a “great sleep recession” where the decline in NREM sleep is underway:

“As you enter your fourth decade, there is a palpable reduction in the electrical quality and quantity of that deep NREM sleep,” Walker writes.  “You obtain fewer hours of deep sleep, and those deep NREM brainwaves become smaller, less powerful and fewer in number… By the time you reach seventy years old, you will have lost 80 to 90 percent of your youthful deep sleep.”  You also wake more frequently in the night, impairing your sleep and triggering mental and physical ailments. 

Don’t seek a sleep medication, however, when your sleep declines.  Walker urges us to explore non-pill interventions, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and to seek out a doctor who is certified in sleep medicine to explore non-pill alternatives.   He notes that sleeping pills cause sedation, but not healthy sleep.  He does not know of ANY healthy sleeping medications. 

For me personally, the most important aid in my sleep over the past decade hasn’t been a pill or medication.  It’s a simple cooling cloth.  I was always a champion sleeper until hot flashes in my fifties woke me several times a night.  Now a cooling cloth is at my bedside each night providing immediate relief.   With my cloth and a melatonin gummy, I am able to return to sleep even if I wake several times in the night.

Melatonin is the one sleep aid that Walker notes might be useful, especially if you are older.  Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle: “Unlike young or middle-age adults, where melatonin has not proved efficacious for helping sleep beyond the circumstances of jet lag, prescription melatonin has been shown to help boost the otherwise blunted circadian and associated melatonin rhythm in the elderly, reducing the time taken to fall asleep and improving self-reported sleep quality and morning alertness.” 

I take 1 Melatonin gummy one hour before bedtime, even though two are recommended, giving me 1.5mg instead of the 3mg recommended dose. (I found I was too groggy in the morning when I took two.) My favorite gummy supplements are the Nature’s Bounty Sleep Gummies that combine Melatonin with Theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves.  Olly’s Sleep gummy is similarly formulated and works for me as well.

My husband Jim was particularly interested in the section on sleep and caffeine, as his body processes caffeine slowly.  Caffeine is omnipresent in daily life.  It’s the world’s second most traded commodity after oil.  But the half life of caffeine is 5-7 hours–or longer for a slow processor like him.  So if he stops drinking coffee by noon, at 7pm he still has more than half the caffeine he last consumed.  As decaf coffee can have 15-30% of the dose of caffeine, decaf is out for him after noon as well.  As is caffeinated tea and chocolate.

Quality sleep is key to maintaining cognitive health:  “A lack of sleep is fast becoming recognized as a key lifestyle factor in determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease,”  Walker notes. 

To aid with sleep he recommends cooling the temperature in the room where you sleep, if possible, and limiting alcohol which is a powerful suppressor of REM sleep.  He is also a fan of the midday siesta, but no later than 3pm, to boost creativity and coronary health. 

For early risers who would like to reset their circadian clock, he recommends wearing sunglasses during morning exercise, then getting bright light in the late afternoon, without sunglasses.  “Plentiful late-afternoon daylight will help delay the evening release of melatonin, helping push the timing of sleep to a later hour.”  Then regularize your sleep and wake times to truly enhance your chances of a good night’s sleep. 

Walker advocates sleep as a ‘universal healthcare provider’ capable of

  • Making you live longer
  • Enhancing memory and learning
  • Keeping you slim and lowering food cravings
  • Protecting from cancer and dementia
  • Lowering your risk of heart attacks and stroke
  • Lessening depression and anxiety 

Unlike so many medications, the cost of this “miracle cure” is free.  Sleep is the answer and it’s yours to explore and reap the benefits. 

Find Why We Sleep on Amazon:

See this link for a variety of cooling cloths:

For resources on better sleep, visit the website of the National Sleep Foundation:


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