How sleep affects the immune system

Quality and length of sleep affect the immune system. If you don’t get enough sleep or enough good quality sleep, you’re more likely to get sick from a virus, and it can slow your recovery.

While you sleep, your innate immune system releases cytokines (interferons, interleukins, growth factors). Some cytokines protect you from infectious illness, and lack of sleep reduces production. Antibody production, part of the adaptive immune system, also decreases due to sleep deprivation.

So get enough sleep (adults generally need 7-8 hours), and get good quality sleep to keep your immune system working well.

We can check in with ourselves when we wake each morning (always a good idea) to see if we feel rested or not. This is the biggest indicator of “enough good sleep,” but you may be wondering how to measure quality sleep.

Measuring Sleep

I wear a Fitbit watch that monitors my sleep through movement (rolling over) and heart rate variability. Every morning when I wake up, I first tune into how rested I feel. Then I look at my sleep stats. I aim to get at least 7 hours, and I usually do.

Time asleep matters. I know I do best if I get 7 to 7.5 hours. I’m not using an alarm, so I let myself sleep as long as I want. I often awaken early but keep still with my eyes shut to see if I can go back to sleep, and I usually do.

I imagine lots of people are doing that while sheltering in place.

Fitbit measures sleep quality by duration and percent time spent in each of the three levels of sleep: light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. It also measures how often I awaken during the night. From all that, Fitbit creates a sleep score. I hope to get 90 or better, but usually my score is in the upper 80s. I’m working on it!

We sleep in cycles of about 90 minutes, cycling between light sleep and deep sleep during the first part of the night, and cycling between light sleep and REM sleep in the later part of the night. We also awaken briefly, or for longer, multiple times during the night, usually about 5 percent.

We spend about 50 percent of total sleep time in light sleep. Our temperature drops. Our heart rate and breathing slow. Our muscles relax and may jerk. We can be awakened more easily.

We spend about 20 percent in deep sleep. Getting enough deep sleep is connected to feeling rested in the morning. It’s restorative. Our brainwaves slow way down. Our brain actually cleans itself during this stage. Tissue growth and cell repair take place. Blood pressure drops, and blood flow to muscles increases. It’s more difficult to awaken from deep sleep.

REM sleep takes up about 25 percent of sleep time. We dream during REM sleep, even if we don’t remember dreaming. The brain wave pattern of REM sleep is closer to wakefulness. This stage is where memory consolidation, problem-solving, and learning occur. Respiration and heart rate increase. Brain activity is high. The body becomes immobile to keep us from acting out our dreams (usually).

Sleep patterns change with age. As we get older we usually get less deep sleep. Some older adults take longer to fall asleep, spend less time in REM sleep, and wake more often during the night. Sleep may begin earlier in the evening, with waking occurring earlier in the morning.

Anxiety Affects Sleep

It’s especially relevant that the anxiety so many are experiencing because of the COVID pandemic may be robbing us of good quality sleep when we really, really need it.

We may be anxious about getting sick or about our loved ones following health guidelines or getting sick. We may be anxious about hospitals being overwhelmed.

Personal finances may have drastically declined.

For some, food and shelter and peaceful co-existence with others in the home are major issues.

Uncertainty about how long this pandemic could last, how long it may take the economy to recover, politics nearly everywhere, mixed messages from medical experts and politicians can keep us awake at night.

How can you improve the quality of your sleep in the time of corona? There are a lot of ways, and I’d love to hear what works for you.

For me, when dealing with my own anxiety, I recognize that it’s in my mind and it’s about the future. These are thoughts that may or may not happen. I realize how fortunate I am to have a home, food, family nearby, friends, and enough income to know I won’t starve.

And then I bring my attention to my body. I notice my breathing. I notice sensations, of textures and temperature and weight, of muscle tension and relaxation, of discomfort. I try to feel my heart beating in my chest.

It’s very calming and helps me fall asleep quickly. Turning off my mind like this took some practice.

What Helps Me Get a Good Night’s Sleep

I am admittedly not a person who loves routine. I don’t have much of a bedtime routine. I don’t put my screens away an hour before bed, but I do stay away from disturbing news late in the day.

I get tired anywhere between 9:30 pm and 12:30 am, though those are extremes. I usually go to bed about 11.

  • I use a sleep mask because some light leaks in through my curtains.
  • I don’t drink caffeine after 1 pm.
  • I put together a playlist of binaural beats for delta brain waves (deep sleep), and I listen to that using headphones sometimes. (Honestly, I’m not sure it makes much difference.)
  • I get some exercise every day, whether it’s taking a yoga class online, participating in ecstatic dance online, or simply walking. According to the National Sleep Foundation, even light exercise like a 10-minute walk can improve sleep quality.
  • I get outside and get some sunlight every day, unless it’s raining. Morning sun on my skin feels great and gives me more Vitamin D, which helps immunity.
  • I sleep with my bedroom on the cool side.
  • I use a weighted blanket.
  • I often drink a cup of bone broth in the evening, and I take my magnesium in the evening.
  • I take two supplements, both from Premier Research Labs, with whom I have a practitioner account. Tranquinol is a capsule that improves deep sleep, and Melatonin-ND is a liquid that improves REM sleep.

What helps you sleep better?

Catching Up on Austin COVID Stats

Austin implemented sheltering in place on March 24, so today, April 7, is Day 14.

You may have read in the news about the 70 UT students who chartered a plan to Baja California for spring break and took commercial flights back. Forty-nine of them have tested positive as of 3 days ago.

Zip code 78705, the area west and north of UT that houses many students, has 55 verified cases, the most of any zip code in the county. The 20-29 age group still has the highest number of cases of any age group in the area. It’s a younger city demographically.

Here are our stats (source: http://www.austintexas.gov/covid19):

When the healer needs healing: chronic pain in a sacroiliac joint

There’s an old saying that people go into healing professions to heal themselves.

I believe it’s true. I went to many healers seeking healing of my own body, mind, heart, and spirit. All of those healers helped me, and none hurt me.

Could I have saved myself pain, time, and money by knowing which kind of healer I needed most for what issue? Yes. I didn’t have a guide, just my own knowledge and intuition and willingness to see what worked.

For the longest time it never occurred to me that I could become a healer. I liked the people who worked on healing me. Their work seemed more interesting than my jobs in government and technology. They were obviously caring people who had honed various kinds of healing skills, and the healing work seemed to be an extension of who they were, not just a job they did.

When I finally began to think about what I wanted to do in “retirement,” healing came to mind…and here I am, in a new profession, offering massage therapy, bodywork, and changework.

For 19 years, since a car wreck on April 24, 1996, I have had semi-chronic pain in one of my sacroiliac joints. In the accident, my lap belt held, my shoulder belt didn’t, the air bag didn’t deploy, there were two head-banging impacts that bled or turned into a goose egg, I was knocked unconscious, and my sacroiliac joints took the brunt of the trauma when my upper body was pulled away from from my lower body.

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Last week I got the help I needed to know how to fix it.  Continue reading

Report on effective treatments for fibromyalgia

A few folks with fibromyalgia have come to me for bodywork. Fibromyalgia, if you don’t know, is a condition of chronic pain with tender points located in various places on the body.

There’s a lot of mystery about it. It used to be thought by doctors to be “all in the head” (which basically means they don’t know, so it must exist just in your mind), but we know better now. A couple of years ago, scientists pinpointed the cause.

In my bodyworker role, I’ve noticed that some fibromyalgia sufferers prefer very light touch, while others prefer medium pressure and don’t mind, in fact prefer it, if I do deep tissue work in the tensest, tightest places, such as the upper trapezius. Continue reading

A hero’s journey: lessons in reversing diabetes

Note: This is a summary of Phyllis’ return to health after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. To read her four-part story, start with Part 1.

“The adventure of the hero is the adventure of being alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell

The path to healing autoimmune disease is not a well-worn path, but it can be done. If it’s possible for Phyllis to reverse her Type 2 diabetes, it’s possible for others. Many people still treat autoimmune diseases as intractable — believing they can only cause a steady prolonged decline, and there’s nothing you can do about it except take the prescribed medications and wait for disability and death.

Even doctors, as Phyllis learned, don’t always offer counsel that lifestyle changes can improve health.

I wanted to look at Phyllis’ sojourn as steps she took on her life path where she learned to choose those forks in the road that led her in the direction of better health. Continue reading

The dancing genes, sociability, transcendence, and genetic flexibility

A recent article published online says that dancers are genetically different. Some Israeli researchers found that dancers show consistent differences from the general population in two genes.

The researchers said this did not surprise them, because studies have found that athletes and musicians have genetic differences.

I can only speak for myself, but my dance is very connected to music — my movement is a way to participate musically, as if I were playing an instrument. It’s also very physical.

I did a little Googling to see if I could find which specific genes differ in athletes and musicians, but I didn’t find anything that was very clear. Race seems to be the biggest issue in the media when it comes to genetics, athletes, and musicians.

The researchers studied dancers and advanced dance students and found they had variants in two genes, those affecting serotonin transport and arginine vasopressin reception.

Serotonin (“the happiness molecule”) is a neurotransmitter that contributes to spiritual experience — the capacity for transcendence and a proclivity to spiritual acceptance. (See this Psychology Today article for more about that.) It also affects optimism, the healing of wounds, resilience from stress, metabolism, sleep, and more.

“Serotonin transport” sounds like a dance inside the body!

Interestingly, exercise can raise serotonin levels in the body, so dancing itself reinforces dancers’ high serotonin levels!

I admit — I get into an altered state from ecstatic dance. That’s why they call it ecstatic dance, I suspect. 😉

The vasopressin receptor modulates social communication and affiliative bonding. Wikipedia says “…accumulating evidence suggests it plays an important role in social behavior, bonding, and maternal responses to stress.” It has a very similar structure to oxytocin (“the love hormone”), and the two can cross-react.

When the results were combined and analyzed, it was clearly shown that the dancers exhibited particular genetic and personality characteristics that were not found in the other two groups.

The dancer “type,” says Ebstein, clearly demonstrates qualities that are not necessarily lacking but are not expressed as strongly in other people: a heightened sense of communication, often of a symbolic and ceremonial nature, and a strong spiritual personality trait.

I know this is controversial, but I want to weigh in on the side of flexibility when it comes to genetics. For much of my life, genes were thought to be destiny, unalterable. Now it is known that the expression of genes is much more dynamic than previously believed. They can switch on and off.

I don’t know that much about it, except that stress tends to switch on the bad genes. I don’t know which or how many genes truly create destiny and therefore cannot be influenced, except that there probably are some. We just don’t know enough about this in our current level of understanding.

I want to encourage people who believe they don’t have the dancing genes to give dancing a try.

Two left feet? That’s a myth. If you can walk, you have rhythm and coordination.

If you think you can’t dance, try just moving to some music alone in your own home if you feel self-conscious. Play something catchy, like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Start simple, just swaying your hips to the beat, keeping your feet in place. Do you like it? Do you feel any sense of pleasure? Play with it. Add your arms. Walk to it. Make it fun and goofy!

Those dancing genes may be just sitting there waiting to be activated, for all we know, and they might help you become happier.

How to create inner peace

This morning I woke early and sensed a shift in my energy.

Without thinking about it, I started happily organizing some accumulated clutter in my bedroom that I’d been procrastinating on. I even fixed a couple of broken things. I cleared some space, found good places for stuff, and created more visual order.

I found a business card I’d been looking for, someone who asked me to contact her once I got my massage license, which I did about a month ago. I’ll call her today. Yay.

I do care about having an orderly home, and yet managing stuff (even living in a trailer!) often gets the better of me.  I make it a low priority. It’s not that I’m a terrible slob, although I’m sure I am in someone’s eyes. I pile things up to deal with later. I start doing things and get distracted and don’t finish. I leave stuff out to remind me that it’s not “done”. Then I notice I have a lot of piles, and clearing them seems like drudgery of the worst kind.

Today I created order and completion without thinking about it, because something opened up. I felt more upbeat. I was observing myself, thinking, “Wow, I am behaving differently. I like this. I feel energized and productive. Something has shifted. What happened?”

This is what I attribute the shift to. (Or perhaps the stars had something to do with it.)

On Tuesday evening, I went to bed aware of how much I mentally obsess about problems. By obsess, I mean they occupy my attention during times when I am not actually communicating with the person I have issues with, or I am imagining how I will handle something in the future. I do this often, usually not making much progress.

This ruminating helps me get clearer about my feelings and what I want, but it also distracts me from being fully present. I’m “in my head”. I’m feeling tense and anxious. I’ve become a slave to my thoughts, especially my fears. I get stuck and then don’t know how to stop. And then I become aware of my state.

It’s a way that I create my own suffering. I’d like to get out of my own way.

I vowed to myself that night that since this habit doesn’t really serve me all that well (except when it does give me insight and direction), that I was going to do something different yesterday.

I decided to dissolve my preoccupation. That is, when I realized that I was not feeling happy and present and content because my mind was rehashing some issue and I was feeling lack of joy in my body, I would take an impression, a snapshot, of my full experience—the images and words in my mind and the feelings in my body representing the person or the problem—and imagine that whatever power gave it substance (Higgs boson?) simply withdrew from it.

I saw, heard, and felt it fall apart. Images of faces and places, my own internal dialogue about it, and the worries, fears, and stuckness I felt in my body all lost coherence, dimensionality, reality. They fell apart into a pile of atoms that were swept away by the solar winds.

If it’s all illusion anyway, you might as well make it work for you. You can dissolve the illusions that don’t bring inner peace, joy, and freedom. It’s like dissolving whatever is within that keeps me from fully occupying and experiencing myself in this moment.

Mind you, I’ve just been doing this for one day, and I only did it a handful of times, but that was enough to create the energy shift I felt this morning.

If you’d like to try this, here you go:

  1. Think of something that’s been worrying, preoccupying, or troubling you, something you feel anxious or disturbed about.
  2. Take a snapshot of your whole internal state, and notice how you represent it. Is it a memory or something you imagine happening in the future? What does it look like? Are you telling yourself about it in an internal dialogue or monologue? What sensation are you feeling and where is it in your body?
  3. Just like a movie scene dissolves or fades so another scene can begin, allow the images to dissolve into pixels, dust, atoms. Turn down the volume of the sounds and words until you hear silence. Tune into your body and the sensations you are actually feeling. Let the feelings drain down into the ground. Note: It’s important to really take your time with this step. First you acknowledge your internal visions, words, and sensations. Then you allow each one to exit in a way that works for you.
  4. Notice the absence of the preoccupation. What are you experiencing? If there’s anything else related to the original state, allow it to fully exit.
  5. Bring back the images, words, and/or feelings. How is this experience different from the first time?
  6. Dissolve them again. How is this different from the first time?
  7. Imagine that any time in the future, when you notice you are not being present/feeling happy/being preoccupied, you have this powerful tool to create inner peace at your disposal.

Reframing trauma recovery as detoxing the whole system

These days I’m thinking of trauma recovery more and more like detoxing.

We all know people — or even do this ourselves — who do fasts or cleanses to rid their bodies of toxins from too much sugar or alcohol, meat, or junk food, after taking drugs, after food poisoning, and so on. I’ve written about the colon/parasite cleanse and the liver/gallbladder flush on this blog. I’ve also done the Master Cleanse, once.

There’s a lot to be said for cleansing for getting rid of recent toxins as well as those that have accumulated in our systems over the years. The proof is feeling better afterwards. If you don’t feel better after doing a cleanse, don’t do it again. Try something else. Be good to your body. It works hard so that you may live and is taken for granted a lot.

Well, trauma recovery is like detoxing your entire system. It’s not so much getting rid of the toxins in your digestive system as letting the harsh, non-nourishing behavior and events that your whole system took in make their way back out of your system.

It may not be pretty, but it’s actually a good sign — it’s so much healthier than keeping it locked up inside, repressed, frozen.

I’m thinking now that there is a natural period after you are safe when you detox, unless you get stuck in a situation with no support for your detoxing, and that’s another story. You have a basis of comparison — safe versus non-safe — now. Because you are safe, you can start to relax. You might want to think, “Whew, that’s it. I’m safe now and can get on with my life.”

Well, that is true, and you will start to bloom. But you might not be prepared for stuff from the past unpredictably sneaking into the present and biting you on the butt. You might not be prepared for intense emotions that may arise. You might not be prepared for the cognitive reframing that occurs as your identity changes from victim to hero of your own journey.

You may sometimes feel pulled in various directions. It is unsettling.  It’s good to find a physical outlet that grounds you. Yoga, bicycling, and walking were all helpful to me. Those things are healthy to do anyway, but it really helps to feel like you have control of some part of your life (your body) at a time when your mind/heart/spirit are in such flux. Exercise/movement is grounding, and the sweat help you detox. Your system wants to release that stuff.

You may reach equilibrium that feels like a few days of inner peace, and then something else — a memory, a dream, a trigger — may come up for you to experience and integrate, bringing you to a new equilibrium, and that cycle repeats, with the periods of equilibrium getting longer and longer. Actually, it’s life.

You  eventually reach a state where the past pretty much stays in the past unless you decide to delve in.

My advice: Let it arise as it arises, because it will do that anyway. It’s a process; it takes time. Notice and honor it. Document it, even — at least write down your dreams.

And it might be good to let a few people know. Ask for help if you need it, and definitely ask for support. You have mine.

The easiest shortcut to health you can make

Gretchen Reynolds on ‘The First 20 Minutes’ – NYTimes.com.

Loved this article about Gretchen Reynolds’ (no relation) new book, The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.

Reynolds, a New York Times health and fitness columnist, looks at what you can do to makes the most difference for your health with the least effort. It’s surprisingly easy. Exercise trumps diet, and it only takes 20 minutes a day, and it doesn’t have to be anything more than standing.

This interview reinforces the new knowledge that prolonged sitting is unhealthy. I now use a timer to remind me to stand up and move when I’m doing anything that requires long hours at a computer.

Here are some good bits:

The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.

If someone starts an exercise program and improves his fitness, even if he doesn’t lose an ounce, he will generally have a longer life and a much healthier life. 

But the science shows that if you just do anything, even stand in place 20 minutes, you will be healthier.What would be nice would be for people to identify with the whole idea of moving more as opposed to quote “exercise.”

There is a whole scientific discipline called inactivity physiology that looks at what happens if you just sit still for hours at a time. If the big muscles in your legs don’t contract for hours on end, then you get physiological changes in your body that exercise won’t necessarily undo. Exercise causes one set of changes in your body, and being completely sedentary causes another.

I really do stand up at least every 20 minutes now, because I was spending five or six hours unmoving in my chair. The science is really clear that that is very unhealthy, and that it promotes all sorts of disease. All you have to do to ameliorate that is to stand up. You don’t even have to move. 

The human body is a really excellent coach. If you listen to it, it will tell you if you’re going hard enough, if you’re going too hard. If it starts to hurt, then you back off. It should just feel good, because we really are built to move, and not moving is so unnatural. Just move, because it really can be so easy, and it really can change your life.

“It’s the sitting, stupid.”

Stand Up for Fitness – NYTimes.com.

Exercise only slightly lessened the health risks of sitting. People in the study who exercised for seven hours or more a week but spent at least seven hours a day in front of the television were more likely to die prematurely than the small group who worked out seven hours a week and watched less than an hour of TV a day.

So to paraphrase Bill Clinton on the economy, “It’s the sitting, stupid.” Make that uninterrupted sitting:

In an inspiring study being published next month in Diabetes Care, scientists at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, had 19 adults sit completely still for seven hours or, on a separate day, rise every 20 minutes and walk leisurely on a treadmill (handily situated next to their chairs) for two minutes. On another day, they had the volunteers jog gently during their two-minute breaks.

When the volunteers remained stationary for the full seven hours, their blood sugar spiked and insulin levels were out of whack. But when they broke up the hours with movement, even that short two-minute stroll, their blood sugar levels remained stable. Interestingly, the jogging didn’t improve blood sugar regulation any more than standing and walking did. What was important, the scientists concluded, was simply breaking up the long, interminable hours of sitting.

Find a way to break up sitting into chunks punctuated by standing and walking. Keep exercising too. You’ll feel better and live longer.

Also, when you do sit, make some of it sitting. That is, seated meditation. Just sit and be.

Science discovers how massage affects cells after exercise

I love it when science deepens our understanding of something people know from experience to be true. The latest such finding to catch my eye is in my own field, massage therapy. People love massage and not all that much is actually known about how it affects the body’s systems or its long-term benefits.

Canadian scientists studied what actually happens at the cellular level when someone who has vigorously exercised gets a massage. Here’s an article explaining the study, and here’s the abstract for the research findings.

In short, massage applied to muscles after vigorous exercise reduces inflammation and promotes growth of energy-producing units (mitochondria) in muscle cells.

“The potential benefits of massage could be useful to a broad spectrum of individuals including the elderly, those suffering from musculoskeletal injuries and patients with chronic inflammatory disease,” said Tarnopolsky. “This study provides evidence that manipulative therapies, such as massage, may be justifiable in medical practice.”

The researchers also busted the myth that massage reduces lactic acid, which builds up in cells during exercise and has been thought to contribute to muscle pain. Massage had no effect on lactic acid build-up.

Here’s something to look forward to:

One future research direction will be to examine the long-term effect of massage after a workout.