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):

Strengthening immunity through diet

Edit: I just got this link in an email (4/2/20) and since it’s relevant to the topic of this post, I’m adding it here.

Viome is a company that tests stool for microbes and prescribes the superfoods and foods to avoid, as well as supplements, to improve your gut health.

Give Your Gut a Chance: Microorganisms and Your Immune System (https://www.viome.com/blog/give-your-gut-chance-microorganisms-and-your-immune-system).

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Okay, readers, I posted on the basics of the immune system. If you missed that post, click here to read it. Bare bones version: we have an innate immune system that immediately goes to work against pathogens, and a slower adaptive immune system that kills pathogens, remembers them, and confers immunity by producing antibodies to those specific pathogens.

Since SARS-CoV-2 is a novel (new) virus, our adaptive immune systems have nothing to remember, which explains why it is so contagious and why it is taking so many people down. We don’t know yet if this virus will mutate and evade adaptive memory. Can people get it twice? We don’t know.

In this post, I want to explore how what we eat and drink affects our immune systems.

In general, eating lots of fruits and vegetables is recommended for the fiber and nutrient density, as is moderate to no alcohol consumption. Maintaining a healthy weight is also recommended.

There’s a lot that we don’t know yet about the highly complex immune system, but we do know that malnourished people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, as are the elderly. You of course are aware that you do not have to be living in poverty in a third world country to be malnourished. Diets high in processed foods (a first world problem) can result in malnourishment.

Micronutrients that affect immune responses

The micronutrient deficiencies that have been shown to alter immune responses in animals include the following:

  • zinc
  • selenium
  • copper
  • iron
  • folate
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D3
  • Vitamin E

Foods high in these nutrients are recommended, and if these foods are unavailable, supplements should be helpful. High quality multivitamin and multimineral supplements can help.

I found this cool website where you can select a micronutrient and see what foods are high in it. Did you know that hemp seeds are high in zinc? I didn’t.

Stomach acid declines with age, which impacts nutrient absorption

Older people are more likely to be deficient in micronutrients. One possible factor is that stomach acid production declines with age. Zinc deficiency, high sugar intake, and eating too quickly also contribute. Stomach acid helps break down food for digestion and absorption of nutrients.

A way to remedy this is to take HCl, hydrochloric acid, with meals. Chewing food thoroughly, limiting processed foods, eating fermented foods, drinking apple cider vinegar in water, and eating ginger are recommended ways to boost stomach acid production without taking an HCl supplement.

The gut microbiome influences the immune system, and vice versa

Seventy to eighty percent of immune cells are found in the gut. The gut microbiome provides antigens and influences immune system cells. Food is a foreign substance introduced into the body, and the immune system decides if it’s beneficial or a threat. These two systems regulate and support each other.

When all is well, the immune system helps maintain stability of beneficial gut microbes, and microbes support the development of immune cells, as well as fine-tuning immune responses.

Keeping the gut microbiome healthy includes:

  • Not taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary,
  • Consuming prebiotics — nondigestible fiber feeds the health-producing gut bacteria. Eat lots of veggies and fruits for fiber.
  • Eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, and beet kvass increases beneficial micro-organisms in the gut.

Improving gut health and reducing gut inflammation (leaky gut)

One concern about the modern diet is that it may produce systemic inflammation through gaps in the cells that line the small intestines. This is called leaky gut, or intestinal permeability. These gut lining cells produce the anti-microbial chemicals that are part of the innate immune system.

Here are some recommendations to reduce gut inflammation:

  • Avoid processed, high fat, and high sugar foods.
  • Avoid common allergens, such as wheat and dairy.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Investigate a low-FODMAP diet.
  • Add foods with probiotics (kefir, yogurt, kimchi, etc.) and take probiotic supplements.
  • Add foods with prebiotics (bananas, berries, etc.). Prebiotic supplements are available.
  • Reduce your use of NSAIDs.
  • Reduce your stress level.
  • If you smoke, quit.

Working with a nutritionist can be very helpful.

This is Day 7 of sheltering in place in Austin, Texas. Here’s our case count as of last night. We’ve had another death. We’ve been getting roughly 20 more known cases per day.

Expect the case count to go up quite a bit tonight. There’s a report that a group of 70 people (mostly UT students) in their 20s went to Cabo in Mexico for spring break a week and a half ago, and after returning to Austin, 28 of them have tested positive, so far. About half the cases in Austin are still those ages 20-40.

Here’s a poignant video showing the empty streets of normally bustling Austin. The sentiment at the end says it all.

The immune system: what is it?

How the immune system works

I am not a scientist! I’m trying to make this understandable for non-scientists like me. If I can get these basics down, so can anyone!

The first thing to know is that it’s not like other systems in the body in that it doesn’t consist of specific organs, like the digestive system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, etc. It’s bigger than that.

The immune system spreads throughout the body through the blood, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and mucosa (both mucous membranes and that surrounding organs), and more specifically, it is a key function of the thymus gland and the spleen.

The immune system works to prevent pathogens such as viruses from causing harm. There are two branches of the immune system, innate and adaptive.

The innate immune system responds first to invading pathogens. The innate response is rapid but not specialized. There are many different types of cells involved.

The adaptive immune system responds to pathogens that slip past the innate immune system, and it remembers them if exposed again. The main cell types of the adaptive immune system are T cells and B cells, which are produced in the bone marrow from stem cells. They are also called lymphocytes.

T cells recognize invaders and coordinate immune responses. They consist of killers, helpers, and messengers. They kill infected damaged cells. They produce cytokines that fight pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. When they find pathogens, they send messages to activate the rest of the immune system.

B cells produce antibodies, called Immunoglobulins (Ig) of various types. These are specific proteins in our blood that respond to and counteract specific antigens (substances in pathogens that provoke an immune response).

Both T cells and B cells can become memory cells, which persist and can recognize when an antigen appears again and create a rapid, antigen-specific immune response. For instance, having had the measles once confers immunity — if exposed again, you don’t get the measles again because your adaptive immune system recognizes and defends against it successfully. You can prove it with a blood test for measles antibodies.

This is also how vaccines work. Introduce just enough of an antigen for the body to produce antibodies, and the body becomes immune to that antigen.

We don’t have any specific immune cells for SARS-CoV-2 (the actual name of the virus; COVID-19 is the name of the illness) yet, because it is novel — new. It’s one of many coronaviruses (which can cause the common cold). Immunity to one coronavirus does not confer immunity to others…and the nature of viruses is that they mutate.

So, it seems to me, developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is like trying to hit a moving target. There are labs around the world working on a vaccine — but testing one to see if it works well and is safe enough to offer everywhere takes time, about a year from what I’ve heard…so next spring…if the virus doesn’t mutate, possibly becoming even more contagious and severe.

Medical people in the trenches are currently trying to find out whether and when people who have recovered from COVID-19 have produced enough antibodies in their blood plasma to inject in critically ill people and turn it around.

Scientists around the world are also working on a simple blood test for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. This test would not require as much testing as a vaccine, and it could be readily available in a much shorter time frame, telling us who’s had it and who hasn’t.

Since up to 25 percent of COVID cases may be symptomless (this is the largest figure I read), many more people many have had it and become immune than we now know.

The role of lifestyle

Your lifestyle is a major factor in supporting your immune system, making you healthier, possibly even conferring the ability to have that symptomless version of COVID-19 that I’m sure we all wish we had (but knowing we have it and self-quarantining so as not to spread it to people with weaker immune systems)…and having complete immunity afterwards.

Maybe even being able to donate blood plasma full of antibodies to save lives!

A healthy immune system might make the difference between a mild case and a serious case.

But since it’s new, we’re still learning.

Hygiene, diet, sleep, fresh air, exercise, the parasympathetic nervous system, and supplements all play roles in keeping your immune system working well. I intend to explore these in the coming days.

Defend yourself with impeccable hygiene

Humans got way healthier when we started washing our hands and utilizing public sewage systems and drinking clean water. Before these practices became common, a lot of people suffered and died miserably from cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, hepatitis, typhus, and other diseases spread from poor sanitation.

In the time of the coronavirus, the actions you can take to improve hygiene and reduce transmission of the virus include hand washing, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, not touching your face with unwashed hands, wearing gloves, wearing a mask, self-quarantining if exposed or ill (whether you test positive or not, given the shortage of tests), social distancing, sheltering in place, lockdowns.

This virus is very contagious! Please take care not to get exposed and not to spread it. Wash.Your.Hands and Wear.A.Mask.When.You.Go.Out.

Current coronavirus stats from Austin

This is day 4 of sheltering in place. As of last night, we had 160 cases here and one death, a woman in her 70s with significant underlying health conditions. Blessings to her family. 💚🙏🏽

It’s still affecting more people in the 20-40 age group than older people in this city with a young-skewing population.

One person at a homeless shelter has tested positive. That person is being isolated at a hotel and the 19 others exposed are also isolated and being monitored.

I’m hearing reports of customers being abusive to employees at to-go restaurants and grocery store cashiers. I hope management protects their employees and bans these people for a few days so they will be more appreciative.

I’m learning about the immune system

I have a dear friend who is my age (60+) who sn’t worried about getting sick from the coronavirus. She is a naturopath and a homeopath and is trained in a lot of other alternative health care modalities.

She has absolute faith that her immune system is so robust that she will not get sick.

I don’t quite have that much faith, even though I’m doing a lot to stay healthy, but it made me curious about immunity.

One question I have is this: how many people are positive for the virus but have no symptoms? Is this because their immune systems are so robust that the virus keeps trying to make headway, but it just can’t?

Or, possibly, could it be because they were exposed to very little of the virus, just enough to test positive, but not as much as people who get sick?

I believe the tests are binary: either you test positive or negative. (I wish everyone could be tested frequently.) The threshold for testing positive may be low if people are carrying it but symptomless.

I’m also assuming that people in close or frequent contact with those carrying or sick with the virus would have more virus in their body and be more likely to get sick. So, nursing homes. Prisons. Cruise ships. Mardi Gras. Spring breakers packing the beaches.

Packed churches at Easter?

I want to learn more about the immune system. We’re all interested now!

I’m going to investigate that and report what I find here in plain language.

Today is Day 3 of shelter in place in Austin, Texas, USA. As of last night, we have 137 known cases and no deaths.

Interestingly, the majority of cases are in people under 40. Only 19 cases are in people 60+.

Beet kvass: an easy fermented drink you can make at home to build vitality and resilience

Once upon a time, people didn’t know about viruses, bacteria, or hand-washing. They tended to live shorter lives than we do now. They got sick more often, and a whole lot more infants and children died than do nowadays. It was rare for people to live past 60.

But they were observant, and they developed practices like yoga and Qi gong to strengthen and balance their bodies, to keep their energies vital and strong. They created medicines from herbs that we now know have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties, without knowing about these things. They walked everywhere and grew their own food and got plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.

Think about it: all their food was organic because there was no alternative! They enriched the soil with manure and dead plants. The soil produced healthy food. The water was clean for the most part, the air unpolluted. They saved seeds from the best plants. They stored what food they could, and they fermented foods to strengthen and lengthen the nourishment.

In Russian and Eastern Europe, they made a fermented drink called kvass, from bread and other things. In Ukraine, they made kvass from beets, which are easy to grow, produce leafy greens you can also eat, and keep well. Kvass was common in every kitchen during those long cold winters and kept people healthier than they would otherwise have been.

Kvass may have even kept viruses at bay, or at least minimized the severity. We’re all very interested in that now!

You can make your own beet kvass at home, and here’s what you’ll need:

  • A jar — quart size or larger.
  • Filtered water (tap water has chlorine in it, which will slow fermentation).
  • Good non-iodized salt.
  • A medium to large beet.
  • A little bit of sauerkraut juice or whey from the top of plain yogurt (not whey powder).

This recipe below makes half a gallon. Put equal amounts of each ingredient into two quart jars if that’s what you have. If you want just one quart, halve the recipe. If you want to make a gallon, double the recipe.

I like to use an organic red beet, medium to large in size. Rinse any dirt off and cut it into half-inch cubes. Do not peel or scrub. You want 1 to 2 cups of cubed beets. Place them in the half gallon jar.

Fill the jar to an inch below the top with filtered water.

Add 1/2 teaspoon good salt.

Add 1 tablespoon of sauerkraut juice or whey.

Stir and put the lid on.

Every day, open the lid to let any fermentation gases off so pressure doesn’t build. If any scum forms on top, scoop off as much as you can.

Knowing when it’s done: The water will have turned a beautiful deep red color that is opaque — you can’t see through it any more. The water has thickened a bit to have more viscosity.

Beet kvass, day 1.
Day 4. Notice the brine has gotten more opaque. Could be ready on Day 5 or 6.

You can start tasting it on day 3. Beet kvass tastes earthy, salty, and tangy. This is hard to imagine because there’s nothing else quite like it. The flavor strengthens each day.

When I tasted my first batch, I didn’t know if I’d like it, and I just tasted a tablespoon of it. Wow! It’s a unique flavor, and my body wanted more so I drank more. I’ve been making it ever since.

Taste it every day for 7-10 days, and when you feel it’s done, put it in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation. Then drink some with every meal.

You can strain and refrigerate it, keeping 1/2 to 1 cup of the kvass and the beets and starting over to make another batch. Add filtered water and salt as above. Remnants from the first batch serve as a starter for the second batch. What’s not to like about that??

I recommend making this plain version the first time. You could add slices of ginger root or whole cloves to the next batch.

In my experience, it’s not worth it to try making a third batch. Too much of the goodness has left the beets by then. Start over with fresh beets and compost the old ones or add them to broth or soup. (They still have some flavor and all the fiber.)

And while you are making it or drinking it, you can imagine old Ukrainian ladies in their babushkas making this for their children and grandchildren to increase their vitality and resilience.

And you can imagine this kvass delivering all kinds of health-giving properties to your digestive system and immune system. (Seventy percent of your immune system is in your gut.) The probiotics from fermenting, plus the nutrients from beets (Vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium, iron, and more) make this a nutrient-dense food.

Help for respiratory allergies

It’s cedar fever time again, and I want to share this story because it may help someone to suffer less.

Many years ago, I took prescription allergy medicine (Seldane and later Claritin) daily, all year round, and could count on getting at least one sinus infection each year. Austin is known for its allergens, so much so that the weather reports include the pollen and mold counts. We’re especially known for “cedar fever,” which comes on after the first freeze in the Hill Country, which is laden with Ashe juniper trees commonly called cedars here. The male trees release clouds of pollen, which some people are so sensitive to, they stay sick for weeks.

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Continue reading

Preventing illness, recovering quickly

One of the most widely read posts on my blog is about recovering from a virus and recovering from adrenal exhaustion. People find it by googling because they’re trying to get well.

I want to share some good advice on preventing colds and the flu, based on what is known now. The immune system is an area of interest to researchers, but without a lot of solid conclusions, so far. What I’m sharing here is the best we know now, simplified, and now of course is when it counts.

You can prevent a lot of illness by managing your life in a way so that you experience less stress. Take care with your work and relationships, whatever stresses you. Know what you can handle and don’t be afraid to set healthy-for-you boundaries. Remember, stress turns on the bad genes as well as lowering immunity. Continue reading

Turkey vegetable soup made with bone broth

Since I accidentally ate some cookies with gluten the week before Thanksgiving (always read the label or ask the cook), which disturbed my gut, I’ve been making a batch of turkey vegetable soup with bone broth every few days. It is a wonderfully healing food that is easy to digest and provides lot of nourishment. It’s also a lovely way to spend a cold winter day, at home with a broth simmering, smelling great, heating my home, and later, tasting great and nourishing me deeply.

It takes a long time to make, but it’s worth it. Continue reading

What to do when you think you’re getting sick

When I first think I might be getting sick, it’s because I’ve noticed a sudden drop in my energy level. I feel fatigued when I normally don’t. Fatigue usually precedes any other symptoms.

The best thing I can do is to stop activity right away and rest. Get still. If I’m at work, I go home. If I’m driving, I head toward home. Then I get in bed and lie still.

Once in bed, I bring my attention to my whole body. I feel my weight. I feel my skin, my breathing, my energy. I feel gratitude for my body for all the amazing, complex, behind-the-scenes work it is constantly doing that I take for granted. I appreciate my immune system.

Then I usually read and take a nap.

My rationale is that by not placing energetic demands on my body and giving it appreciation, respect, and love, I am giving my immune system all the resources it needs to do its job and nip the virus in the bud.

Often I am back on my feet in a few hours, half a day, or a day. I don’t push myself into activity until my energy feels fully restored. I keep checking in with my body.

Sometimes I want to ignore the warning signs because it isn’t convenient to stop everything and rest.

That’s when I actually get sick.

Then I consume lots of Vitamin C. I love grapefruit juice (not too sweet, loaded with Vitamin C), and Emergen-C is a product handy to keep on hand for just those times.

I drink extra water to flush toxins out of my body and avoid sugar, which weakens my immune system.

I still make mistakes, though. Several weeks ago, I started having sneezing fits. I now realize that’s the first sign that my body is reacting to pollen in the air. This usually only happens in fall and spring when it’s windy and dry.

If I had decided to stay indoors after the second sneezing fit and take Histaminum hydrochloricum, I probably would have been okay. I’m noting that for next time I have sneezing fits. Also, I will use my neti pot (with water that’s been boiled first, of course).

Instead, I got full-blown allergy symptoms a few hours after the first sneezing fit: super-sensitive nasal passages, sinus drainage, and sore throat, with a feeling of inflammation in my nose and throat.

Even though acupuncture helped relieve the allergy symptoms, every time I went outside, I was re-exposed to the allergens, and it overwhelmed my immune system. I got a sinus infection.

More acupuncture and lots of Vitamin C helped me get over that without resorting to antibiotics. I feel very grateful for that.