This article was created by BlogHer for Nature Made.
Sleep is the not-so-secret sauce for optimal health. Nearly every bodily system (especially the immune system) benefits from an adequate amount of shut-eye. Most of us knew that already. The problem is we simply don’t get enough of it, for one reason or another. If you’re an entrepreneur or creator, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sleep isn’t necessarily at the top of our list. Well, it starts at the top but gets pushed down as we prioritize our day-to-day tasks. Eventually, burnout materializes and we crash to recoup all the energy lost—a truly vicious cycle.
Need more convincing to get serious about your sleep schedule? We talked to Dr. Susan Mitmesser, head of Scientific Research for Nature Made, about the biggest misconceptions and consequences of sleep deprivation, and how we can do better this year and beyond.
What are the biggest misconceptions about sleep and immunity?
I’m not sure it’s a misconception as much as it is a lack of awareness that chronic short sleep can cause a weakened immune system which means you’re not able to fight off any foreign invaders to your fullest potential. Sleep won’t prevent you from exposure to a virus or bacteria, but it is the time when the body can focus on repairing itself. One example of this is the production of cytokines. Cytokines are proteins that target infection and inflammation, and they are produced and released during sleep. Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines which impact the body’s ability to fight infections.
How does lack of sleep impact your body?
A lack of sleep, or poor sleep, can impact your body in so many ways. Some of those effects are more immediate, but it can also play a role in more serious health implications farther down the road. Those more immediate effects can include being more irritable, having impaired short-term memory, and being unable to focus. Even doing routine activities that require basic hand-eye coordination can be more challenging. Sleepiness has also been identified as the cause of a growing number of on-the-job accidents and automobile crashes.
When it comes to larger more serious health implications, a link has been made between a lack of sleep and a number of chronic diseases including heart disease and different types of cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization considers sleep disturbances a probable carcinogen.
How much sleep should we be getting every night?
The National Sleep Foundation defines healthy sleep for adults ages 18-64 as seven to nine hours per night. If you’re wondering if you might not be getting enough sleep reflect on how you’re functioning throughout the day. If you’re irritable, unfocused, and unable to perform as well as you should, insufficient sleep might be the issue.
What are some daily habits that contribute to better sleep?
Something that women should start doing immediately is improving their sleep hygiene which is set of practices and habits necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.
One that feels particularly relevant given how connected we are to our personal electronic devices is to stop screen use an hour before bed. The light from your screens can signal the pineal gland to stop or slow down the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls the body’s sleep cycle. If you’re scrolling through your phone, working on your laptop, blaring your TV, or doing a combination of those things at once, you can disrupt that natural curve up of melatonin production, essentially tricking your body into staying awake.
Some other things to improve your quality of sleep are to wake up and go to sleep at the same times every day, exercise regularly, spend time outside late in the day, and try to avoid or minimize caffeine after lunch.
My last tip may seem counterintuitive, but if you can’t sleep, get out of your bed and leave your bedroom altogether, if possible. Treat your bed as a sacred place that is only associated with sleep. You’ll be more likely to fall asleep faster if you return to bed when you’re drowsy.
What’s your advice for busy entrepreneurs?
Your immune system isn’t seasonal, so you need to make sure you’re arming yourself with the proper plan to help you build a strong immune system—that includes getting good quality sleep, finding nutrient gaps in your diet, and filling them with supplements so your immune system can properly function.
Make a point to exercise regularly, it’s great for physical and mental health! Just as important, find exercise that you like to do. It’s so much easier to motivate when you’re looking forward to the activity.
Do your best to abandon that mantra of all busy people “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Getting sleep may feel like it’s counter to accomplishing your goals, whether that’s because you’re working long hours building your career, running your own business, raising children, or a combination of these things. You need to be on you’re A-game and functioning on little sleep is putting you at a disadvantage physically and mentally.
Last but not least, be deliberate with scheduling time for all these things. If it helps, actually put them on your calendar. If it’s on my calendar, I know I’ll get it done.
How are you maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially in lieu of flu season?
I have this interesting dichotomy going on where I really like structure and routine, but I get bored easily. To stay on track with exercise, I work out at the same time every morning, but to keep it fresh and interesting, I add something different every week whether it’s a new running trail or a new exercise to do with the medicine ball. I’m the same way with my eating. My goal is to eat healthy, but to keep it interesting I try a new recipe every week, whether that’s a smoothie or a salmon dish.
Being in my field of research, I see so much evidence indicating that certain micronutrients and ingredients really can make a difference. I take fish oil with high omega-3 content, vitamins C and D, and zinc. Sometimes I have difficulties falling asleep because I’m having a hard time unwinding from the day and not being able to stop my mind from racing about all the things I have to do, but I find that a combination of ashwagandha and magnesium helps me relax and prepare for sleep.
Subscribe to the BlogHer newsletter for more tactical advice, exclusive content, and timely event updates.