When the coronavirus began spreading stateside, I decided to double down on some of my favorite immune-boosting, inflammation-reducing remedies. While there is no cure for the virus yet, I thought it couldn’t hurt to reach for some of my go-tos: elderberries, Vitamin C, the Nue Co.’s immunity supplements, turmeric shots, ginger tinctures, and echinacea drops. But while many have explored supplements, tinctures, and tonics to help safeguard our immune systems, it’s important to note that the two most important, scientifically backed factors are sleep and stress levels. At first blush, they sound like simple enough factor to address, but having struggled with each of these things prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I know firsthand it’s easier said than done. My main question: How do you improve sleep quality and reduce stress during a time of global panic?
To start, my doctor, Larisa Litvinova, MD, an infectious disease specialist, recommended that I start adding lemon balm and ashwagandha supplements to the mix for their anxiety-reducing, sleep-aiding, and immunity-building properties. But eager to go deeper, because, as Tia Clinic’s chief medical officer, Stephanie McClellan, MD, pointed out: “I find that my patients with anxiety have an easier time sticking to routines when they know the reason behind why they’re doing something, instead of aimlessly being told something is good for you.” Thankfully, there’s plenty of evidence that supports why putting every effort toward improving the amount and quality of sleep you get is worthwhile, from reducing stress and inflammation to putting you at lower risk for chronic disease.
For long-term sleeping benefits, Dr. McClellan suggests mindfulness exercises, such as meditation and journaling before bed to “address your [anxieties] directly.” She also advises unplugging from electronic devices at least an hour or two before bedtime, as well as turning down bright lights “because the warm, yellow lights signal to the brain that it’s time for sleep.” Next, try a warm bath or shower, which has been found to help a person fall asleep and improve sleep quality—even in the spring and summertime. Lastly, keep the room temperature cool and consider taking a cortisol-reducing magnesium supplement. Music can also be a helpful tool, especially if you’re feeling restless in the middle of the night. “People don’t realize that music that makes you happy is anti-inflammatory,” says Dr. McClellan. “So I tell patients, if you wake up, don’t turn the lights on. Instead, turn some music on that speaks to you in a joyful way. Visualize the happiness that it brings up in you, and it can help you fall back asleep.”
To take a 360-degree approach to decreasing stress, begin by recalibrating the way you move your face and body, from relaxing your face muscles (“when the brain senses that kind of relaxed facial tone, it turns down the stress pathway,” says Dr. McClellan) to sitting upright and opening up your chest (“it signals to the brain that you’re safe,” she explains). And then there’s deep breathing, which increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. “It sends a message to the brain that you are safe,” says Dr. McClellan of evoking a natural relaxation response. In addition to mindful meditation and breathwork, Nina Vasan, MD—a physician and the chief medical officer at Real, a new mental health brand that’s offering free digital therapy—recommends cardio-based movement for stress relief, as well as stronger immunity. “Exercise increases the production of cells that attack viruses and harmful bacteria,” says Dr. Vasan, who recommends taking movement breaks throughout the day to “to keep your blood flowing” even when you’re stuck inside. In tandem, getting safe exposure to nature and sunshine while social distancing is important. “Research shows that being in nature, even for just 20 minutes a day, can increase immunity and also improve mood and happiness, as well as decrease anxiety by lowering the levels of cortisol,” she explains. Another way to control stress is by cutting back on excess alcohol intake. “It lowers your immunity and it makes it harder for your body to fight infections off,” she cautions.