Everything in moderation.
Even nectar is poison if taken to excess.
Happiness is a place between too little and too much.
So many cultures have understood the necessity of balance to optimal health, and yet I see patients every week who are running themselves into the ground, and still can’t understand why they are not feeling well, in pain, not sleeping well, etc.
Blame it on Western culture, technology run amok or just that “things aren’t what they used to be”… However you want to refer to it, striving for this balance of stillness and movement / exercise and sleep / busy-ness and rest, is crucial for your health, and in particular the health of your immune system.
Today’s blog post will focus on the scientific evidence for how exercise and rest affect the function of the immune system specifically.
When looking at the summary of evidence gathered on the importance of exercise to immune system health, short exercise sessions (in the research it is always under 60 minutes) have been shown to create huge increases in immune system activation AND effectiveness. The theory for why this is so effective and important is because when you exercise, blood gets pumped faster throughout your body. With that blood also comes all of your white blood cells. White blood cells are responsible for identifying and destroying pathogens – viruses and bacteria. So when you exercise these blood cells are able to find and deal with the viruses and bacteria faster than they would otherwise.
Interestingly, the research also indicates that longer periods of exercise (so think running a marathon for example) result in immune DYSfunction and additional inflammation, so there is absolutely a way to overdo it when it comes to exercise and how it relates to optimal immune system function.
In regard to sleep & rest, the research shows us that sleep and immune system function are extremely closely connected, to the point where the same molecules, called cytokines, are used to signal sleep as well as immune system response.
Have you ever had the feeling of being extremely tired when you get sick? That is these cytokines at work, making you feel more tired so that you will go to sleep, and the immune system can get to work!
And this goes the other way as well – how you sleep affects immune system function, and there are studies showing that you are about 50% more likely to get sick if you do not get enough sleep, and you are likely to stay sicker longer.
Too much sleep can also be an issue. The main things to be aware of if you are regularly sleeping 10, 11, 12 hours / night are #1, this is often a symptom of something else going on, potentially thyroid dysfunction. And #2 this much sleep can mess with your circadian rhythm which can make it harder for your body to know when it needs sleep, which then will lead to lack of sleep and all of the issues already stated.
So to recap, generally, the research supports keeping your exercise between 30-60 min, and increasing gradually to lessen the stress on your system. No matter what level of exercise you are starting from (even if no exercise), start slowly and increase gradually by no more than 10% every week and then monitor how you feel. If you are exhausted after working out, you are doing too much. Do enough to give yourself more energy.
For sleep, aim for 8 hours a night. Yes, there are people who only need 5-6 hours / night but this is quite rare. If you are only getting 5-6 hours during the week and then catching up on the weekends, that is a sign you need more on a nightly basis – “catching up” on sleep is not actually effective.