Dr. Syed Moin Hassan is a sleep medicine fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who became a household name when one of his tweets went viral last year. “I don’t know who needs to hear this, BUT YOU ARE NOT LAZY IF YOU ARE WAKING UP AT NOON. I have spent hours with patients with delayed circadian sleep phase trying to destigmatize sleeping late and waking up late,” Hassan tweeted. Naturally, this started a passionate thread of Twitter users arguing for—and against—sleeping in.
Hassan followed up his viral tweet by saying how relieved one of his patients felt when he learned waking up late was okay. The patient had always been told it was a sign of laziness, and it had been a source of shame his whole life.
Hassan explained that there are people at the extremes of circadian rhythms who may function better going to bed and waking up early or going to bed and waking up late. If you fall into the latter camp, it doesn’t necessarily make you any lazier — it’s just how your biology works. That means sleeping in could actually be healthy for some people, and even essential for a healthy immune system.
How Sleep Impacts Immunity?
Hassan later took to Twitter in partnership with Brigham and Women’s Hospital to answer questions regarding sleep health. One Twitter user asked, “Does good sleep help my immunity, and will it help me fight off infections?”
“Studies have shown that poor sleep can affect how your white blood cells move, multiply and fight infections,” Hassan replied. “It can also affect the proteins released by your immune system to fight infections (cytokines and antibodies).”
Cytokines are a type of protein that targets inflammation and infection, stimulating an immune response. They are produced and released during sleep, so missing out on regular shuteye can do damage to your immunity.
According to the Sleep Foundation, if poor sleep becomes a habit, it can make the flu vaccine less effective, because your body isn’t able to properly respond. Anti-bodies are proteins produced by your immune system that detect and defend against harmful substances like bacteria, parasites and viruses.
How to Sleep Better and Boost Your Immunity?
The National Sleep Foundation advises people to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night — and find time for naps when you can’t meet these recommended hours. The organization says sneaking in two 20-to 30-minute naps a day can help make up for lost sleep the night before, decreasing stress and offsetting sleep deprivation’s negative effects on the immune system. (Just be sure to do this before late afternoon; Hassan says late-day naps can have a negative effect on your ability to fall asleep later that night.)
Michael A. Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, offers insights into what you can do to help facilitate improved sleep quality. Here are his four tips for a better night’s rest.
1. Hold Off on Your Morning Cup of Coffee
We know this one might sting a little for some of you—us included—but Grandner advises waiting an hour or more after waking to drink coffee for a real pick-me-up.
“Many people caffeinate first thing in the morning to assist with their waking up process, but this typically happens naturally,” he says. “We have a process called sleep inertia, which makes us very sluggish as soon as we wake up. But this should fade quite quickly if we get up and moving, maybe 10 to 30 minutes.
If you’re drinking coffee right away, you will start to feel better, not because of the coffee but because of the natural decline in sleep inertia.”
Grandner also notes that caffeine takes 20 to 40 minutes to produce its effects, so using coffee to wake yourself up is more of a placebo effect than anything else. He says waiting until mid or late morning (say, 9 to 11 a.m.) before pouring yourself a cup of joe will mean the coffee kicks in right after your natural sleep interia fades away.
2. Consider Intermittent Fasting
Not only could drinking your coffee later in the morning help you get proper sleep, but waiting to eat your breakfast could as well. It doesn’t have to be as rigid as some of the intermittent fasting techniques you may have heard of. “The evidence is emerging that we should keep our food intake to a 10-to 12-hour window from the first bite to the last bite,” Grandner says.
While the popular 16:8 intermittent fasting method—in which you eat within an eight-hour window and fast for 16 hours—is vastly different from the way most of us eat, it wouldn’t take too much effort to fit your eating within 10 to 12 hours each day. This might mean eating dinner a little earlier than usual or closing the kitchen instead of relying on midnight snacking.
Lisa Valente, EatingWell’s nutrition editor and a registered dietitian, adds, “This doesn’t mean waiting until noon to have your first meal. A 10-hour fasting window could be 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., which you may be close to doing naturally.”
“Most Americans snack at night. This is a problem for a couple of reasons,” Grandner says. “First, the foods we get cravings for often tend to be high-calorie, less-nourishing foods. This is especially problematic because calories at night are more likely to disrupt metabolic processes and lead to weight gain. Also, heavy foods at night can cause reflux and possibly interfere with sleep for other reasons.”
3. Avoid Alcohol Late at Night
Having a glass of wine with dinner shouldn’t be a problem—in fact, it could be healthy for you—but Grandner advises being done with alcohol closer to bedtime.
“Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but it decreases the quality of sleep and can even cause shallow sleep and awakenings. This is more pronounced in people sensitive to alcohol’s effects, or people who have more than one to two drinks close to bedtime.”
Sound familiar? It’s common for our favorite vino to lull us to sleep, only to leave us in a fitful doze or cause us to wake up much earlier than usual. You’re better off without alcohol before bed, so have your evening drink earlier and stick to water closer to bedtime.
4. Find Morning and Evening Routines That Are Sustainable for Your Lifestyle
According to Grandner, achieving a good night’s sleep starts the minute you wake up. He advises getting up and starting your day immediately upon waking—no lingering in bed or playing on your phone. Grandner’s rule of thumb is that your bed should be for sleep (and sex) only. Looks like the snooze button has been an enemy in disguise all along.
Following a regular schedule is important for keeping your circadian rhythm the same every day. In addition to getting out of bed right away each morning, Grandner advises getting plenty of natural light and movement when the day allows, along with giving yourself time to relax before you slip under the covers.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see is people not giving themselves enough time to wind down. The busier we are during the day, the more time we need in the evenings to wind down and prepare for sleep,” he says.
Starting a healthy sleep routine could mean putting your phone away 30 minutes before you go to bed and cracking open a good book instead of spending an hour scrolling through social media or emails. You could also take some time to stretch while you watch one episode of your favorite show on Netflix—instead of five.
The Bottom Line
Caffeine and alcohol seem to play major roles in how well we sleep, and adjusting our morning cup of coffee or nightcap are two relatively easy steps toward getting the shut-eye of our dreams (literally) and that we really need. Additionally, creating a sleep schedule with a streamlined morning and nighttime routine can seem daunting at first — especially if you have irregular work hours or a family with varying sleep schedules to care for — but research shows it can have some major benefits for your overall health