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Sleep & Healing Autoimmune Disease

Society’s apathy towards sleep is in part due to science not explaining why we need it. People who go to bed early are often seen as boring or uncool and people who sleep-in are seen as lazy. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is the phrase often said in jest - but who ever felt good after very little sleep? I certainly don’t feel good or function well myself. So what if sleep wasn’t just a necessary part of life but integral to good health and the function of every cell and organ in our body? What if getting more sleep could even contribute to preventing or even reversing disease? Every cell in our body functions according to its own designated clock and circadian rhythm. Even the microbes in your gut have their own clocks and have a circadian rhythm despite never seeing the light of day. In addition ⅓ of all the genes in our body are what we call clock genes and close to 60% of everything else is related to clock genes. So how can sleep not be important? And why, with something so integral to every cell’s function are we only just finding out about it now?

We have a master clock that is in our brain and it sits on the optic nerve. It can sense light and dark and some nutrients. It helps with feeding and metabolic homeostasis. To have a healthy functioning body, you need to have all of the organs co-ordinated and in-sync like an orchestra. If you are off-beat you make noise. If you are in-sync you have a beautiful song. Hormones peak at different times as does your immune system which is more robust in the morning and has different functions at night. The master hormone that regulates this master clock is oestrogen.

But before we go further I’m going to tell you a little bit about my own journey with sleep. I’ve always slept well and enjoyed sleeping and my parents always made me go to bed relatively early. I don’t know whether it was habit or my circadian clock genes, but a good 9 hours always felt right for me. Later on in life, when I joined the world of work it required me to wake up ready or not and a busy social life that deemed early nights as boring caused my bedtimes to get later and later. What’s amazing about the body is that it tries to cope or compensate for a long time before things start to fall apart. The downside is that you can develop some pretty bad habits before you realise how bad they were for you.

I left my corporate job for a life that I thought would be more rewarding. A job with shorter hours and less responsibility and studying a subject that I loved. I thought this would be good for my stress levels. However, adding 3 years of full-time study on top of working with children pushed me to my limits. Switching from a creative job to one with lots of rules and deadlines as well as having to get up earlier than ever before was a shock and I rarely felt refreshed. However, I liked the idea of squeezing more into my day. It felt efficient, especially with my studies on top. I was constantly on the move and working with children caused an emotional drain, which I hadn’t expected. My break was 15 minutes and lunch was 30 minutes (not great for a slow eater, I rarely finished my lunch). When I got home, I had to spend two hours winding down from the day. I then studied for 2-4 hours and did the usual household chores and then prepared for the next day. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, I was. I loved my job and I loved my studies. But I felt that I was constantly draining a tank that wasn’t getting replenished and this impacted me in a big way. It sounds like a fairly normal way of life, but I started to look like a wreck. My skin aged and the sternum (where your immune cells are taught how to be normal) in my chest began to hurt. I caught every cold going and my mental health began to deteriorate. I had anxiety, I felt unable to make well-judged decisions and I often felt overwhelmed. Many people deal with these symptoms on a daily basis but that doesn’t make it reasonable, normal or healthy. In the end I chose to leave my job. I had been trying to reduce and manage my stress over the previous two years but felt enough was enough. I needed to take things off of my plate, whatever the financial cost. I knew I wasn’t fully myself, and I had forgotten what that was like too.

It was at the height of this emotional and physical drain that I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, but the point of this post is really about what I discovered next. I had read about how sleep could do wonders for the immune system and stress was often at the root cause of autoimmune disorders. BUT I had no idea how profound an effect nourishing my body with sleep would be. I was astounded! In my final year of study I went to bed at a reasonable 10pm and I simply slept until I woke up. At the beginning this was 10 am. It slowly reduced to 9.30am, 9am and then 8 am without any alarm. I woke feeling refreshed, happy and content with life. Six months later I went for blood tests, not even thinking that my rest would have changed my results. My antibodies had dropped so low I was almost in remission! The only other thing I had added into my life was practicing yoga three times a week, which would have helped too. We rarely think that doing something as pleasurable as sleeping or activities that we enjoy can be so healing. It was also clear to me the impact of stress on the body. Stress that we all deal with day to day. Stress that seems normal or that society congratulates as efficient or high status.

Matthew Walker, author of ‘Why We Sleep’ states that sleep helps us learn, memorise and make logical decisions and choices. It benefits our psychological health, recalibrates our emotional circuits and allows us to navigate social challenges rationally and with composure and a lack of sleep contributes to all psychiatric conditions including suicide. This really struck a chord with me, because in my older age my confidence, emotional resilience and social anxiety was probably at the lowest it’s ever been, despite everything I had learned in life so far. I never thought a lack of sleep could weaken me in this way.

A lack of sleep also contributes to the demolition of the immune system because while we sleep we restock the ‘armoury’ preventing infection and illness. This would explain my low white blood cell count and the infections I caught. I also know that chronic stress can exacerbate gut permeability and reduce secretory IgA levels. Plentiful sleep also maintains a flourishing microbiome. Sadly my new chosen path had pushed me over the edge and I believe into autoimmunity. Walker also states that a bad night’s sleep dwarfs the physical and mental impairments caused by a days’ poor choice of food and exercise. This is why, if I have a stressed client who has a lot of changes to make, I will always start with sleep first. Good sleep helps regulate appetite and control body weight, it fine-tunes the balance of insulin and circulating blood glucose. It will also help you eat better portions, make better food choices and avoid impulsivity. How can anyone make positive changes without a good night’s sleep first?

So how can you tell if you’re getting enough sleep? Walker suggests that outside of a clinical sleep assessment a good rule of thumb would be to ask two questions: first after waking, could you fall back asleep at 10 or 11 am? If the answer is ‘yes’ you are likely not getting enough quality or quantity of sleep. Second, do you need to drink caffeine before midday in order to function optimally? If the answer is ‘yes’ again then you are likely to be self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation.

There’s just so much more to say about sleep that one post just couldn’t do the topic justice. So we’ll be bringing you more posts on this subject throughout the year. The number one takeaway is that sleep impacts every cell and function in your body and you can start mastering good health by getting your sleep right first, no matter what your diet is.

If you have any sleep stories or results let us know in the comments below.

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