Yesterday, I wrote about my number one weapon in the arsenal of flu and cold beaters: the neti pot. But like any battle, relying on just one weapon or technique would be foolish. Winning a struggle is the combination of several tactical maneuvers applied with maximum effect such that it becomes a viable strategy for success. So, in order to beat the flu, you need a few more tools.
Today, we’re going to look at sleep.
I’ve always found it fascinating that we enter the peak season of germs and sickness when the weather gets cold and the days get shorter. Yet, while the rest of the natural world senses a slow-down, as humans, we’re supposed to keep up the same frenetic level of activity as we go about our daily struggle to survive and prosper.
Many animals hibernate or at the very least reduce their awake hours drastically. This is obviously a means of survival for them, but it’s also interesting from our perspective.
How much sleep did you get yesterday? The general consensus ranges on what constitutes an optimal amount of sleep from 7-9 hours per night. This amount supposedly enables the body to rest and recuperate from the strain of the previous day, repairing the shattered cells that limp through our bloodstreams and preparing us for the next period of being awake.
But is this amount realistic? In our modern world, many people tend to get far less sleep. And many will only bank six hours per night, leaving them at least sixty minutes shy of what the health experts recommend. The result is usually obvious, especially when many people tend to get drowsier in the winter months. Those yawns and sighs and stretches are key signals that your body needs more rest. And if you deprive it long enough, your weakened body will be susceptible to attack.
Think about it this way: your body is your fortress and your immune system is the guard standing along the ramparts. Keep the same guy out there for eighteen hours and you will have one ineffective guard. Get him off of the wall and rested and he’ll be more alert and able to fend off the invaders.
Now, trying to secure a slot of time between 7-9 hours isn’t always feasible or realistic. I count myself lucky indeed if I can get a 7-hour slot of sleep. So you need alternatives.
Like a nap.
Naps don’t have to be long to get the benefit they offer. Often, just resting your eyes and “dipping” into that less-awake/semi-asleep pattern for even fifteen minutes will give you an added boost while helping your body stay healthy. In the service, we called them “combat naps” or “cat naps” and if we could grab them in the midst of a brief respite in our tasks, we were incredibly grateful for them. The effects are astounding, especially since you’re not fully asleep. Being able to tap into that state is incredibly valuable.
So, if you work in an office or a cubicle and don’t have the luxury of stretching out on a bed, how do you grab one? If you’ve got an office, simply shut the door and set your cellphone alarm for a quick fifteen minute nap during lunch. If you’ve got a cubicle, see if you can borrow a conference room. (I haven’t worked in an office in a long time, so I’m not sure what the possibilities are.)
Once you train your body to steal a few minutes here and there, you’ll be amazed at where you can do it. Now obviously, given my interest in self-protection, I don’t recommend doing this out in public where you need to stay aware. But it is possible to get extra rest throughout the day. And you should.
Personally, I think that humans have a hibernation instinct as well. Like many other instincts we used to have, the grind of modern society has dulled them until we’ve almost forgotten they exist. Hibernation is simply another tool of our personal survival, like being able to sense the presence of danger.
In the event you get sick, sleep is one of the most potent things you can do for your body. Give it an abundance of rest so it can divert its resources away from the stress of your usual daily activity to fighting off the infection. By enabling your system to concentrate its forces on the site of attack instead of spreading itself thin, your chances of success are that much greater.
Make sure, as well, that you’re properly situated when you do go to bed. Lie flat, not propped up (if possible – if you’re suffering from sinus congestion, lying flat isn’t always an option) so your body is leveled out and your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood everywhere. Get under the covers, even if you’re a little warm at first. Your body temperature normally comes down a few degrees when you sleep and you will get cooler.
Turn the TV off! The last thing your body and subconscious need is to have television shows and commercials playing in the background reminding it of what you’re trying to give it a rest from. The goal is to put yourself into an altered state, which is what a sleeping pattern is. Take a rest from everything. If you’re the kind of person who needs something audible in order to fall asleep (I like the white noise generated by a small fan) then opt for a soothing bit of music that you can program to loop. But turn the volume down low.
The key to obtaining deep levels of recuperative sleep is to almost put yourself into a sensory deprivation experience. It’s no coincidence that we naturally close our eyes and remove our most relied upon sensory input while we rest. Nor is it unusual that we generally breathe deeply through our nose and take our mouth with its ability to taste offline as well. We don’t normally paw about the bed, either. That’s three of the five down. Three less inputs demanding attention from our neurological system. Think about how much “power” that saves.
Special forces units in the former Soviet Union used to all go to sleep in the same way: tongue on the roof of the mouth behind the upper teeth, eyes closed and rolled up, and lying on their backs with their hands either clasped over their stomachs or at their sides. This was found to put their bodies into deeper rest quicker than by any other means.
It might well be worth studying your own sleep habits to determine how you best fall asleep. I always start on my back and then just before I drift off into deeper sleep, switch to sleeping on my side since it means I’m less likely to snore and make noise. But that’s just me.
Sleep is vital to life. And it’s vital to your battle against sickness. Take some extra time and reap the benefits of being non-awake. Your body will thank you.