It’s really as if your body and mind are taking a joint ride on a roller coaster. There are periods when you may feel totally ok and periods when you feel so tired and exhausted, and think, “Boy, how am I going to cope today?
The tiredness can be so debilitating that a normal daily routine seems entirely out of reach. And on top of the excessive fatigue during the day, you may also experience sleep problems like insomnia.
But there is a lot you can do to improve your sleep and feel more energized. In this article, we go over the main reasons why you’re always tired and struggle with your sleep. And you learn four effective ways to effectively deal with fatigue and sleep problems caused by an overactive immune system.
What is happening when your immune system works too hard?
The idea of having an immune system that is working TOO hard is not an issue discussed much in the context of immunity. Most pieces of information that are readily available on the immune system pertain to ways in which you can strengthen this natural defense against illness.
However, it is entirely possible for your immune system to become overactive. This is most commonly manifested through one of the diseases falling under the category of “autoimmune” disease.
What is an autoimmune disease?
In a normally functioning immune system, the body can identify things such as viruses and other pathogens that it does not recognize before taking necessary measures to destroy these invaders. This is a straightforward, albeit very simple explanation for the entire immune response.
By definition, an autoimmune disease is a disorder in which the immune system begins to attack and destroy its own healthy cells. This obviously results in a significant disruption of normal bodily functions.
What causes an overactive immune system?
The short answer is that there’s no universally agreed upon reason why autoimmune diseases occur. While some types of autoimmune diseases are known to be correlated with variables such as gender, race, and heredity, any exact cause remains unknown.
Some scientists hypothesize that an overactive immune system may be caused by the typical items found in a western diet, such as an excessive amount of fat and sugar. These ingredients are known to cause a lot of inflammation in the body, causing some to believe that this may trigger an abnormal immune response.
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There are also those in the scientific community that attribute overactive immune systems and the resulting autoimmune diseases to the modern trend of vaccinating children and the increased use of antiseptic agents.
They believe that because of these “hygienic” practices, some people’s immune systems are not exposed to enough germs and pathogens early in life, causing an excessive immune response to sometimes harmless substances later on.
What are examples of autoimmune diseases?
This condition is characterized by the immune system attacking various joints, most commonly the smaller joints of the hands. Rheumatoid arthritis often leads to severe deterioration, deformity, and overall loss of function in affected joints.
To improve function and protect the neurological system, nerves are surrounded by a fatty outer coating. Multiple sclerosis is a condition in which the immune system, in a hyperactive state, begins to destroy this insulation surrounding nerves. Along with peripheral nerves, the brain and eyes are also affected by multiple sclerosis.
While there are several forms of multiple sclerosis, this disease is usually progressive. Over time, a large number of bodily functions such as eyesight, balance, and the ability to control skeletal muscles become severely impaired.
Celiac disease, though discovered quite a long time ago, has gained much more recognition in more recent times, as many people have begun to shift towards a gluten-free diet. This is another example of an autoimmune disease, characterized by an adverse reaction to the ingestion of gluten.
In the presence of Celiac disease, when gluten is consumed and moves into the small intestine, the immune system begins to attack essential structures in this area known as villi.
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These are tentacle-like projections protruding from the walls of the small intestine that help absorb more nutrients from food. This hinders the body’s ability to get the nourishment it requires for vital functions.
Why are you feeling so tired when you have an autoimmune disease?
Your body’s immune response is regulated by cytokines, a group of proteins secreted by the immune system’s cells. You can think of cytocines as a kind of chemical messengers that regulate your immunity and inflammatory processes.
Naturally, you have both, proinflammatory cytokines, which are highest at night, and anti-inflammatory cytokines that increase during the day. If you have an autoimmune disease, this natural cycle is disrupted. The levels of proinflammatory cytokines are also elevated during the day, which makes you feel constantly tired.
What effects does an overactive immune system have on your sleep?
In general, the relationship between your sleep and your immune system is reciprocal: While the lack of sleep impacts a healthy immune response in your body, an immune system disorder may, in turn, alters your sleep patterns.
The exact mechanism behind sleep problems and autoimmune diseases is very individual, and the causes may be different in different people. However, it is now understood that an increased level of cytokines can also lead to a more fragmented NREM sleep and decreased REM sleep, which is why your sleep might be more restless.
Another major influencing factor is pain. Many autoimmune diseases cause muscle and joint pain, which can affect the quality of your sleep. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis sometimes have joints that are so sensitive that they cannot find a comfortable sleep position.
And then there are factors like stress, a feeling of anxiety, or even depression that may come along with an autoimmune disease. Difficult emotional states and sleep problems are notoriously intertwined and nourish each other.
Excessive fatigue could be a sign of narcolepsy
There is one autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks exactly those cells involved in the sleep process – narcolepsy.
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Here is what’s happening when you have narcolepsy. Normally your brain produces a brain chemical called hypocretin (also known as orexin), which regulates your sleep. But when you have narcolepsy, your immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the brain that produce hypocretin. As a result, you fall asleep suddenly and unintentionally.
4 Natural ways to deal with fatigue and sleep problems
Believe it or not, but although you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system is still looking out for you – and it needs your help to stay healthy.
The good news is that strengthening your immune system is also the key to better dealing with tiredness and sleep problems. By taking steps to improve your immune system, you will find yourself more energized during the day and struggle less with your sleep at night.
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Keep in mind that your immune system is affected by a large number of variables related to your body as a whole. Therefore, many factors can either boost or inhibit immune function. So, we’re going to go over four of the best ways to boost your immunity naturally.
#1 Make Sure to prioritize your sleep
Yes, prioritizing sleep might sound counterintuitive if you are experiencing excessive daytime fatigue; and if you have sleep problems like insomnia, it might even seem impossible.
However, don’t forget that helping your immune system’s overall function is also the best way to heal immunodeficiency. And here, sleep is your best alley.
When you’re asleep, your body and brain take the time to repair themselves; that’s when your body produces the proteins called cytokines we talked about earlier. You need to sleep to allow your body to produce adequate levels of cytokines.
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There are two key factors when it comes to improving your sleep, which we go over next: keeping a regular sleep schedule, and approaching your sleeplessness with acceptance. Let’s have a brief look at each of them.
Keep a regular sleep schedule
Your body’s internal clock, also known as the circadian rhythm, plays a vital role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. This clock tells your body when to wake up in the morning and when to get tired at the end of the day.
To improve the quality of your sleep, it’s crucial to follow the same sleep schedule every night. This way, your body can find its natural rhythm and settle into a regular sleep-wake cycle.
However, we often forget to prioritize our natural sleep-wake drive, which can upset the body’s internal clock. If you continuously change the time at which you fall asleep and wake up again, your body will not be able to adapt to a fixed schedule.
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Therefore, stick to your sleep plan as much as possible and avoid deviations of more than 20-30 minutes. If you change your sleep pattern too often, it will confuse and aggravate your sleep.
Approach sleeplessness with acceptance
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but if you cant’s sleep, accepting your wakefulness is the first and most crucial step in getting back to sleep. Why? Because natural sleep is something you cannot force or control.
You have probably experienced yourself that the harder you try to sleep, the more awake you are. The reason for this is that you’re trying to control your sleep, which causes stress and tension and pushes sleep even further away.
So next time, when you’re awake in bed at night, approach your wakefulness and all the negative thoughts and feelings that you may experience in a welcoming way. “What does this mean?” I can hear you asking. Well, it means to learn to observe, accept, and then let go of them. By doing so, you stop struggling with your sleeplessness, which has an immediate calming effect on your mind. In this blog post, I teach you exactly how to do this.
#2 Do gently exercise for 30 minutes a day or more
You might think that staying inside (especially during the winter), avoiding people who are sick, and taking in some extra vitamin C are the perfect solutions for building immunity.
Yet, exercise is actually one of the most effective methods of increasing your immunity because it boosts white blood cell mobility, rids your body of toxins, and reduces cortisol levels. With less cortisol pumping through your body, your immune system is given some time to cool off and less likely to develop sicknesses like the cold and flu.
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The good news is, you only need about 30 minutes of gentle exercise like walking or cycling per day to see the effects that it may have on your immune system. If possible, choose activities you can do outdoor to benefit from the vitamin D boosting impact of natural sunlight.
Set small, achievable goals for your exercise routine
If you have a condition in which you become fatigued very quickly, e.g., multiple sclerosis, it’s essential to set small, achievable goals. Anything that you can do counts, even if you can walk only for a few minutes.
On days when you’re feeling better, you can set five-minute intervals to build up your resiliency for exercise. And then you can keep increasing those over time.
If you set giant goals like, “I’m going to exercise for two hours,” or even “I’m going to run a marathon,” and you don’t achieve those, then you might end up feeling bad about not reaching your goal, and give up exercising altogether.
Remember, just a little bit of exercise can help. You may tend to do nothing when you’re feeling fatigued and lacking the energy, but it’s still crucial to keep your muscles moving.
#3 Learn to handle stress effectively
One of the primary pieces of the immune system is a group of cells known as lymphocytes that keep you healthy and create antibodies against foreign pathogens that enter the body.
During periods of stress, the body releases a hormone called corticosteroid, which serves to decrease inflammation in the body, but which also significantly reduces the production of lymphocytes, therefore weakening the entirety of the immune system.
The other effect of chronic stress is that it leads to way too much cortisol being produced. Over time, the body becomes resistant to the effects of cortisol to a certain extent.
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When this occurs, there is a far higher likelihood of chronic inflammation occurring all over the body. When the body is in a state of constant inflammation, the immune systems primary method of attack is greatly diminished.
Watch out for your stressors
The way to get around this is by identifying your stressors and handling them appropriately. Some of the healthiest ways to manage your stress include meditation, breathing exercises, physical activity, doing hobbies you enjoy, or even just squeezing a stress ball.
Just make sure that you’re not developing a coping style that can be harmful to your health and immunity, like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol.
Engage in relaxation exercises and cultivate your relationships
To decrease stress and improve your immune system, finding a good way to relax is essential. Relaxation lowers corticosteroid hormones and helps valuable white blood cell levels to return to normal.
Healthy forms of relaxation and stress management apart from sleep and exercise include:
- Deep Belly Breathing
- ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training (a great way to start is reading either Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life by Steven C. Hayes or The Happiness Trapp by Russ Harris)
Researchers also believe that having friends can reduce stress and improve immune system health. Having good friends allows for stress support and social relaxation. Friends may also encourage you to lead a healthy lifestyle that decreases stress and improves your overall wellbeing.
#4 Eat a plant-rich diet
You know that eating a healthy diet and getting enough vitamins during the day is a great way to boost your immune system. Yet, there are specific plant-rich diets that can boost your immunity even further and keep you healthy!
Load Up On Fruits & Vegetables
Both fruits and vegetables are perhaps the most nutrient-dense foods out there. They’re stocked full of vitamins and minerals that improve the body’s ability to function, especially the immune system.
Here’s a look at some nutrients that impact the immune system and the plants that offer them.
- Iron: Beans and dried fruits
- Zinc: Seeds and nuts
- Vitamin A: Dark leafy greens, carrots, and mangoes
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits, broccoli, and kale
- Vitamin E: Dark leafy greens, seeds, and nuts
- Folic acid: Beans, grains, and spinach
Plant-rich diets aren’t just healthy because the nutrients they include, boost your immune system. They also encourage you to avoid processed, high-fat, high-sugar, and high-cholesterol foods that can negatively impact your immune system.
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While all fruits and vegetables are healthy in moderation, some are better than others when it comes to immunity.
- Citrus fruits (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc.)
- Berries (acai, elderberry, blueberry, etc.)
- Dark leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collard, etc.)
Now, you don’t have to eat fruits and vegetables with every meal, but you should be getting at least five servings every day.
What types of plant-rich diets are good for your immunity?
There are plenty of plant-rich diets out there, but very few have rigid guidelines describing how actually to follow the diet. So, we’re now going to go over three of the better plant-rich diets.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the DASH diet stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” meaning the diet is intended to help lower blood pressure. The diet itself was actually developed by medical professionals at the National Institutes for Health.
With this diet, you’ll be eating plenty of fruits and vegetables daily. In fact, you could be eating as many as 4 to 5 servings of both fruits and vegetables in a single day.
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You’ll also be eating about 4 to 5 servings of nuts or legumes per week and about 2 to 3 servings of fat per day (likely olive oil) that can also boost your immune system’s functioning.
According to the American Heart Association, the Mediterranean diet requires you to load up on grains, vegetables, and fruits. When you stick to this diet in the long-term, you’re reducing your risk of conditions like stroke, obesity, and heart disease.
You should expect to eat at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Additionally, all of your grains will likely be whole grains.
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The Mediterranean diet does occasionally call for meat (on a weekly basis), but the general recommendation is to eat seafood rather than other types of meat. The diet is designed around fruits, vegetables, and grains, with meats being supplementary.
The MIND diet is a subtle combination of both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. With this low carbohydrate diet, you can expect to lower your risk of developing conditions like Alzheimer’s, as this diet boosts brain health.
Every day, you’ll be eating three servings of vegetables, salads, and whole grains. The diet also recommends drinking a glass of wine, but feel free to swap in a glass of water if it makes you more comfortable.
This relatively high-fiber diet also encourages snacks to consist of nuts, beans, berries, and sometimes poultry.
Realistically, any diet can improve your immunity provided that you avoid processed and unhealthy foods and replace them with fruits, vegetables, and healthy grains. These foods include all the nutrients your body needs to maintain a healthy immune system.
I hope you can see that there are many things you can do to boost your immunity, regain energy, and return to restful sleep, even if your immune system is overreacting.
Keep in mind that when having an autoimmune disease, even minor changes you can make in your life today will make your overall wellbeing more realistic. In the beginning, the victories may be small, but they can set the stage for more significant accomplishments later.