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'Sleep 8 hours' to maintain your immune system, doctor says: This free 4-step routine can help

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As the novel coronavirus spreads, you might get anxious about your health, finances, and the well-being of your loved ones. Worry can cause you to lie awake at night, says Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

"The part of your brain that generates emotions cannot tell the difference between things you're envisioning and things that are actually happening," she says. "When you think about scary things, it puts your body into a fight or flight state of physiological elevation. That, in turn, impacts your ability to sleep." 

But adequate sleep is necessary for a healthy immune system, says Dr. Amy Edwards, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals who works with the UH Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health. "Sleep eight hours," she advises. 

Here's a free four-step routine to help you get better sleep, even if you're anxious about the coronavirus. 

Set a sleep schedule and stick to it

"Sleep is a rhythm," Dr. Frank Lipman, founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City told Grow last year — and if you're not consistent, you might find it harder to get to sleep and to wake up on time.

If you sleep from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays, for example, sleeping from 3 a.m. to noon on the weekend will throw off your sleep routine. On the flip side, trying to catch up on sleep during the weekend can throw off your circadian rhythm.

"Try to keep the weekend schedule looking a lot like this workday schedule," Dr. Douglas Kirsch, medical director of sleep medicine for Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina told Grow last year. 

Three hours before bed: Avoid alcohol

You might think it'll help you relax, but drinking before you go to bed isn't a good idea. "It helps people fall asleep, but then they wake up at one or two in the morning when the body is breaking down the alcohol," Lipman says.

Getting fewer hours of interrupted sleep is actually better for your health and your mood than sleeping for longer but having that rest be constantly interrupted, according to a 2015 study by the National Sleep Foundation.

So skip the nightcap. Experts recommend giving yourself at least three hours between your last drink and the time you get into bed.

[Alcohol] helps people fall asleep, but then they wake up at one or two in the morning when the body is breaking down the alcohol.
Dr. Frank Lipman
founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City

An hour and a half before bed: Take a hot bath or shower

Cooler environments are more ideal than warmer ones for maximizing sleep, Lipman says. Your body temperature drops after you get out of a hot bath or shower, helping create that cooling effect. He also suggests keeping your bedroom at 68 degrees or cooler to get more restful slumber.

A research paper in Sleep Medicine Reviews earlier this year estimated that showering or bathing one to two hours before bed creates the optimal timeline for better sleep.

An hour before bed: Eliminate 'junk light'

Lipman says "junk light" is partly to blame for Americans' sleepless nights. Light from your phone, television, and tablet — pretty much anything with a screen — falls into that category.

Exposure to that kind of light triggers your brain into being awake the same way daylight can, according to a 2013 study, by inhibiting your body's ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep, Lipman explains. Those who watch Netflix before bed sleep, on average, less than seven hours per night, according to a recent survey by mattress company Amerisleep.

And while the instinct to keep up with all the coronavirus updates is understandable, keeping your immune system in good shape is even more important. Try to get all the information you need during the day from trusted sources such as the CDC. Experts recommend turning off screens at least 30 minutes before bed and, ideally, closer to an hour before. 

"In the end, environment and pattern probably play a larger role in how people sleep than they recognize, and changing it doesn't cost much," Kirsch says. "But it's very challenging to do. It's kind of like talking to people about their diet. People know they need to change their diet but find it hard to do so. People don't like to change, but if they don't change things don't improve."

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