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Sleep is one the most (if not THE most) important lifestyle factors for overall health.

Sleep improves nearly every aspect of our health. It should come as no surprise that sleep is an important factor in the autoimmune disease puzzle, too.

Yet many of us find it easier to eliminate eggs and dairy than to get more sleep. Why is that? In this post, we’ll make the case for sleeping more and sleeping better throughout your AIP journey. We’ll also make some suggestions for simple ways to improve your sleep that you can start tonight.

How sleep helps our immune systems

While we can’t pinpoint exactly why we sleep (researchers still don't know—isn't that crazy?), we can say what happens we don’t: nothing good! A lack of sleep is so strongly correlated to ill health that not sleeping enough literally increases your risk of both getting sick and dying.

Since autoimmune disease places an additional strain on our bodies, tending to sleep becomes even more important when we're diagnosed with these conditions, because it gives our systems time to reset and heal. Not sleeping enough, in contrast, creates inflammation—exactly what we’re trying to avoid by following the AIP!

Researchers are still examining the interplay between sleep and immune function.One study found that lack of sleep induced an earlier onset of autoimmune disease in mice.Anotherfound an increased risk of developing autoimmune disease in people with sleep disorders.

Our co-founder, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne of The Paleo Mom,summarizes the research on sleep and autoimmune disease this way:

Inadequate sleep has also been investigated as a possible cause of autoimmune disease. In an animal model of psoriasis, sleep deprivation caused significant increases in proinflammatory cytokines, cortisol levels, and increases in specific proteins in the skin associated with symptoms of psoriasis (like the flaking, dry, scaly skin).  In an animal model of multiple sclerosis, mice subjected to sleep deprivation developed the disease earlier than mice that slept normally.  Once the mice developed multiple sclerosis, sleep deprivation caused increased disease activity and pain sensitivity.  Furthermore, sleep disturbances are commonly reported by people with chronic inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma). 

Whether the sleep disturbances cause the disease or the disease causes the sleep disturbances is not well understood.  However, such sleep disturbances are known to worsen the course of the disease, aggravate disease symptoms such as pain and fatigue, increase disease activity and lower quality of life.

The bottom line is that, especially if you’re struggling with chronic health conditions, diet alone is not enough to help you heal. Your AIP journey should include attention to lifestyle factors, and that means attention to sleep!


Arguing for more sleep

For many of us with autoimmune disease, the instruction to “get plenty of sleep” is easier said than done. That’s because the symptoms of an autoimmune disease can impair our sleep.

For instance, joint pain might make sleeping painful. Blood sugar dysregulation may cause us to wake in the middle of the night. Issues with the stress hormone, cortisol, might keep us from falling asleep at all.

So, though sleep is an important part of the Autoimmune Protocol, we have to give ourselves a little grace when approaching this goal. Setting small goals and making progress on them is more important than stressing about how much sleep we’ve gotten or can get.

All of this is an argument for one of the best “sleep hacks” out there — to simply spend more time in bed! The current sleep recommendation for adults is 7-10 hours. Those of us with autoimmune disease may need more, according to Dr. Sarah Ballantyne.

If you, like many Americans, are currently averaging less than 7 hours per night, this may sound impossible. But don’t panic! Think of it this way: going to sleep 30 minutes earlier and waking 30 minutes later will add a full hour of sleep to your routine!

A slow build may help you increase sleep quantity. But what about sleep quality?

woman reading on her back in bed

Photo byAnthony Tran onUnsplash

Ideas to tackle sleep, starting tonight

The first step in improving sleep quality is to know where you stand now. Investing in a fitness tracker that tracks sleep, like a FitBit, will help you understand more about your sleep quality. You might learn that you’re waking in the middle of the night, or discover that you have more difficulty falling asleep. Making these discoveries can help inform the choices you make in improving your sleep.

Once you know what aspect of sleep quality you’d like to improve, you can set a goal and start moving forward. No matter where you point your focus, there a few simple changes you can make right away to help improve sleep quality.

  1. Tend to sleep hygiene. Make sure yourbedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. Lowering your bedroom temperature, installing blackout shades or using an eye mask, and using an ambient sound machine may all help improve sleep quality.
  2. Dietary changes may help improve sleep quality, too. Eating a carbohydrate-rich meal about 5 hours before sleep may help, according to Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, as willeating a veggie-rich diet(like the AIP) thanks to sleep-improving effects of fiber.
  3. Limit caffeine, especially in the afternoon. Caffeine blocks the hormone that encourages our bodies to become sleepy. If you find yourself wired in the evening, trylimiting caffeine after lunch.
  4. Go outside during the dayand keep light low at night. Sunlight regulates our circadian rhythms. Theblue lightemitted by our electronic screens has an opposite, dysregulating effect, andshould be avoided after sunset.
  5. Finally, it’s possible that you can’t “hack” your way out of true sleep disorders, so be sure to consult with your doctor as you work to improve your sleep.
nightstand with flowers and brush next to table

Photo byAlexandra Gorn onUnsplash

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