"Rest is one of the most important things for your body and immune system because it gives your bodily functions a chance to work thoroughly, in unison with each other, to stay healthy," Dr. Souza says. Dr. Souza considers rest to be time spent with very slow, deliberate breathing, calming relaxation activities, and, most importantly, in her opinion, sleep.
The immune system has numerous agents and processes to protect the body from, and destroy, foreign invaders are typically pathogens, viruses, disease-causing agents, or free radicals, she says. Things like vitamin C, and other antioxidants, break down or eliminate things like free radicals, which is why they are considered immune-boosting vitamins. However, your immune system can't utilize these tools as effectively when you're overtired, or constantly in a stressed-out state of fight or flight. As a result, according to Dr. Souza, the thing your body needs in order to do its job best is downtime, rest, and quality sleep.
"When you sleep, some areas of your body couldn't be more active," says Dr. Souza. Your liver processes toxins, your kidneys filter out waste, your digestive system moves things along, and even your brain processes waste. All of these things are important for your immune system because your body needs to reduce and paste waste, toxins and convert food into energy to help you feel and function at your best, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The key component to Souza's belief in rest is that when you're activated, and your heart rate is up, you're often in "fight or flight" mode. Fight or flight mode, according to Johns Hopkins University, is a mechanism of your autonomic nervous system for staying alive, fleeing danger, and moving quickly in moments of peril. For instance, being chased by a bear will activate this response from your nervous system.
The response, according to the Mayo Clinic, signals your body to release a burst of hormones (think: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol) to help you think faster, move quicker, and utilize energy. "This mechanism of the nervous system is useful and necessary for humans to have," says Souza. However, when this red alert hormone response occurs, the hormones signal your digestive system to pause its processes. Your kidneys halt their efforts, as does your liver. It actually makes your immune system less effective at warding off pathogens. Imagine all these processes like stores in a mall closing their gates, she says, and then it's all hands on deck for your heart, senses, and muscles to get away from the "bear" chasing you.
The thing is, a lot of things can activate this response. "Your fight or flight response can be triggered by an argument with a loved one or making a big mistake at work," Dr. Souza says. "The problem with this is that it's easy to be triggered into this state a lot, which means a lot of important bodily processes get paused."
The solution? Thorough rest and relaxation. Sleep is essential at every age and stage of development, but it is especially important when you're stressed out. It's also important to make sure you're taking measures to regulate your stress levels throughout the day. A super helpful strategy that Dr. Souza recommends is deep, slow breath, at approximately 7 seconds out and 7 seconds in (or four full breaths per minute). If this feels too advanced, the good news is that there is research that backs the significant impact 5-second breaths have on the nervous system (like this 2019 study).
"Your breath has a unique ability to impact your heart rate," says Dr. Souza. "If you want to slow your heart rate and tell your body, 'we are safe, there's no danger here,' deep-breathing is one solid way to do that." When you calm down and your fight or flight response subsides, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over and tells all the "shops" to open back up and continue their business as usual. This business, as usual, is what helps you stay healthy, prevent illness, and feel your best.
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