How to break the insomnia cycle and rebalance your immune system

Written by: Dr Catherine Sykes
Edited by: Cameron Gibson-Watt

Sleep is important for effective immune function. Getting enough deep, slow-wave sleep optimises your metabolism and makes you maximally prepared in case you fall ill.


Evidence suggests that the benefits of good sleep are also important for vaccinations. Flu shots appear to be more effective in people who have slept well in the days leading up to their vaccination - and this may also be applicable to your upcoming COVID-19 vaccines!


During the coronavirus pandemic, your sleep has never been more important, both for your physical and mental health. Dr Catherine Sykes believes that a healthy lifestyle and emotional health play a role in coping with COVID-19 by rebalancing your immune system.


In this article, she tells us why sleep is so important for good health, what insomnia is, what causes it and how you can break your insomnia cycle.


Could the COVID-19 pandemic have caused sleep problems in the population?

Certainly, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown our entire routine and lifestyle into disarray, meaning that many people have had to work from home, cancelled plans and have been unable to plan anything for the future. This lack of structure and a general feeling of uncertainty may be one of the main causes of sleep problems in the population.


In general, a lack of structured routine affects sleep, and this lack of sleep is also one of the factors linked to the spike in mental health problems this year. In addition, being tired reduces the ability to cope with and process stressful situations, and can also affect the ability to focus and problem solve clearly. This in turn can lead to other less productive ways of coping with problems, such as drinking or excessive focusing and ruminating. This affects mental and physical resilience.


What exactly is insomnia and is it a sign of mental illness?

Insomnia is a commonly used term to describe not being able to sleep. Psychologists agree that to be classified as a disorder, it must have been present for at least three months and cause distress or impairment in important areas of functioning such as concentration, memory and mood. The sleep difficulties occur even though adequate sleep is available.


Can work-related stress cause insomnia?

A lack of structure, worrying a lot and a lack of day and night boundaries can lead to insomnia. When we are stressed at work, we also find it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle, leading to inactivity and a lack of routine in waking, sleeping and eating.


What happens when insomnia goes untreated?

As mentioned earlier, insomnia, if left untreated, can lead to mental health issues, which in turn cause immunity problems and affects your physical health. During the COVID-19 pandemic and while we wait for our vaccines, it has never been more important to make sure we get enough sleep.


In addition, studies have shown that insomnia can contribute to high blood pressure, obesity, infections, intestinal problems and general pain. Therefore, it can even contribute to early death by promoting the development of these diseases.


Studies have also shown that not getting enough sleep can have effects on the thyroid gland and the body's stress hormones, which ultimately affect metabolism, the heart, memory, the immune system and more.


How can you break the insomnia cycle?

To break your insomnia cycle, you should work towards resetting your circadian rhythm - your in-built body clock. Here are some ways to do this:


  • Figure out what time you need to wake up

First, ask yourself what time you ideally need to wake up with enough time to get ready for the day. This should also include some form of movement and nutrients to get your day off to a good start.


  • Calculate how many hours of sleep you need

On average, adults need 7-8 hours a night, but this can vary. You should learn to get to know your optimal amount of sleep. Record how many hours you slept and rate on a scale of 0-10 how energised you felt during the day (e.g., 0 = extremely tired and 10 = full of energy) to determine your optimal amount of sleep.


  • Figure out what time you need to go to sleep

Start to make gradual 15-minute changes to your bedtime and wake up time until you get to your ideal sleep and wake up times.


  • Wake up straight away

In the morning, set a goal to wake up and get out of bed right away. Remind yourself of your intentions for the day. Using a light alarm clock is a useful way to help reset the circadian rhythm.


How can a psychologist help?

Seeing a psychologist can help you do the following:


  • Motivate you to make changes to your sleep habits
  • Understand obstacles to changing sleep habits, such as a deep internal feeling of not being worthy of sleep and self-care
  • Developing interventions specifically to help you understand and challenge your unhelpful sleep cognitions
  • Address what is going on during the day that is keeping you awake
  • Design a realistic and achievable reset sleep routine that is tailored to your circumstances and life situation
  • Help you recognise when you are trying to justify not making changes



Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is a highly acclaimed book that can help you learn more about the importance of sleep. You can buy this book here on Amazon.


Some recommended products to support a good morning and night routine from Zenitude - a self-help site designed to help busy professionals navigate modern life to stay happy, healthy and successful. Check out the products here.


You can also take this quick sleep test to determine your level of sleep deprivation.


Proceeds from affiliate marketing sites go charities that support social mobility.


If you suffer from insomnia and would like to see a psychologist for help, head over to Dr Catherine Sykes Top Doctors profile and book an appointment with her.

By Dr Catherine Sykes


I'm a chartered psychologist based in central London. I love my job. I feel very privileged to work with some wonderful people and help them work through difficult periods in their life.

I specialise in the psychology of high achievers. I understand the intrinsic challenges of your occupations. To everyone else, it may seem like you have everything. You may even feel guilty for having problems. I know that despite outward appearances you may be unhappy and suffering from a range of psychological problems. Your physical health may also be suffering. At such times, you may need an experienced psychologist who can help you get your life back on track and so you can start to enjoy your success.

I know your time is precious. I have over 25 years’ experience of delivering and researching psychological services. During this time, I have developed my own style that rapidly helps you to discover the core reason for your problems. I draw upon a range of approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), hypnosis, somatic psychology and neuropsychology to provide you with optimal therapy solutions.

You should also know that I'm on the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) register and that I am an Associate Fellow (AFBPsS) of the British Psychological Society (BPS). 

You may be also interested to know that despite being based in London, I regularly see clients from around the world who see me on their visits to London and via e-Consultation in between.

I have a professional team to support my practice. This means that booking appointments, answering queries, dealing with invoices, insurance claims, writing reports etc. is all responsive and smooth which takes away any added administrative stress of arranging to see a psychologist.

Do get in touch or visit my websites if you want to find out more.

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