Whether cold and flu season has taken you by storm this year or whether you’re dodging the pesky viruses and hoping for a pass, look no further than your sleep as an explanation, a remedy and an essential preventative measure. In the season of coughs and sniffles, getting adequate sleep is a key factor in supporting your immune function and lowering your susceptibility to viral infection.
More sleep means less chances of getting the flu
In 2015 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study involving 153 participants who documented their sleep patterns and voluntarily subjected themselves to rhinovirus infused nasal drops. The results were overwhelming, showing that individuals who sleep an average of six hours or less each night are over four times more likely to catch the common cold than those who sleep seven hours or more. Participants who averaged five hours showed even greater susceptibility to infection. In other words, the more sleep you get in the weeks leading up to viral exposure, the less likely you are to catch a bug.
Quality is as important as quantity
But it wasn’t simply the duration of sleep that proved significant in flu prevention. Sleep efficiency, a measure that accounts for overall sleep quality by discounting disturbances and middle-of-the-night awakenings, was the primary predictor of infection. More so than age, BMI, race, sex, season of exposure, psychological factors such as stress, or health practices such as smoking and physical activity, the quality of your sleep is the most predictive measure of your viral susceptibility. So, the deeper you sleep, the less likely you are to come down with a cold or a flu.
Sleep also helps to heal an infection sooner
Sleep not only promotes your ability to avoid infection, but it’s a major factor in the ability to recover once you’ve contracted a virus. Extended periods of deep sleep allow for the production of immune bodies such as T cells. T Cells exist in two varieties, Killer T Cells, which scan the body and destroy infected and cancerous cells and Helper T Cells, which coordinate immune responses through the release of messenger molecules called cytokines. Cytokines travel throughout the body regulating and activating appropriate pathways within your body’s adaptive response to pathogens. Sleep deprivation prevents proliferation of these essential immune bodies, depleting your arsenal and leaving you with weakened defense.
Interestingly, in the Carnegie Mellon study I cited earlier, the sensation of feeling “well rested” was not a sure indicator of good health in study participants. It was the objective measure of sleep quality and duration rather than perceived energy level that carried weight. There is no shortchanging the physiological processes that repair our bodies and brains and bolster our immune responses while we sleep. It’s not always easy to get the 7 – 9.5 hours of sleep necessary to optimise your physical and cognitive health, but if you prioritise your commitments and exercise good sleep hygiene, you’ll be well on your way to kicking the common cold and keeping the flu at bay.
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