Short sleepers and people with insomnia should take extra measures to avoid colds and fluCold and flu season has arrived. If you have insomnia or your sleep is on the short side of normal, it’s a good idea to take extra precautions to avoid these nasty bugs.

Why? Research shows that poor and short sleepers are more susceptible to infection than people who sleep a solid 7 to 8 hours. This heightened vulnerability has to do with the immune system, which is seemingly compromised in short sleepers, just as it’s compromised in people who are sleep deprived.

Here’s a quick explanation of why we short sleepers need to go the extra mile to stay healthy, followed by a list of suggestions for how to do it.

Sleep Fortifies the Immune System

Like other bodily systems, the immune system needs constant grooming to function well. The shoring up of systems takes place mostly during sleep, when other internal processes requiring energy go offline. This frees up metabolic resources to tend to other important matters, such as the one we’re exploring now: boosting our adaptive immune response to invading viruses.

When the body detects a virus, during sleep this triggers a series of events involving the production and mobilization of specialized chemicals and defender cells. They work together to produce antibodies tailored to fight that virus. In the process they forge a sort of long-term immunological memory. A goodly store of antibodies is tantamount to a standing army, ready to spring into action whenever the virus rears its head.

Deep sleep—sometimes reduced in short sleepers and insomniacs—plays a critical role in the operation. Just as deep sleep enables the cementing of facts we’ve learned or experiences we’ve had into long-term memory, so it facilitates the building of antibodies and strengthens immunological memory. Insufficient deep sleep may hamper the formation of antibodies and result in a less vigorous immune response.

Short Sleep and Immune System Compromise

Researchers have long hypothesized the existence of a link between poor or short sleep and compromised immunity, and recent studies lend support to the claim. The results of these three studies speak volumes:

  1. When 143 healthy men and women were given nasal drops containing a virus, those who slept less than 7 hours on average were almost 3 times more likely to develop a cold. People who experienced more wake time at night were over 5 times more likely to develop a cold.
  2. When 125 healthy men and women received the standard 3-dose hepatitis B vaccination series, people with shorter sleep duration produced fewer antibodies and were less likely to be protected from hepatitis B after the final immunization.
  3. In a large prospective study of sleep length and pneumonia risk, women who slept an average of 5 hours or less (and those who slept 9 hours or more) were significantly more likely to develop pneumonia.

What’s a Short Sleeper to Do?

“Get plenty of sleep” was W.C. Fields’ famous cure for insomnia, and, yes, here the advice is apt. But if “plenty of sleep” is not in the cards for all of us, we can still take steps to avoid coming down with colds and flu. As rhinoviruses are spread through the air and contact with objects bearing germs, here are recommendations from one who’s been there, done that, and decided that in this case, vigilance bordering on obsessiveness is the right way to go.

  • Get a flu shot—the earlier, the better. If you’re 65 or older and haven’t had one already, get the pneumonia vaccine.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water frequently and at length.
  • Put a little bottle of hand sanitizer in your car and in every handbag you carry. Use it in lieu of washing your hands—after handling money, touching doorknobs, signing for purchases with credit cards.
  • Clean public surfaces like computer keyboards and telephones with antiseptic wipes.
  • Out and about, avoid using your hands when possible. Light switches can be turned on and doors pushed open with forearms, elbows, and shoulders.
  • Carry a gauze mask or a scarf you can wrap around your mouth and nose if you’re going to be traveling by plane or using public transportation and happen to sit near someone who’s sick.
  • When a family member is sick at home, avoid sharing towels, and wipe down telephones and faucet handles often.
  • Get regular exercise. (Exercise, too, has a protective effect against colds.)

Some of these suggestions may sound a bit extreme. Yet if it’s true that short sleepers are more vulnerable to colds and flu, why not err on the side of caution this time?

What measures do you take to avoid colds and flu? Please share them!

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

2 Comments

  1. Carol, unfortunately, already has the flu and wakes up frequently with bouts of coughing. I guess she just has to wait it out. Any other ideas (cough/flu medicine has made her sicker)?

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  2. Hi Geoff,

    I’m so sorry to hear Carol’s already down with something. Bummer! Unfortunately, knowing what to do to speed her recovery is beyond my knowledge base right now. But it would be a great topic for investigation and a follow-up blog in the future. Thanks for putting the bug in my ear.

    One thing research DOES show is that sleep hastens recovery from colds and flu. Especially if you’re sleep challenged, though, sleep’s not easy to come by when symptoms like coughing and a splitting headache interfere.

    What I’ve discovered for myself is that controlling my symptoms at night is the only way I can get a decent night’s sleep and (I assume) speed recovery. A couple examples:

    The recommended 2 tablespoons of nighttime cough suppressants often make me feel wired and completely unable to get to sleep. But taking just 1 tablespoon may be enough to control my coughing and also allow me to sleep.

    Taking Tylenol PM or any other similar medication is something I usually avoid because it makes me feel groggy in the morning. But when I’ve got a cold and a headache, I take it at night. It usually lessens the pain and helps me sleep. The grogginess in the morning is a price I’m willing to pay when I’m sick.

    While these 2 strategies usually work for me, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to others–because I don’t know of any research that backs them up. Medications have different effects on different people. If Carol thinks cough & flu medicine has made her symptoms worse, maybe she’d rather avoid them completely.

    Herbal remedies for colds and flu are touted all over the Internet, and these are the ones I’d like to investigate.

    Meanwhile, I hope Carol’s in a position to get some rest and stay well hydrated, and that she gets better soon.

    As for you, do the handwashing thing and use hand sanitizer often. You’ve already got one sickie and you don’t need two!

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