Insomnia compromises immunityWhen my family gathers for a few days over the holidays, usually someone brings along a sore throat or a cough. Try though that unlucky person may to keep the germs from spreading, they almost inevitably do.

I catch colds fairly easily, and I’ve often wondered if insomnia has a part in that. A new study suggests that chronic insomnia does—at a minimum—increase our susceptibility to influenza. Here’s more about the study and precautions poor sleepers can take to stay healthy over the holidays.

Sleep and the Immune System

A robust immune system confers protection from colds and flu. In order to stay robust, the immune system needs ongoing attention, and it’s during sleep when the body’s metabolic resources are freed up to do this maintenance work. During sleep antibodies are created to fight invading viruses. Short sleepers develop fewer antibodies, past research has shown, and this puts them at higher risk for developing infections.

Insomnia Compromises Immunity

Chronic insomnia—trouble sleeping and daytime impairment—may also compromise the immune system, according to new research published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine. Participants in this study were 133 healthy college students, half meeting diagnostic criteria for insomnia and the other half experiencing no insomnia.

Via blood draws, the students’ influenza antibody levels were assessed twice: once before, and once 4 weeks after, they received flu shots (containing influenza vaccine). The expectation was that 4 weeks after receiving the flu shots, participants in the Insomnia group would have lower levels of influenza antibodies than participants in the No Insomnia group.

What the researchers found was telling. Both groups showed increases in antibody levels from pre- to postvaccine. But not only did the Insomnia group have lower antibody levels than the No Insomnia group 4 weeks after receiving the flu shots. The Insomnia group also had lower antibody levels to begin with.

Researchers can only speculate about why. But the result lends support to something I’ve thought (and sleep researchers have suspected) for a long while: chronic insomnia dysregulates the immune system, making insomniacs less able to fight off colds and flu.

Recipe for a Healthy Holiday Season

So if you’ve got persistent insomnia it’s wise to take extra precautions around the holidays. Here are suggestions for how to avoid colds and flu:

If you’re traveling: People with insomnia are said to sleep better away from home. Not me—I’m susceptible to sleep onset insomnia wherever I go. If you’re going away for the holidays, pack along all the accoutrements you need for a comfortable night’s sleep at home: ear plugs, eye mask, pillows, white noise machine, etc. I take a foam rubber futon for use in case the sleeping accommodations aren’t quite right.

Travel by plane: Airplanes are virus magnets. Pack along a couple face masks for use if nearby passengers are coughing or sneezing. Use antibacterial wipes on seatbelt buckles, tray tables, overhead air vents, and bathroom fixtures before touching them.

Avoid airborne viruses: Viruses are mostly spread through the air via coughing and sneezing and then inhaled. Steer clear of Uncle Dalbert if he has the bad manners to come down to Happy Hour hacking away. A hug for a sister who’s obviously contagious can wait for another day.

Hard surfaces that harbor viruses: Touching doorknobs, light switches, faucets and then absentmindedly touching your face is another way infection spreads. To lower your risk of infection, wash your hands with soap and water frequently (take along hand cream so your hands don’t dry out). Better yet, avoid use of your hands altogether. To open doors and turn on lights and faucets, use your arms instead. (It’s amazing what dexterous forearms and elbows I’ve developed since I set my mind to it.)

Pass on communal towels: Avoid sharing them—or give the sick one a towel of their own.

Passing dishes at the table: Leave the sick one out of the loop.

When you’re out and about: Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket or purse and use it often, especially after handling money, signing for credit card purchases, and pumping gas.

A final suggestion: I have a brother who swears that daily nasal irrigation (with dilute salt water or a commercial sinus rinse) keeps him from coming down with colds. I don’t have enough discipline to incorporate this habit into my daily ablutions. But I use a sinus rinse when I’m bothered by allergies or feel a sinus infection coming on, and it helps.

Got any tips for staying healthy during flu season? Please share them in a comment below!

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.

4 Comments

  1. Great ideas at communal table, towels, and travel tips! Especially prudence With sneezy Uncle Delbert! Thanks S.I. and healthy New Year!

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  2. Hello,

    just wanted to express how happy I am to have found your blog. As a chronic poor sleeper I’ve searched the web through and through to find someone who would regularly provide a good read for weary eyes, someone whose essays I can look forward to. There are forums on the subject of insomnia, but as helpful as they may be they are not the same as having a voice for our particular perdicament. It’s lonely to not have a single blog dealing with your difficulty in the entire vast blogosphere.

    Naturally, I purchased your book via Kindle and am enjoying the read.

    “But the result lends support to something I’ve thought (and sleep researchers have suspected) for a long while: chronic insomnia dysregulates the immune system…” – I also suffer from MS, and have always wondered if the two could be connected in some way. There is no definitive proof of this, but it sure seems logical to me that insomniacs could be more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases, since we are already more vulnerable for so much else.

    Anyway, thank you for the effort you put into your books and this website,

    Edgar

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  3. Hello Edgar,

    I’m glad you’ve found my writing about insomnia to be helpful, and thank you for the compliments! For several years I wrote a new blog post every week. Now I’m posting once a month and I intend to keep this up for a while. The site is a resource for people with chronic insomnia and I want to make sure it stays available to people looking for information and help.

    As to your question about a possible relationship between insomnia and autoimmune diseases such as MS, what I can glean from a quick look at the research in Pubmed suggests that sleep disorders are fairly common among people with MS (as are depression and fatigue). The sense I get is that these disorders are currently viewed as symptoms of MS and treated accordingly.

    As yet, no research suggests that chronic insomnia puts people at greater risk for developing MS. However, persistent insomnia is a known risk factor for a whole host of other disorders, and it correlates with poorer overall health. It’s possible that chronic insomnia dysregulates the immune system in ways that could make people more susceptible to MS and other autoimmune disorders—but that possibility has yet to be put to the test.

    Good luck in your quest for information online and thanks so much for writing in.

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  4. You have sensed correctly. Insomnia is always a symptom, never a possible cause of MS, though I personally carry insomnia my whole life, while MS came only a few years ago. But that’s only my example, plenty of good sleepers with MS out there.

    Thanks,Lois.

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