Stay Healthy Over the Holidays Despite Insomnia

When 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.

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!

Tips for Avoiding Colds When You’re Short on Sleep

The evidence is now solid: short sleepers are far more susceptible to colds than average sleepers. Results of a study published this month in the journal Sleep show that people who sleep 6 hours or less are over 4 times as likely to catch a cold as people who get over 7 hours a night.

Here’s more, including steps you can take to dodge the bullet this year as cold and flu season begins.

Short sleepers and insomnia sufferers need to be proactive in reducing susceptibility to coldsThe evidence is now solid: short sleepers are far more susceptible to colds than average sleepers. Results of a study published this month in the journal Sleep show that people who sleep 6 hours or less are over 4 times as likely to catch a cold as people who get over 7 hours a night.

This may come as no surprise. If you’ve got insomnia, or if you’re naturally a short sleeper, you’ve probably had quite a few colds and suspected it had something to do with your sleep. You’re right: sleep shores up the immune system, and getting too little leaves you vulnerable to getting sick.

Here’s more about it and steps you can take to dodge the bullet this year as cold and flu season begins.

Importance of This Study

Other studies have shown that response to the flu vaccine is impaired in people whose sleep is partially restricted, and that short and inefficient sleep—as assessed by study participants themselves—confers lower resistance to illness.

But in the new study of 164 healthy volunteers, it was participants’ natural sleep behavior that was assessed (rather than their sleep being arbitrarily restricted). Also, their sleep was measured objectively. In addition to filling out sleep diaries for a week, at night they wore wristwatch-type devices designed to monitor sleep duration and continuity.

Participants also underwent 2 months of health screenings during which researchers collected information about their temperament, lifestyle, and habits. Following sleep assessment, participants were sequestered and given nasal drops containing a cold virus. Researchers then collected mucus samples daily for 5 days to monitor for cold development.

Perhaps more surprising than the main result was the fact that no other variable taken into account (smoking and alcohol consumption, for example) was as predictive of the likelihood of catching a cold as sleep duration.

“It didn’t matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income,” said Aric Prather, lead author of the study, quoted in ScienceDaily. “It didn’t matter if they were a smoker. With all those things taken into account, statistically sleep still carried the day.”

When Getting More Sleep Isn’t Easy

The take-away here is something you’ve heard before: if you want to stay healthy, get more sleep. I’m all in favor of that—when it’s possible. I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying and writing about how to get more sleep. Take a look at some of my suggestions by exploring the topic cloud to the right of this blog. (My book, The Savvy Insomniac, contains still more suggestions).

But for all the ways sleep can be improved by adopting changes in habits, mindset, and lifestyle (and, some will argue, with medication), some aspects of sleep are less amenable to change than others. Sleep length and sleep quality, for example, are partially determined by genetic factors. Twin studies suggest the heritability of sleep length and sleep quality is about 40 to 50 percent: similar to the heritability of general intelligence. No matter how much you’d like to be an 8-hour sleeper, it may not be in the cards.

The advice to get more sleep could be useful for people who willingly short themselves on sleep. It might translate into a resolve to go to bed earlier, in turn helping people stay healthy.

But getting more sleep is not such a straightforward matter for short sleepers or insomniacs, who can’t get the amount or quality of sleep we want even when given the opportunity. Going to bed earlier most likely will not do the trick. That usually tends to make insomnia worse.

Neither can we know when situations will arise that cause stress and interfere with sleep. For all we practice good sleep hygiene, it may be impossible to get anything approaching 7 hours’ sleep a night.

Tips for Avoiding Colds and Flu

We can be otherwise proactive in shoring up our immune systems to avoid colds and flu:

  1. Get a flu shot. Flu shots are available at pharmacies and doctors’ offices now.
  2. Get moderate to vigorous exercise at least 5 days a week. Results of two well-controlled studies showed that healthy young and older women who walked briskly 35 to 45 minutes a day 5 days a week for 12 to 15 weeks experienced about half the days with cold symptoms as women in the sedentary control groups. Regular exercise appears to boost the immune system in ways that reduce susceptibility to colds over the long term.
  3. Eat a balanced diet, minimizing sugar and simple carbohydrates. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t restrict your caloric intake too drastically. Immune function is suppressed during times of very low caloric intake and quick weight loss. Gradual weight loss is more congenial to a healthy immune system.
  4. Reduce your exposure to germs. Viruses are mostly spread through the air (via coughing and sneezing) and then inhaled. Touching surfaces that harbor viruses—public computers and doorknobs, for instance—and then absentmindedly touching your face can also result in infection. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently and at length, and make liberal use of hand sanitizer. When a family member is sick at home, avoid sharing towels, and wipe down telephones and faucets often.