October 19 2015

Sleep, Infection, Viruses, Immune Health

As it turns out, when it comes to prevention from getting sick with a virus, what might be just as important as your hand washing hygiene is your SLEEP hygiene!

A recent study coming out of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) looked at the relationship between average sleep quantity and getting sick from the common cold. It was published in the journal Sleep and presented in multiple leading online newspapers including the NY Times and the BBC.


It’s worth looking at and so, here are my take home points:

  • A leading theory has been that poor sleep decreases the strength of our immune system and this study’s aim was to look objectively at the relationship of sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. 
  • The study researches recruited a total 164 healthy people, ages 18-55, over the period of 2007-2011.
  • The volunteers wore a wrist sensor for a week, which measured their sleep activity and habits.
  •  Afterwards, they were quarantined in a hotel, were infected with rhinovirus (the virus that causes the common cold) through nasal drops, and then observed for 5 days to see who actually got the cold.
  • The results were adjusted to control for many variables among the volunteers, including differences like age, sex, weight, income, stress levels, and activity levels; in other words, the researches were looking purely at the effect sleep had on susceptibility to the cold.
  • The results revealed that those who slept less than 6 hours a night were over FOUR times more likely to catch the cold than those who slept more than 7 hours of sleep.
  • The less the amount of sleep, the increased the susceptibility to the common cold.  Those who slept less than 5 hours got the cold more than than those who slept between 5-6 hours.
  • Interestingly, the result was not changed if the sleep was broken during the night; what mattered was the TOTAL amount of sleep during the night.
  • I think an interesting question to explore would be to see if sleep during the DAY makes a difference on these results. Do 7 hours of total sleep during the night with no daylight sleeping have a different effect on our immune system and our likelihood to get the cold, than 7 hours of total sleep “divvied up” between day and night?

Bottom line

The study strongly supported the power in quantity of nighttime sleep in strengthening our immune systems and reducing our susceptibility to colds. A particular strength of the study was showing that it’s okay if the nighttime sleep is fragmented and not continuous!  So during this season which is one popular for viral infections, prioritize sleep as much as you can. It is powerful preventive medicine. 

Some personal thoughts on the study

I don’t think anyone needs a doctor to tell him or her that sleep supports great health in order to know that. Most people can absolutely feel the difference in their entire functioning based on how much sleep they are getting. Any new parent will attest to this.  But I appreciate a study like this because it shows just HOW powerful sleep can be! For as much press as diet gets, I have yet to see a study in which the lack of one particular food results in the same poor health as the lack of sleep!  And yet so many of us are sleep-deprived. We skimp on sleep but go on a juice cleanse.

One thing I often see with clients and patients is the attempt to combat sleep deprivation with “superfoods”/vitamins/supplements. In my experience the only thing that combats sleep deprivation….is sleep.

And yes, there are times when sleep deprivation is just a fact of life and we do the best we can, and try to bolster other aspects of health like diet and exercise. But I would offer that those times could be far less often than they are for most people. Which is why taking a look at your sleep hygiene can be really helpful and reveal ways in which you could improve not just your quantity, but your quality of sleep! 

Quick Quiz

Dance Video

Here are excerpts from a piece called Your Highness. It was filmed in 110 degree weather and I wouldn’t have been able to dance it without sufficient sleep! Haha.

Please enjoy. 

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