There’s a lot to love about fall: football, colorful foliage and cooler temperatures. But it also marks the start of cold season, when runny noses, sneezing and coughing can keep you inside.
The common cold affects more than 3 million people in the U.S. each year. Various measures are taken to fend off colds, from vigilant hand washing to increased exercise, but, according to Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., one particularly effective prevention method often goes ignored: sleep.
“I consider sleep almost like a prescription medication,” said Chakravarty. “You can’t overstate the importance of getting 7-8 hours per night of actual sleep, not just being in bed. More and more evidence we see points to sleep having some sort of healing quality.”
A recent study at the University of California, San Francisco, set out to show just how protective a good night’s rest can be against the common cold, using 164 healthy human subjects. UCSF psychologist Aric Prather, Ph.D., evaluated each person’s sleep patterns for a week, and then scientists sprayed a live cold virus into each participant’s nose.
The results were staggering, showing that 39 percent of adults who slept an average of 5-6 hours per night got sick, while only 18 percent of those who slept 7-8 hours developed colds.
Though the precise reasons for this protective quality are currently unknown, Prather theorized that increased inflammation due to lack of sleep could be a root cause. Inflammation is often a response to stress, said Chakravarty, and sleep deprivation is such a critical component to human health that the body responds to it much like recovery from surgery or a virus.
“We don’t know the exact mechanisms behind the benefits of sleep, but there are definitely a lot of studies that show that inadequate sleep or sleep deprivation can lead to negative consequences,” said Chakravarty. “When we sleep, it’s a restorative period where our bodies repair all the micro-traumas of the day. That helps us start the new day as healthy as possible.”
Sleep is far from the only factor at play when it comes to avoiding the common cold. Tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption and poor diet can increase your susceptibility to this ever-present virus. However, said Chakravarty, the study shows that there are easy things we can do to protect our health that we often neglect. “Everybody always wants a diagnosis or a medication, but sometimes it’s as simple as listening when your mom says, ‘Eat your veggies and get some sleep.’ It can be amazingly effective.”
While all sleep helps, quality sleep is even better. Chakravarty focuses on what she refers to as ‘sleep hygiene,’ which ensures maximizing sleep quality by cutting out caffeine in the afternoon, keeping to a regular schedule even on weekends, and getting the TVs and iPads out of the bedroom.
“We’re so busy and plugged-in all the time and continuously make excuses like ‘I’ll sleep later’ or ‘I can make it up tomorrow night,’ but those decisions actually make a difference in your day-to-day health,” she said. “An interesting aspect of this study is that the risk was reduced by half — 39 percent to 18 percent — just by sleeping. That’s significant.”
So while you’re using hand sanitizer to eliminate germs and bolstering your immune system with regular exercise and good dietary decisions, place establishing a regular sleep regimen to your to-do list.
“Sleep is good for everything,” said Chakravarty. “It’s important for immunity, it reduces chronic pain, it increases cognitive and neurological focus, and you’ll function better. It’s critical for maintaining health and, according to this study, can lessen your risk of getting sick.”