Mother knows best -- at least it appears that way when it comes to lack of
sleep. It turns out that lack of sleep really may make us more prone to
catching colds and the flu. And that includes the H1N1 virus.
“It is an old wives’ tale that if you don’t sleep well, you will get sick,
and there is some experimental data that shows this is true,” says Diwakar
Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas M.D.
Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
By Ellie McGrath
Love can be blind and, for a while, even deaf. I was somewhat aware that my husband-to-be had a snoring problem, but I didn't realize the extent until a friend he had traveled with presented us with an unusual wedding present: a black collar studded with little electrodes. Whenever my husband snored, he'd get a harmless electric shock that would wake him him up — with the goal of conditioning him to stop snoring altogether. After a few nights, though, my husband called for...
Some 50 million to 70 million American adults suffer from sleep disorders or
the inability to stay awake and alert, according to the CDC. Though it’s
not always easy to do, getting adequate sleep can help keep our immune systems
primed for attack.
Sleep and Immunity: Understanding the Link
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a laundry list of mental and
physical health problems, including those that stem from an impaired immune
system. Our immune system is designed to protect us from colds, flu, and other
ailments, but when it is not functioning properly, it fails to do its job. The
consequences can include more sick days.
The relationship between lack of sleep and our immune systems is not quite
as straightforward as mom made it out to be, however. The immune system is
pretty complex. It is made up of several types of cells and proteins that are
charged with keeping foreign invaders such as colds or flu at bay.
“A lot of studies show our T-cells go down if we are sleep deprived,”
Balachandran says. “And inflammatory cytokines go up. ... This could
potentially lead to the greater risk of developing a cold or flu.”
In simple terms, sleep deprivation suppresses immune system function. Or, as
Balachandran puts it, “The more all-nighters you pull, the more likely you are
to decrease your body’s ability to respond to colds or bacterial
Lack of Sleep and Fevers
Sleep loss not only plays a role in whether we come down with a cold or flu.
It also influences how we fight illnesses once we come down with them.
For example, our bodies fight infection with fevers. “One of the things that
happens when we sleep is that we can get a better fever response,” Balachandran
says. “This is why fevers tend to rise at night. But if we are not sleeping,
our fever reaction is not primed, so we may not be waging war on infection as
best we can.”
Lack of Sleep and Vaccines
Studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived also get less
protection from flu vaccines than those who are getting adequate sleep,
John Park, MD, a pulmonologist who specializes in sleep medicine at the Mayo
Clinic in Rochester, Minn., agrees. “We know that our immune response is
suppressed when we are sleep deprived and that we develop less antibodies to
certain vaccines if we are sleep-deprived,” Park says. “It takes longer for our
body to respond to immunizations, so if we are exposed to a flu virus, we may
be more likely to get sick than if we are well rested when vaccinated.”