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Can Better Sleep Mean Catching Fewer Colds?

Lack of sleep affects your immune system.
WebMD Feature

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.

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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 infections.”

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.”

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