Updated on 11.03.15

Want to Stay Healthy This Winter? Get More Sleep

Skimping on sleep puts you at a higher risk of getting sick.

sick woman blowing nose

Nobody wants to get sick, so do yourself a favor and get a good night’s sleep. Doctor’s orders. Photo: Anna Gutermuth

If you want to steer clear of the common cold this winter, a full night’s sleep should be your goal. That advice comes courtesy of a new study published in the September issue of the journal Sleep.

The study, which monitored and analyzed the sleep habits of 164 healthy adults over a period of several months, concluded that “shorter sleep duration, measured behaviorally using actigraphy prior to viral exposure, was associated with increased susceptibility to the common cold.”

Per the study, individuals who slept less than six hours were over four times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept longer and deeper. Meanwhile, those who slept less than five hours per night were 4.5 times more likely to get the sniffles.

The Anatomy of a Sleep Study

To consider these results in their entirety, the research team conducted two months of health screenings to analyze participants’ stress levels, overall health, and alcohol and drug use. Still, none of those factors mattered as much as a good night’s rest: Aric Prather, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco and lead author of the study, asserts that lack of sleep was the main predictor for catching a cold.

“Short sleep was more important than any other factor in predicting subjects’ likelihood of catching cold,” Prather told the Chicago Tribune. “It didn’t matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income. It didn’t matter if they were a smoker. With all those things taken into account, statistically sleep still carried the day.”

To be clear, researchers administered the cold virus to participants via nasal drops; they didn’t just wait around to see if they caught a cold on their own. But the study still proves one thing — less than six hours of sleep per night can lead to an increased risk of catching a cold when exposed to the virus. Further, those who slept more than six hours were better equipped to fight it off on their own.

How You Can Protect Yourself

With cold weather and cold season on its way, we all want to do our best to stay in good health. After all, it’s hard to tackle your to-do list from atop a pile of snotty tissues. And a sick day can mean lost wages for some workers, or cost companies billions in unproductive (or even destructive) work from cloudy-headed employees who go to work while sick.

So in addition to washing your hands frequently, avoiding direct contact with other sick people, eating a healthy diet, and keeping your environment clean (did you know that your office phone probably has more germs than the toilet seat down the hall?), it sounds like we should add some extra sleep to the agenda as well.

But that might be easier said than done. According a Gallup poll, Americans were getting an average of just 6.8 hours of sleep in 2013, while 40% were getting six hours of sleep or less. Further, 14% of those polled reported getting less than five hours of sleep each night on average, which puts them in the highest-risk group for catching a cold.

So, how does one go about getting more sleep? These tips from the Mayo Clinic can help:

  • Sleep on a schedule. If you want to get a full night’s sleep, get in the habit of going to bed and rising at the same time each day.Being consistent reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle and helps promote better sleep at night,” notes the Mayo Clinic.
  • Steer clear of food or drink that keeps you up. Tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine can all put a wrench in your sleeping plans. And it also matters when you consume them, notes the clinic. The best advice: “Don’t go to bed either hungry or stuffed. Your discomfort might keep you up. Also limit how much you drink before bed, to prevent disruptive middle-of-the-night trips to the toilet.”
  • Create a bedtime routine. According to the clinic, recent research suggests that using electronic devices before bed can make sleep harder to come by. Instead of clinging to your gadgets all night, create a routine that helps you wind down for the day.
  • Make sure you’re comfortable. According to the experts, sleep comes easiest when you’re in the ideal sleep environment. “Often, this means cool, dark, and quiet. Consider using room-darkening shades, earplugs, a fan or other devices to create an environment that suits your needs.”
  • Quit napping. This goes without saying. If you’re napping throughout the day, there’s a good chance you won’t be tired enough to sleep seven hours or more.
  • Start working out. If you want to be tired at bedtime, it makes sense to “tire yourself out.” According to the Mayo Clinic, a good workout might just do the trick.Regular physical activity can promote better sleep, helping you to fall asleep faster and to enjoy deeper sleep.”
  • Deal with stress. To get the most — and best — night’s sleep possible, the clinic advises taking some steps to manage your stress levels. That can include getting organized, tackling some large or small projects that have been weighing on your mind, setting new priorities, or just taking a break.

The Bottom Line

If you want to avoid the common cold this year, aim to get as much sleep as you can. Research shows that getting less than six hours of sleep increases the likelihood of you getting sick, but you can reverse that risk by getting a good night’s rest.

And who has the time to be sick?

How many hours do you sleep each night? Do you feel like you get sick every year?

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