Your nose is runny, your throat is scratchy, and overall, you just feel bad. But why do you have a cold when everyone else in your house seems fine? It's hard to say for certain, but studies increasingly show a connection between getting adequate sleep and a healthy immune system. If you're chronically sleep deprived, you may be at a higher risk of getting sick.
Grab a box of tissues, tuck yourself into bed and let's find out how sleep can help fight off your cold.
When you're short on sleep, you know the immediate impact: you're having trouble focusing, feeling a little grumpy and reaching for coffee to fuel you throughout the day. Not getting enough sleep, however, can have a less obvious impact on your body — a weakened immune system.
Researchers first began studying the effects of sleep on our immune systems in the 1970s. Studies continue to show how sleep deprivation causes inflammation and makes people more prone to infection.
A lot is going on in your body when you sleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your body uses bedtime to repair tissue and fight infections.
Sleep is critical for regulating our immune systems. The white blood cells that help fend off infection — known as T-cells — peak early in the night and begin moving into the lymph nodes where infected cells are. Sleep helps to facilitate this distribution of T-cells.
Many immune functions seem to hinge on a regular, 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. This means when adults don't get the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, their health bears the brunt.
Without these functions, the risk of infection can rise. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation causes a stress response similar to low-grade inflammation, which can hurt your overall health. Over time, this can lead to serious chronic illnesses, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
So sleep is important for a lot of stuff. But what about colds, specifically?
The first study to look for a linear association between sleep and cold susceptibility was published in the journal Sleep in 2015 by Aric A. Prather and colleagues. Researchers tracked the sleep patterns of 164 men and women for one week. Then, the participants were exposed to a cold virus and monitored for five days.
The study found that those who slept fewer than six hours per night had a higher risk of getting sick. Researchers concluded that while the risk of infection was higher for short sleepers, those who got seven to nine hours of sleep per night were better protected.
Other research backs up these findings. A study by Sanjay R. Patel and colleagues published in the journal Sleep studied a group of 57,000 nurses. It found that those who slept less than six hours per night had a significantly higher risk of pneumonia compared to those getting more than eight hours of sleep.
However, getting more than the recommended amount of sleep doesn't increase your protection against infection. The research also found those who habitually sleep for longer than nine hours also had an increased risk of pneumonia. The impact of sleeping for longer durations hasn't been as widely researched, but it's thought that those who sleep longer may also have other conditions and illnesses that can impact the immune system.
There's no quick fix to the common cold, but studies back up the recuperative effects of sleep and how rest helps your body defend itself against sickness. In fact, the CDC suggests getting plenty of rest when you're feeling under the weather.
If you're sniffling and sneezing from the common cold, your symptoms will probably clear up on their own within 10 days. Drinking fluids, inhaling steam to clear a stuffy nose, and over-the-counter medicines aren't a cure, but they might make you feel better so you can get the rest you desperately need.
Colds can spread easily, but it's not a given you'll catch the virus if exposed. The best preventive measure is practicing good hygiene — wash your hands, don't touch your face and disinfect shared surfaces.
You can also aim to consistently hit the CDC's recommended amount of sleep each night, which is seven hours for adults between the ages of 18 and 60. By getting enough high-quality, restorative sleep, you can give your immune system a chance to do its job and fight off colds and infections.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.