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More Sleep May Be Key to Fewer Colds

A new study shows that your grandmother was right all along.

There are certain steps you can take, like getting the proper amount of sleep, to minimize your sick days this year.

A new study confirms what our grandmothers have been telling us for a long time: The less sleep you get, the more likely it is that you'll get sick.

The study, published by the Sleep Research Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (in a journal conveniently named SLEEP) shows that people who get six hours of sleep per night or more were less susceptible to the cold virus.

Thirty-nine percent of the study’s 164 participants who slept less than six hours caught a cold, compared to only 18 percent of those who slept six hours or more, Aric Prather, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of California San Francisco, tells U.S. News. Additionally, those who slept less than six hours were four times more likely to develop a cold compared to those who slept more than seven hours.

“What this provides is a kind of clear and what I think is compelling evidence for the importance of sleep as it’s related to health and the extent to which this type of work can help build up the argument to increase the collective consciousness around the importance of sleep,” Prather says.

Sleep, however, doesn’t influence a person’s ability to fight off infections nearly as much as exercise, David Nieman, a professor at Appalacian State University, tells U.S. News.

“If I stood before a group and they say what is the most important thing you can do to reduce your sick days of winter, I would say get out on most days of the week for a 30, 60 minute walk,” says Nieman, who has studied the effects of numerous factors on immune system function for nearly three decades.

His research has proved to be consistent with the government’s recommendation to exercise most days of the week, totaling 150-300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week.

In a 2011 study, he found that subjects who exercised five or more times per week were 43 percent less likely to get sick, compared to those who exercised one or fewer days each week.

With the right amount of activity, the most crucial immune cells are put into action, reducing chances of illness, Nieman explains. Working out too much can actually cause your immune system to function less efficiently.

“The best analogy is if you get the Navy Seals out of the base moving around, engaging the enemy. The defenses are improved. It’s the same with the body,” he says.

Washing your hands is key to keeping nasty germs at bay, but a hug from a friend could help save you from the sniffles. Hugs are an important part of disease prevention because they help block the negative effects of stress on the immune system, according to Sheldon Cohen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Cohen, who also worked with Prather on the sleep study, had found in previous research that people who reported high levels of stress, more specifically those with chronic stressors, were more likely to get sick than those without these stressors.

Stress disrupts the immune system’s ability to respond properly to infection. “People are exposed to infections every day of their lives, but we don’t usually get sick. We don’t get sick because our immune system is effective in fighting off these infections,” he says.

Interpersonal stressors, meaning conflicts with other people, and economic stressors, like unemployment, were the two most potent stressors.

But when people in his 2014 study who were stressed received hugs, they were less likely to get a cold. In other words, the hugs served as a barrier from stress, which would have otherwise compromised their immune system’s ability to fight the disease.

Relatedly, Cohen also found that people with strong perceived social support networks showed less of a response to stress and were more protected from the disease.

“[The results] show that people who perceive they have a social network that will help them in the face of stressful events are protected from the effects of stress on disease and that this effect may be somewhat driven by...hugging,” he tells U.S. News.


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