Study: sleep stops sickness

Published 12:50 am Wednesday, January 14, 2009

As temperatures continue to decrease across Covington County, many may be suffering from colds and the flu. But a recent national study shows that the best remedy for these ailments may be nothing more than a good night’s sleep.

In the study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University exposed adults to the cold virus and then had them wait five days in a hotel to see if they got ill. The researchers discovered that those adults who had at least eight hours of sleep were three times less likely to get sick than those who got seven hours or less.

Dr. Michael Labanowski, medical director at Southern Sleep Clinics in Andalusia, said the study’s findings do not surprise him.

“I think it’s probably been intuitive for a long time that the less sleep we get, the more predisposed we are to getting colds, flu and other infections,” he said. “What that study did was just kind of show what we already knew.”

Labanowski said that humans are regularly exposed to a variety of infections daily, but the body’s immune system is able to block most of these viruses and bacteria from spreading further. However, the immune system only works at an optimum level when a person gets at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

“They’ve done previous studies in flies that if you deprive them from sleep, they will get sick,” Labanowski said. “Humans are the same way. When we’re sleep deprived, our immunity is lower and it decreases our susceptibility.”

In addition to acting as a barrier against getting sick, consistent sleep can also serve as an effective remedy in decreasing the symptoms of illnesses that already exist.

“When you get sick, it kind of becomes a steamrolling effect,” Labanowski said. “When you get a cold or flu, then your sleep typically gets worse and you sleep more poorly. That’s why so many cold medications have sleep aids in them, because getting more sleep will help you get over the infection faster.”

Labanowski noted that it is not enough to simply get eight hours of sleep, but that the sleep must be uninterrupted. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea — which occurs when a person regularly wakes up several times during the night because the airway is blocked — can also lead to a person becoming sick more often from illnesses like the cold and flu.

“I had a teacher who came to the clinic once, and she had sleep apnea,” he said. “She said that she would practically live with a cold every day during her seven to eight years of teaching. She said that just as she was getting over one cold, she would catch another one right away.

“We treated her for sleep apnea, and when I saw her back a year later, she said she couldn’t remember even getting one cold in that previous year. Her lack of quality sleep predisposed her to all those illnesses in the air, and once we treated her sleep apnea, it was like those colds just went away.”