Sleep has always been underrated as an important factor in keeping disease at bay.
But now scientists have woken up to the fact that sleeping less than six hours, the risk of catching a cold quadruples. Whereas, in the past, many doctors overlooked the importance of a good night’s sleep, some are now aware that it is perhaps what scientists see as the ‘third pillar’ of health alongside a good diet and taking exercise.
Researchers believe too many people neglect their rest out of misplaced pride at being too busy to get enough sleep. In a study they monitored the sleep patterns of one hundred and sixty-four adults in a hotel for seven days, before giving them nose drops containing the common cold virus. The lightest sleepers – those who got less than five hours sleep – were four-and-a-half times as likely to get the sniffles.
Lead researcher Aric Prathera, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said the findings emphasised the importance of sleep. He added: ‘It goes beyond feeling groggy or irritable. Not getting enough sleep affects your physical health. Sleep goes beyond all the other factors that were measured. 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 and was an overwhelmingly strong predictor for susceptibility to the cold virus. In our busy culture, there’s still a fair amount of pride about not having to sleep and getting a lot of work done.
We need more studies like this to begin to drive home that sleep is a critical piece to our well-being.’
The research may be a better test of the risks of chronic sleep deprivation than experiments in which scientists deprive volunteers of sleep because it is based on people’s normal sleep patterns.
The dangers of insufficient sleep are increasingly likely to be taken seriously. Experts at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention claim insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic, linked to car crashes, industrial disasters and medical errors.
The NHS recommends eight hours sleep for adults but a 2013 survey by the National Sleep Foundation found eighteen per cent of Britons get less than six hours sleep on workdays while twelve per cent sleep for less than six hours on their days off.
Such sleep deprivation can affect health in different ways. Hormones that keep us awake, such as cortisol and adrenalin, have the effect of suppressing the immune system but during sleep, hormones that promote the growth of infection – fighting white blood cells – circulate in our bodies. Other health benefits include the release of hormones that initiate tissue repair to organs and muscles and reduce blood pressure and the risk of depression, while a lack of slumber has been linked to obesity and diabetes.
The emphasis on sleep, as I see it, is a new and natural way to fight disease, by maintaining the forces within our body that regulate the inherent mechanism within us to work efficiently to ward off unwelcome infections and keep us in tip-top condition. As I’m already a convert to sleep I welcome the new findings, if only for the benefit of others.