How Sleep Protects And Heals You From Flu

Last updated: June 23, 2019

A good night’s sleep may be more powerful than you thought. We are sleepier when we are sick because our body is more efficient in fighting off viruses and bacteria when we sleep; this is common knowledge. Did you know your immune system is stronger when you sleep enough? People who sleep well are less likely to become ill during flu season. More interestingly, your body responds better to flu shots if you’ve had plenty of sleep a couple of days before your appointment.

Although sound sleep speeds up your recovery, it may be a challenge to get deep restorative sleep with a stuffy nose and cough that keeps waking you up. Read on for advice on how to sleep well when you’re under the weather.

Does sleep protect you from the flu?

Sleep does have a strong effect on our immune system. The National Sleep Foundation recommends sleep as a preventative measure against the common cold and the flu. Their polls show that children and the elderly (the two groups of the highest risk of getting sick) are usually deprived of sleep. They either don’t get enough sleep or complain about various sleep problems which don’t let them sleep well.

Even if you sleep the recommended eight hours and have no sleep problems, it doesn’t mean you will be 100% safe from the flu. What it means is that your body will be more prepared to fight off illnesses. A 2010 study showed an association between poor sleep efficiency, short sleep, and resistance to the cold. Those who slept less than 7 hours were three times more likely to develop cold while those who spent more time awake in bed (had poor sleep efficiency) were as many as five times more likely to catch a cold.

Proper shuteye makes your immune system stronger when combined with physical activity, a balanced diet, and low stress.

Does sleep help the body heal?

Sleep does help the body restore and get well. This especially happens in deep sleep – the deepest and most restorative of all sleep stages. During deep sleep our heart rate is the lowest, the brain clears from toxic substances and the human growth hormone is released. This is also when the immune system is strengthened.

Your body knows how to repair itself when you are ill. Research shows that sleep cycles change at this time. Those with flu typically have more deep sleep and less REM sleep. Spending more time in the restorative sleep means more healing opportunity. People with an increase in deep sleep recover faster than those whose sleep architecture remains the same as when they are healthy.

You can get a lot of deep sleep if you sleep soundly through the night. Breathing problems that are so frequent with the flu can cause numerous wakings which prevent you from reaching deep sleep.

Does sleep deprivation make the flu shot worthless?

You will be protected after taking an influenza vaccine. However, a recent study has shown that receiving a flu shot after sleep deprivation results in developing 50% fewer antibodies compared to those who had a night of good and long sleep.

The participants suffered from insomnia and were compared to those who had no sleep problems. The results showed that the vaccine response was drastically lower in the sleep-deprived group. Study authors concluded that sleep deprivation probably makes us more vulnerable to infection.

How to sleep better when you have come down with the flu?

Nasal congestion, pain, cough and fever are all symptoms of the flu. Each can disrupt your sleep and you certainly don’t want this now that you know you need plenty of deep sleep.

Here are some tips on how to alleviate your flu symptoms at sleep time:

  • Sea salt nasal rinse. Use natural sea salt mixed with warm water. You can put it in a syringe and snort until the water and mucus come out. Spit them out and repeat the process until you can breathe normally. Sea salt is better than nasal sprays – they can be very habit-forming and can dry your nasal area.
  • Gargle warm water with honey or salt water. Saline water can also help with your throat, but honey makes a soothing lining which prevents dryness and scratchy feeling in your throat. This should alleviate cough.
  • Drink chamomile. Chamomile calms down inflammation and kills viruses. It is an excellent drink for bad health days.
  • Expose yourself to steam and humidity. Have a hot shower to ease congestion and breathe better. This is also good for your sleep. Temperature drop after your shower makes it easier to fall asleep and even promotes deep sleep. Make sure the air in your bedroom is humid. Use a humidifier or just hang wet cloths around the room (avoid chemicals like fabric softeners).
  • Have chicken soup – it is a proven medicine against the flu. Chicken soup is anti-inflammatory, warm and keeps you hydrated.
  • Make sure there are napkins, water and some honey by the bed. If your nose is congested and your throat dry, you’ll need them when you wake up coughing. Honey will prevent you from coughing more.
  • Don’t keep the heater on at night. It dries up the air and makes it harder to breathe. The temperature should be around 65°F for optimal sleep (both when you are healthy and ill).

Additional resources

  1. Sleep and host defenses: a review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9456469 Accessed June 7, 2019.
  2. Sleep in host defense. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12615185 Accessed June 7, 2019.
  3. Is Insomnia a Risk Factor for Decreased Influenza Vaccine Response? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5554442/ Accessed June 7, 2019.
  4. Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2629403/ Accessed June 7, 2019.
  5. Sleep May Be Best Prevention for Cold, Flu. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-may-be-best-prevention-cold-flu Accessed June 7, 2019.