Being sick with the flu, or even just a cold, impairs one of the body’s most reliable aids in recovery: sleep. Finding the right position and tools for comfort can seem impossible when battling a pounding head, stuffy nose and body aches. One expert, Aric Prather, a psychoneuroimmunologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, explains why the flu makes us lazy and how to get a restorative night’s sleep while fighting off seasonal illness.
When a person gets sick with a flu or cold, the body’s acute immune response includes an increased activation of inflammatory processes, particularly in the nasal passage. The result: lots of mucus that can cause intense pressure in the head and face.
Dr. Prather, who studies how psychological and behavioral factors impact the brain and immune system, says scientists believe those same inflammatory processes affect a person’s behavior, too.
“If you inject mice with a toxin that increases inflammation, these animals take on sickness behaviors: They are lethargic, they are disinterested in sugar-water or sex, they often develop a fever, and they don’t spend time around other animals,” says Dr. Prather, who also treats patients with insomnia in a clinical setting. “This mimics what happens to humans.”
Many immunologists surmise that a sick body needs to conserve energy to provide time for the immune system to fight off a virus, Dr. Prather says. Studies have shown that infected animals not only sleep more, but have an increase in slow-wave sleep, which is believed to be restorative.
More Isn’t Always Better
When a person is suffering from a pounding head and a running nose, the continuity of sleep is disrupted. This may mean that to get the required 7 hours of sleep a night, a sick person may need to be in bed for 10 hours. Perhaps just as important as getting the recommended amount of sleep is sleeping continuously, says Dr. Prather.
To ensure a sick person gets the sleep she needs, it’s important to “optimize your environment,” says the professor. “That means insuring you position pillows so that you don’t cough through the night, which will fragment and interrupt the slow-wave sleep.”
He tells patients to follow general good sleep hygiene: keeping the room dark, quiet and cool. People with fevers will have a hard time regulating temperature, so dressing in layers is best.
Dr. Prather says cold medicines with some sleep aid can help the night go by uninterrupted, as the chemicals should decrease pressure and symptoms, helping increase comfort. But he doesn’t endorse them, he adds, “unless you’re having a terrible night, since there are risks involved, especially among people who are vulnerable to falls.”
A humidifier is also useful, as it can help soothe dry sinuses and allow for easier breathing.
Before going to bed, Dr. Prather advises having an hourlong wind-down routine where you unplug from electronics and do something relaxing to set the stage for a good night’s sleep. “That is the case when you’re healthy, and when you’re not feeling well,” he says. “You need to have some ‘me time.’ ”
On the Mend
Dr. Prather’s work has focused on how insufficient sleep puts people at risk for actually getting sick. In one study, those who habitually obtained 6 hours or less of sleep and were experimentally exposed to live rhinovirus were more than four times as likely to develop a clinical cold than those who slept more than 7 hours per night.
“If people are deprived of sleep, they tend to mount fewer antibodies to a vaccine as well,” he says.
Humans tend to recover from a seasonal illness within 10 days, says Dr. Prather. With the benefits of good sleep, a sick person could be back to health in less than a week. (The mice don’t fare as well: “Many tend to die,” he says.)
Once a person is healthy, maintaining that state can require focus.
“If you haven’t gotten the flu vaccine, get it even if you already recovered from the flu,” says Dr. Prather, since the annual vaccine doesn’t cover all strains of the flu virus.
Wash your hands often, and be sure to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. “We know that sleep has an intimate relationship with the immune system,” says Professor Prather. “This may explain why people have a hunger for sleep when they are sick.”