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Sleep and the Common Cold

As it turns out, science has found yet another thing that our mothers were absolutely right about. All those times that mom told us to go to sleep, using the rationale that if we let ourselves get run down we’d catch a cold… that is exactly what researchers at Carnegie Mellon just confirmed in a recent study.

The study was collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and Dr. Ron Turner of the University of Virginia. A pool of 150 volunteers was recruited to participate in a study that tracked the amount of sleep that each of them got over a period of two weeks as well as the amount of time that each guessed they spent trying to get to sleep. The volunteers were both male and female, all healthy, and their sleep quantity and quality was totally self-reported.  After the two-week period, each of the volunteers was infected with rhinovirus – the virus that causes the common cold.

The purposeful infection followed an interesting path in terms of those who actually became sick. Those volunteers that had reported sleeping under seven hours were three times more likely to have ended up catching the cold than their colleagues who were able to get more sleep. The same was true of those who reported having spent disproportionate amounts of time trying to fall asleep. Though their statistics did not reach as high as that of the sleep-deprived group, they were close.

According to Dr. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon, who has done previous research on the connection between levels of stress and the chances of catching a cold, “We were surprised by the magnitude of the effect.”  That surprise will likely lead to more extensive studies into the topic, or even a repeat of the same one but with the additional added objectivity of utilizing a formal sleep study in the weeks prior to the infection process. Because the study volunteers self-reported the amount of sleep that they had gotten, as well as the extent to which they were tossing and turning each night, the data may change. Dr. Turner of the University of Virginia remarked that,”Clearly it would be better to have a formal sleep study to verify that people are accurately reporting the amount of sleep they get.”

One of the reasons for not utilizing sleep studies is straightforward – they are very expensive to conduct. But with the recent introduction of smartphone sleep apps and movement-sensing technology on wristbands the additional studies may be done without great cost in the future. In the meantime, for those of us who read the results of these studies with an eye to how they relate to our lives, it becomes that much more important that we do everything that we can to prioritize our sleep and get at least seen hours a night, particularly during winter’s cold and flu season.

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