How to get better sleep to fight off illness from Dr. Aric Prather

Getting Better Sleep

Among Coronavirus concerns, sleep’s impact on our immune response offers one of many compelling reasons to tend to our sleep. Dr. Prather demonstrated that healthy individuals sleeping fewer than 6 hours per night were 4 times more likely to develop a cold when experimentally inoculated with the common cold virus than those with at least 7 hours. Further evidence shows that sleep loss is associated with impaired antibody response to vaccinations.

Beyond impaired immunity, insufficient sleep impacts memory and cognition and increases the risk for mental health problems, like depression and anxiety disorders, and physical health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. With daylight savings starting this weekend, it’s also worth noting that this annual loss of 1 hour of sleep is associated with increased fatal motor vehicle accidents.

What Can We Do?

Dogs, babies and night shifts aside, there are some important ways we can set ourselves up for better sleep.

  1. Although research is ongoing, the consensus based on available data indicates that adults need at least 7 hours per night to maintain optimal health; 7-9 hours is optimal.
  2. Wind down and unplug 1-2 hours prior to bed. Consider listening to soothing music, meditation, or indulging in a good book prior to bed.
  3. Avoid alcohol late in the evening.
  4. Keep a stable wake time 7 days per week.  This will help stabilize your circadian rhythm which is critical for regular, restful sleep.
  5. Make your bed a temple for sleep; resist doing non sleeping activities in bed ("Sleep and sex only.")
  6. If you’re unable to sleep, don’t toss and turn in bed. If awake for more than 20 minutes, consider getting up and going somewhere to relax until you feel sleepy again.
  7. Keep your bedroom dark and cool. (A temperature of 65 F is suggested as optimal.)

Don’t drink caffeine later than noon, and consider how much you are drinking in the morning. (The half-life of caffeine is 6 hours, which means that ¼ of the pot of coffee I drink at 6 AM is still circulating at 6 PM!)

Have more serious sleep problems? UCSF has several resources to evaluate and treat your sleep concerns, including the Sleep Disorders Center at Mt Zion; the Neuro/Psych Sleep Clinic; and a program at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

Additional Resources

  • Check out this TED talk for a review of the evidence about sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD
  • In this WIRED episode, Dr. Prather is challenged to describe sleep at 5 levels of complexity
  • Check out Dr. Prather’s additional tips for adjusting to daylight savings time