Sleep and your immune system: Combatting the flu

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Sleep and your immune system: Combatting the flu

As we get older, many of us find we have trouble sleeping. We struggle to get to sleep or to stay asleep (1). But poor sleep not only leaves us tired and grumpy – it can also affect our health.

Research has shown that sleep keeps our immune systems healthy; it helps our bodies battle all kinds of infections, including the flu (2). A lack of sleep could have a negative effect on our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible to the flu. Before we look at why sleep is so important for fighting the flu, let’s look at how our sleep patterns change as we get older.

How sleep changes with age

Both the quality and quantity of our sleep changes as we age. We don’t sleep as deeply as we once did, and we wake up more often during the night (3). These changes are a normal part of ageing.

We’re also more vulnerable to disturbances (3). These might include noises during the night or temperatures that are uncomfortably hot or cold. As we get older, we’re also more likely to have chronic health conditions (3). This means we’re more likely to need medications, some of which may have side effects that impact our sleep. Added to that, depression and anxiety along with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea and teeth grinding, are more common with age (3).

Sleep helps us fend off the flu

Our immune systems play an important role in defending our bodies against foreign invaders, such as the viruses that cause the flu (4). To do this, they need our bodies to produce various types of white blood cells (5) and proteins called cytokines (6), among other things. Our bodies make and release cytokines while we sleep. These important proteins create an immune response by targeting infection and inflammation.

Not getting enough sleep could hurt our body’s ability to create cytokines and our immune systems’ ability to function (6). With a weakened immune system, we could find ourselves more susceptible to catching the flu. Poor sleep could also make our flu shot less effective (6) since sleep deprivation makes our immune system less able to respond to the vaccine and create the antibodies it needs to protect us from the flu.

Looking at how sleep helps us when we have the flu, our bodies demand more sleep when we have a virus (7). The type of sleep we need changes too: research has shown we get less REM (rapid eye movement) and more NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep than normal (7). Also, our fever (7), a common flu symptom that helps our immune system fight the flu, may disturb our ability to sleep, leaving us more tired.  

Tips for a good night’s sleep

To stay healthy, especially during the flu season, we should try to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night to keep our immune systems fighting fit (6)

But for many of us, getting a good night’s sleep has become more difficult with age. Following good ‘sleep hygiene’ habits will give us a better chance of enjoying the health and wellbeing benefits of sleep (1):

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Relax by reading a book or having a bath, for instance.
  • Ensure your bed and bedding are both as comfortable as they can be.
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature and switch off the TV and computers.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and exercise in the evening, and heavy meals late at night.
  • Try to avoid staying in bed in the morning or napping during the day.
  • If you do wake in the night and struggle to get back to sleep, get up and go to another room. Do something relaxing such as reading or listening to the radio for 20-30 minutes, then go back to bed.


While a good night’s sleep doesn’t guarantee we won’t catch the flu, it does reduce our flu risk. A flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu (8) – and a good sleep helps the flu vaccine to be effective (6).



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