You know the feeling when you're coming down with something? Your head throbs, your nose is stuffy, your throat tickles, and your muscles ache. But worst of all, you're just so tired.
Don't fight it—sleep is essential for recovering from the flu, a common cold, or any other infection. But just how much slumber does the body need to heal itself?
Why is sleep so important for healing?
"We know that most people do best with seven to eight hours of sleep regularly, so if you're under the weather, dealing with a virus or bacteria, you'll want to add on at least another hour or so," says immunologist Heather Moday, M.D.. "If you can get around nine or 10 hours, it'll help you get better much faster." When doctors advise sick patients to catch some zzz's instead of going to work and hitting the gym, it's for some very important reasons. The circadian system and the immune system are deeply connected, and this explains why our bodies make us feel so sleepy when we're sick1.
Sleep and the immune system.
"Sleep is when your immune system repairs itself, the mitochondria clean themselves up, and the liver does most of its detoxification," explained Moday. "When we're sleeping, we create more antibodies from our lymphocytes."
Getting a good night's rest has also been shown to push T-cells into our lymph nodes2, thus helping to destroy germ-infected cells in our bodies. It doesn't matter if you get those extra hours by hitting the hay a little earlier, sleeping in, or catching a catnap in the afternoon—anytime you're sleeping when sick allows your body to devote energy toward fighting harmful viruses and bacteria. The key to maximizing the effectiveness of this process, however, is to make sure you're getting quality sleep, says Moday.
How to get good-quality sleep.
"The best way to get good rest is to sleep when it's dark and be awake when it's light out because our circadian rhythms are set by light. Most of us get way too much blue light from phones, screens, and even alarm clocks, and that disrupts your sleep tremendously," she says. Shutting off your phone an hour or two before bedtime and closing the curtains so your room is dark help create an environment that's conducive to restorative sleep.
"Some people also benefit from using a humidifier or doing nasal passage irrigation when they're sick. Otherwise, you might wake up in the middle of the night if you can't breathe through your nose," says Moday.
What else can you do?
While getting some extra shut-eye can help you recuperate from an illness, there are a number of other things you can do to feel better. Over-the-counter remedies and supplements can help relieve symptoms, like body aches, Moday says. Staying hydrated will help relieve congestion and promote well-being. Keeping your stress levels down4 can also strengthen your immune system.
"When you're sick, it is not the best time to take on a big project or go on a business trip. You want to chill out a bit and not put your body in a stressed state, with increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol," says Moday. "Don't go to work; don't go to the gym. Your body is telling you to rest, and you have to listen to that."
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Joni Sweet is an NYC-based freelance writer specializing in travel, health, and wellness. She earned her bachelor's in journalism at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications.
Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, The Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Real Simple, Prevention, HealthyWay, Healthline, Thrillist, and more.