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Cold symptoms like congestion and sore throat are caused by the body's fight against a virus, rather than the virus itself, Cohen said. People whose bodies make the perfect amount of infection-fighting proteins called cytokines will not even know they are fighting a virus. But if their bodies make too many, they feel sick.
Sleep may fine-tune the body's immune response, Cohen said, helping regulate the perfect response.
Prior research has tied lack of sleep to greater risk of weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.
Dr. Daniel Buysse, a sleep researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, said spending too much time in bed can lead to more interrupted sleep, which in this study "seems to be even worse than short sleep" for increasing the risk of catching a cold.
If it takes a long time to fall asleep or if you are restless during the night, "you would probably benefit from spending a little LESS time in bed," Buysse said in an e-mail. "If you fall asleep instantly, have no wakefulness during the night, and are sleepy during the day, you would probably benefit from spending a little MORE time in bed."
Buysse was not directly involved in the research, although he commented on an early draft of the study. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the MacArthur Foundation.
Harvard sleep researcher Sat Bir Khalsa said people do not need to turn to prescription sleep aids to improve their sleep. Setting a regular bedtime, moving computers and televisions out of the bedroom and, when restless, getting out of bed for a while and doing something soothing can help. His research focuses on treating insomnia with yoga.
As preventive measures, vitamin C and herbal supplements have not lived up to their reputation in rigorous studies. Cohen said research has shown people who get more exercise, drink moderately and have lower stress also get fewer colds.
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