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Quality of sleep 'more important than quantity' when it comes to staying healthy

Many of us stress out if we’re not getting that golden number of eight hours of sleep a night.

But it turns out that we might not need to worry too much – because the quality of our sleep, not the quantity, is more important (at least when it comes to your immune function), says new research.

That’s not to say that you should chuck out everything you know about the recommended seven to nine hours of snoozing.

Getting enough sleep is still key, but you might be able to counteract the effects of sleeping less if your sleep is of a high quality – in terms of your immune system function, anyway.

The study, from Liverpool John Moores University, found that people who do not get quality sleep or enough sleep are nearly three times as likely to become ill with colds, flu, and Covid-19.

But it also showed that good quality sleep can effectively make up for sleeping less than the recommended amount, when it comes to bolstering the immune system to help fight viral infections.

Professor Neil Walsh, of Liverpool John Moores University, said his team’s findings – published in the journal Sleep – ‘change the way we should think about sleep and health’.

He commented: ‘Sleep is important for mental and physical health, including our ability to fight infection.

‘The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get seven-to-nine hours sleep each night.

‘Yet many of us restrict our sleep to make way for our busy lives – for example, we regularly restrict our sleep when we get up early for our weekday commitments.

‘But when you restrict your sleep, you are not necessarily going to be more likely to get sick – it really depends on your quality.’

To find these results, researchers tracked 1,318 new military recruits’ sleep patterns and health in the weeks before training and after joining the forces, where they had to follow strict wake-up routines.

On average, the participants slept two hours less each night during military training than in their previous lives.

And yet, more than half of those with less sleep still rated their sleep as good quality.

And while those reported restricted amounts of sleep during training were nearly three times as likely to suffer with respiratory infections, this was only the case among those who also reported poor sleep quality.

The recruits who had good sleep quality, despite getting less sleep, were more protected against illness.

Professor Walsh added: ‘There are two very key messages here: firstly that restricted sleep patterns can result in more frequent illness, and secondly and more surprisingly, that sleeping well can trump sleeping long in terms of our immunity to illness.

‘That is an extremely useful message in our hectic world where sleep is often sacrificed for other pursuits.’

Let’s recap that in basic terms.

You absolutely should still aim for getting enough high quality sleep (seven to nine hours remains the recommendation), but if you do have a run of nights where you’re dropping off later or rising earlier, it’s not the end of the world – as long as the quality of your sleep is good.

Quick tips to improve your sleep quality

Professor Walsh says they are five things you can do to boost sleep quality:

  • Adopt a consistent sleep schedule (similar bed and wake time), including weekends
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime
  • Ensure the bed and pillow are comfortable and that the room is cool, dark and quiet
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine – going screen-free 30 minutes before bedtime and going to bed when sleepy
  • Exercise during the day to help fall asleep.

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