Want to give your immune system a boost before cold and flu season arrives? One of the best things you can do may seem simple, but for many people it is easier said than done. Improving your sleep patterns is the key to feeling better, looking better and staying healthy in the face of winter germs.

Too little sleep or a poor quality of sleep may be caused by stress, depression, alcohol, caffeine, health issues or the distractions of modern life, such as the Internet, television and computer games. For many, it comes from a combination of several of these factors. People who work late shifts have erratic sleep patterns, which can take its toll on their health. Mothers of newborn babies suffer in a similar way. The baby has a very short sleep cycle (on average 3 to 4 hours), and the mother wakes at the same time. This is not only a short-term disruption; interrupted sleep continues long after the nocturnal feeds stop.

Failure to get enough sleep, or sleeping at odd times, can have a serious impact on your health. Experts believe that poor sleep patterns increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, as well as many other major illnesses. The link between poor sleep patterns and obesity is a relatively recent discovery. Research suggests that the obesity epidemic in the United States is directly related to the drop in the average number of hours that most Americans are sleeping. This could be because the appetite-regulating hormones are being disrupted. A recent study of almost 10,000 Americans found that those between the age of 32 and 49 who slept for less than seven hours per night were far more likely to be obese.

Other studies have established a link between inadequate or irregular sleep with an increased risk of heart disease and several kinds of cancer, including colon cancer and breast cancer. On the other hand, some health professionals disregard this theory and argue that there is insufficient evidence to back up these theories. Clearly, far more research is required into the possible link between poor sleep patterns and the risk of major illness.

What is clear, however, is that a lack of sleep interrupts all of the body’s physiologic functions and can lead to a lowered immune system, leaving the body susceptible during the cold and flu season.

So what can be done about this potential problem? First of all, it is important to know that the amount of sleep that is required varies from person to person. Some people may be able to function at their best on only a few hours per night, while others need at least 8 hours to be able to perform only the basic tasks the following day. Generally, you should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. Some experts state that an increased risk of illness begins when people get less than 6-7 hours.

If you are finding it difficult to fall asleep at night, find yourself waking at regular intervals during the night or wake up early and cannot get back to sleep, it is worth taking a look at your evening routine. Cut out caffeine and alcohol, and take the time to unwind and relax before going to bed. Avoid watching television, playing computer games or surfing the Internet for two hours before going to bed. These activities can be very mentally stimulating, not allowing the mind to calm down. Take a warm bath, but make sure it is not too hot. Try reading a book to relax your mind. A hot milky drink could also help. Make sure your bedroom is conducive to a good night’s sleep. Sleep experts recommend a dark, airy, quiet room.

Your sleeping surface can have a huge impact on your sleep patterns. If you are sleeping on an old, worn, uncomfortable mattress, you are unlikely to be getting a good night’s sleep. If your mattress is over 5 years old, or if you are regularly waking up in the morning suffering from aches and pains, you should consider investing in a new one. An uncomfortable mattress will make you toss and turn during the night as you try to find a good sleeping position.

Your body needs to be healthy and strong to ward off colds and flu. Your mental state comes into play – there is a strong link between depression and poor sleeping habits. Don’t let lack of sleep health make you suffer this cold and flu season. Take a few simple steps to address the issue and your body and mind will reap the benefits.