Getting enough sleep at night may help curb people’s risk for getting COVID-19, as well as for developing more severe illness, new research suggests.
The study included more than 2,800 frontline health care workers in six countries who were regularly exposed to COVID-19 from last spring to last fall. It found that for each additional hour of sleep the workers got at night, their risk for COVID-19 dropped by 12%.
And those who said they were struggling with self-reported burnout had a higher risk of contracting the virus. They also tended to stay sick for longer and were more likely than those who said they weren’t burnt out to get seriously ill.
“Lack of sleep, severe sleep problems, and burnout may be risk factors for COVID-19 in health care workers,” said Steven Hollinger, a sleep medicine expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The latter did not work on the new study.
Hollinger added that he thinks “further research to better define this risk would be helpful” and cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on the new study published recently in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, and Health.
For one, the study did not necessarily account for all the reasons why exhausted health care workers may be more likely to come down with COVID-19. For example, they might simply have been seeing more patients. Holinger also noted that the pandemic had evolved so much since last spring, particularly with the emergence of new variants, that the “data should be interpreted with caution” today.
A small study out of China found that people who did not get much sleep in the week before coming down with COVID-19 appeared to have more severe outcomes. Researchers are also exploring the possibility that melatonin, the hormone that plays a crucial role in the sleep-wake cycle, may help stave off COVID-19.
Again, those investigations — and others — are not conclusive, and experts caution against over-interpretation. It is not as though regularly getting a good night’s rest is all that is needed to stave off COVID-19.
But sleep is an essential factor in immune function.
“As our bodies fight infections, we release cytokines which promote sleep, causing an increase in sleep during infections,” Hollinger said. “We presume that this is advantageous for our immune system to fight infections, so the current hypothesis is that sleep is beneficial to our immune health. And during a pandemic when so many factors determining individual COVID-19 risk are utterly outside of any one person’s control, it is tantalizing to consider that there could be another healthy habit that many (though certainly not all) of us have some direct agency over.
As writer James Hamblin, a board-certified physician specializing in public health, asked in a recent Atlantic article on the sleep and COVID-19 connection: “Is one of the most glaring omissions in public-health guidelines right now simply to tell people to get more sleep? Unfortunately, even in non-pandemic times, millions of Americans don’t get enough rest. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of adults fall short of the recommended seven or more hours per night, and estimates say 1 in 4 Americans develop insomnia during any given year. The CDC declared sleep disorders a public health crisis, even before COVID-19.