We’ve heard a lot about the importance of sleep in recent years, but during the pandemic, it is a pillar of health and wellness, said Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a professor with the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago, in a recent International Foundation webcast. “The current view of sleep is that it is one of the three most important behavioral factors in health and wellness, together with exercise and good nutrition,” she explained.
In fact, lack of sleep can be lethal. Sleeping less than six hours a night has been associated with a 12% increased risk of death—or nine years of life, based on U.S. average life expectancy, she added.
How much sleep do you need?
Middle-age and older adults need about 6.5 hours per night at a minimum, including 50 to 100 minutes of REM sleep and 30 to 80 minutes of deep sleep, said Van Cauter. Sleep also needs to be regular and coincide with the biological night—which poses issues for shift workers, for example.
Our modern, fast-paced and often stressful lifestyle—including jobs that require people to work around the clock and involve continual exposure to screens—creates some additional sleep challenges, she explained. In the U.S., for example, 30% to 40% of the population is reporting less than 6 hours of sleep, particularly among Black and Hispanic individuals.
What happens when you are sleep-deprived? Regularly not getting enough sleep can cause drowsiness, attention deficits and mood changes, as well as impaired memory and higher executive function (which helps guide our decision making). It also increases health risks relating to obesity, diabetes, several cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, she added.
How has the pandemic impacted sleep?
According to U.S. data from Sleep Number (which uses “smart beds” to track and monitor individuals’ sleep metrics), on average, lockdown conditions increased restful sleep. For those who suddenly found themselves working from home, the lack of commute often meant they could sleep in a little longer. However, for those with existing sleep disturbances like insomnia, those conditions got worse, noted Van Cauter.
There’s significant evidence that sleep protects against viruses like the common cold, and lack of sleep can increase your chances of getting sick. “If you look at the components of the immune system, they are really dependent on sleep and time of day—and as soon as there is insufficient sleep, there is havoc in the system,” she explained.
Research on other vaccines—such as those for the flu and hepatitis A and B—has shown that insufficient sleep is also associated with impaired immune response. For example, in an influenza study where sleep was restricted for four days prior to vaccination, the vaccine’s effectiveness was cut in half.
“The immune response to vaccination is impaired by insufficient sleep, and this is likely to hold for the COVID-19 vaccines as well,” Van Cauter added.
To help boost the immune system’s response, it’s advisable to get a good night’s sleep for several days preceding vaccination, she suggested. But the advantages of restful sleep extend far beyond that.
“Good sleep hygiene strengthens the immune system. It may reduce the risk of infection, decrease the severity of infection and limit the severity of inflammation,” Van Cauter concluded.
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