A good night’s sleep can often be hard to come by, but in 2020, it seemed extra challenging, right? As we start to see a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, though, there may be added motivation to get more shuteye.
Studies show that getting regular, quality sleep can have an impact on not only your immune system’s ability to fight off sickness but also help your body mount a better response to getting a vaccine. Here’s why you should make getting a good night’s sleep a top priority before you get vaccinated.
Sleep and your immune system
From heart health to mental health, weight maintenance to disease prevention, study after study shows sleep is vital for all your body systems to work their best. It should be no surprise then that sleep plays a key role in the effectiveness of your immune system.
“Sleep and the immune system are directly related to each other,” says Sunitha Posina, MD, board-certified physician in internal medicine in Stony Brook, New York. “A consistent, healthy sleep routine strengthens our immune system, which means that our body’s defense system, specifically the T-lymphocytes, can fight off infections better.”
Posina explains that T cells are one of the types of lymphocytes, or white blood cells, that are known to fight infections. “When our body detects something foreign like a new virus, a protein called integrin gets activated on the T cells, which allows them to get attached to the infected cell and kill it.”
When you sleep, says Posina, your body has focused time to look for invaders, fight off viruses, and repair damage. But when you’re low on sleep, especially for extended periods, your immune response can weaken, allowing viruses that your body could normally fight off to take hold and flourish.
To see an example of this, take look at cold sores, says W. Chris Winter, MD, sleep expert and author of The Sleep Solution.
“Cold sores are caused by certain kinds of the herpes simplex virus,” explains Winter. “The virus always lives in your body, but your immune system can usually keep it in check. But if you are low on sleep or stressed, then you may start to feel the tingle on your lip,” and all of a sudden you have a cold sore.
Interestingly, the connection between sleep and your immune system goes both ways.
A 2019 paper published in Physiological Reviews argues that sleep and immunity are bidirectionally linked. Sleep is important for the immune system to work properly, and when the immune system is activated it can trigger biological responses that make you want to sleep more.
Sleep and vaccines
While there are different types of vaccines, they’re all designed to do one thing: activate your body’s immune system to produce antibodies against the virus. Then, when your body comes into contact with the virus in the future, thanks to the vaccine, it quickly “remembers” how to effectively fight it off before making you sick.
Since vaccines rely on your immune system and your immune system relies on sleep to function properly, it’s easy to see why being well-rested is key for vaccines to be their most effective.
A 2020 article in the “Sleep Science” edition of the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine looked at the link between sleep and antibody response in the flu vaccine. The study found that getting limited sleep the two nights before vaccination predicted that participants had fewer antibodies both one and four months later.
“Clinical studies have suggested that sleep, especially the few days prior to vaccination, is crucial in vaccine efficacy,” says Posina. “Lack of sufficient sleep in the week of getting a flu shot can mean 50% less antibody production than normal, which makes the flu shot almost ineffective.”
Similar research in the journal Sleep examined the impact of sleep on the efficacy of the Hepatitis B vaccine. The researchers found that those who had less sleep in the seven days before their vaccine had a lower antibody response when the body came in contact with the virus later and therefore decreased protection.
According to the Physiological Reviews article, being poorly rested not only impacts your body’s immediate response to a vaccine (effector phase) but also affects your body’s ability to remember the virus (memory phase) if it encounters it again.
Sleep and the COVID-19 vaccine
What does this all mean for the COVID-19 vaccine?
“Although we have no studies done yet on the COVID-19 vaccine and its relationship to sleep, it is fair to suggest that sufficient quality sleep hours play a major role in our immune system,” says Posina. “Based on our experience with the yearly flu shot and Hep B vaccines, we know that antibody levels have been higher in those with better sleep.”
How to get better sleep before a vaccine
Ready to get well-rested? Even though COVID-19 vaccine distribution has been slow in some areas, we can use the time to work on developing the habits we need to get better sleep and more of it.
“It’s important to not only get good quality sleep but regular sleep,” says Winter. “Getting eight hours the night before a vaccine is great, but it won’t undo weeks of getting poor sleep.”
Try these tried and true sleep tips for improving your sleep so you’re well-rested before getting any vaccine.
- Shut off screens. You know that blue light messes with your body’s ability to produce melatonin, a key hormone that helps get you sleepy. Aim to shut off screens at least an hour before hitting the hay.
- Block out light and noise. Optimize your sleeping environment by blocking out light from hallways, windows, and electronics. Ensure a quiet night’s sleep by using earplugs to prevent snoring and other stray noises from keeping you up.
- Monitor caffeine consumption. To help you sleep better, be mindful of when and how much caffeine you consume. Caffeine is a stimulant, and a latte late in the afternoon may limit your ability to sleep when you lie down at night. Aim to stop refilling your mug no later than 2 p.m. or switch to decaf if you still want to enjoy a cup of Joe.
- Minimize alcohol. That glass of wine may seem to make it easier to fall asleep, but once your body metabolizes the alcohol, you’re more likely to have disrupted sleep the second half of the night. Alcohol can also exacerbate issues like sleep apnea and insomnia.
- Consider moving Fido or Fifi out of the bedroom. You love your pet. But pets in the bedroom can lead to added noise, disruptions, and blanket-stealing. Plus, those early morning face licks make it really hard to sleep in.
- Stay cool. Overheating at night from a non-breathable mattress, the wrong sheets, or a too-high thermostat can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. Research shows sleeping in a room between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for sleep.
- Create a schedule. Sure, you can now stay up late binge-watching just one more episode and then roll out of bed three minutes before your Zoom call in the morning, but your sleep may be paying the price. “With the pandemic, many of us have a lot more flexibility,” says Winter. “With no commutes or school drop-offs, we can stay up later, wake up later, take a nap during the day if we need.” However, consistency is key for building healthy sleep habits. Try setting a clear sleep schedule or using a sleep app to track your Z’s. “This is a good time to focus on our sleep and schedule to make our immune systems work better,” says Winter.
COVID-19 can leave you susceptible to long-term fatigue. Learn more about long COVID fatigue, why it happens, and how it can be treated.