Many of us hunkering at home while the coronavirus rages on are behaving like college freshmen on vacation: Staying up past midnight watching movies, sleeping late the next morning because our work schedule has been discombobulated and staying indoors call day checking their screens to keep up with corona-news.

The problem with this? (Apart from leading to stress-eating, weight gain and anxiety or depression.) All these behaviors mess with our sleep. And yet, it’s never been important than now to get sleep.

We’ve known for many years that sleep is essential to health — be it cardiovascular, metabolic, mental or even reproductive health. The immune system is no exception; it simply can’t function properly if we don’t get 7-8 hours of restful sleep every night.

Your immune system never sleeps — but it works best when you do

Our bodies make proteins called antibodies to neutralize pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Most of these antibodies are made when we sleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re probably not making the antibodies your body needs to ward off infections and disease.

Research shows that sleep quality and quantity are essential for proper immune function — not just during flu season, but also for the many other important roles the immune system plays, such as killing cancerous cells, or being able to distinguish pathogenic invaders (bacteria, viruses or parasites) from benign cells (e.g., the body’s own tissues).

For instance, researchers in Germany last year found that sound sleep improves immune cells known as T cells. “T cells are are type of immune cells that fight intracellular pathogens, for example virus-infected cells such as flu, HIV, herpes, and cancer cells,” Stoyan Dimitrov, PhD, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and an author of the study, told Healthline.

Another study showed that people with insomnia had a weaker immune response to the flu vaccine, while yet another study showed that poor sleep altered the expression of genes related to immune function in some people.

Similarly, a 2015 study looked at how sleep affected participants’ risk of infection and symptoms after being exposed to the common-cold-causing rhinovirus. After correcting for all other factors, sleep duration was the biggest predictor of whether or not people would develop a cold. Compared to seven hours’ sleep, sleeping less than five hours a night increased participants’ chances of developing a cold 4.5 times! Getting five to six hours per night wasn’t much better: the risk was still 4.24 times higher.  And even when they got six to seven hours of sleep per night, people still had a 66% higher risk of developing a cold compared to those who slept seven hours or more.

Finally, a 2012 study of female nurses aged 37-57 with no preexisting conditions showed that those who routinely slept less than five hours per night had a 70% higher risk of getting pneumonia over a four-year period than those who routinely slept eight hours per night.

What if you have trouble sleeping?

Many people I work with struggle with sleep (long before the coronavirus came along!). For them, the threat of Covid-19 should be a great incentive to work on improving their sleep.

There are many ways to do this and they vary from one person to another. However, most people notice that their sleep duration and quality improves when they practice some or all of the following: —

  • Design a sleep schedule that allows eight to nine hours in bed (not all of which will be spent sleeping; it can take 1/2 hour so longer to fall asleep)
  • Avoid caffeine after noon; if this doesn’t help, omit it entirely
  • Minimize sugar and refined carbs, esp. in the afternoon and evening
  • Exercise daily – ideally alternating cardio and strength exercises
  • Spend time outdoors every day, ideally in the morning to reset your body clock and help it regulate your sleep-wake hormones (you could kill two birds with one stone by exercising outdoors — bingo!)
  • Create a bedtime routine and a welcoming sleep space. For example –
    — Use your bedroom for two activities only: Sleep and sex. No TV watching, no eating and definitely no working in bed. A little light reading for a few minutes before you switch off the light is fine as long as you filter out any blue light from lamp or device.
    — Stop working 90 minutes before bedtime
    — Open windows and air bedroom before retiring (cool rooms promote better sleep)
    — Ensure bedding is clean & comfortable; cotton sheets & pajamas
    — Banish pets from the bedroom (sorry)
    — Meditate for 5-10 minutes before you go to sleep
    — Keep room dark (blackout blinds; no lights/lamps/TV left running at night)
  • Block out blue light from screens (blue light makes your body think it’s daytime and prevents it form making melatonin, the hormone that helps us go to sleep). To reduce blue light exposure, install a red-light filter on your electronic devices (e.g. f-lux) and use amber light-blocking glasses to read
  • Ideally, banish smartphones, tablets, computers and TV from your bedroom (don’t even charge them here). Use an old-fashioned alarm clock.

By improving your sleep, you’ll not only support your immune system; science shows that you may also have fewer cravings, reduce your risk of having a car crash, feel more alert, improve your cardio-metabolic health, have brighter skin, feel happier, improve your memory, have better judgment and be less likely to die prematurely. Oh, and have better sex!

Finally, for all of those who are holed up at home without much to do in these viral times, sleep is a great way of killing time!