Sleep more to slow down the virus

  • Studies say: people who don’t sleep enough are three times as likely to get a viral infection
  • An under-reported way to slow down the spread of viruses is better sleep
  • By being more flexible, employers, schools, and individuals can make changes to encourage sleep. If you can, please share this advice with your employer.
  • Wash your hands and get more sleep than you usually do

COVID-19 is spreading quickly throughout the world, and we need to do more to slow it down.

From sleep research, we know that getting adequate sleep dramatically reduces the chance of catching a cold or virus. And we also know that about half of Americans say they are not geting enough rest.

How big are these effects?

  • Less than 7 hours of sleep increases your risk of catching a cold by a factor of three (Cohen)
  • For respiratory illnesses, bad sleep makes you 70% more likely to get sick (Patel)

What makes this even more important is this: if we can all sleep more at the same time, it will change the rate of spread for the whole population.

Improving sleep is often cheap to do. To do it, employers and schools must be flexible, and individuals must prioritize sleeping enough. The recent onset of DST is reducing sleep by a little bit for everyone in the USA, so we need to do even more.

What you can do (for employers, individuals, and schools):

  • Avoid alcohol and medications (like Ambien) that are known to suppress slow-wave sleep, which helps your immunity
  • Adopt a partial flextime policy for everyone, especially when late sleeping is involved—allow your employees or students to show up an hour or two late without penalty
  • Avoid early meetings that restrict sleep for anyone (don’t put pressure on people to show up early)
  • Avoid late-night crunch time right now, since it will cut into sleep
  • Emphasize the importance of getting enough sleep to all employees, and remind employees of any wellness efforts or coaching you already have in place
  • Do not spend all your time indoors, especially if you’re isolated. Spend at least an hour outdoors or near a window every day to see enough daylight, which will encourage high-quality sleep
  • Do not stay up all night online. Pick a bedtime and stick to it no matter what.

Scientific Basis

In order to convince you that these effects are important, we reference two high-impact examples from the literature.

From Patel et al. in SLEEP 2012, a population of 56,953 nurses were observed over four years. Those who slept below 5 hours per night had 70% more respiratory illness [1].

From Cohen et al., a group of 153 people volunteered to be exposed to rhinovirus. Those with less than 7 hours of sleep were 2.94 times more likely to catch the cold, and poor sleep quality increased the rate by 5.5 times [2].

We think these examples suggest that individuals with insufficient sleep right now could massively improve their own immunity and reduce their risk of contracting and spreading the virus.

Getting enough sleep is good advice in any flu season, but it’s especially important right now. Broadly applied, improved sleep could slow down the rate of spread (R0) for COVID-19.

  1. Patel, S. R., Malhotra, A., Gao, X., Hu, F. B., Neuman, M. I., & Fawzi, W. W. (2012). A prospective study of sleep duration and pneumonia risk in women. Sleep, 35(1), 97-101.

  2. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Alper, C. M., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Turner, R. B. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of internal medicine, 169(1), 62-67.

09 Mar 2020

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