According to a new global observational study of high-risk healthcare workers, poor or insufficient sleep increases a person’s risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, and of having to endure a longer recovery. Daily burnout has also been linked to a high risk of coronavirus infection by the web-based study (opens in new tab), published in the online journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health. 3,000 healthcare workers located in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, all of whom were repeatedly exposed to patients with COVID-19, were asked to participate. 568 of respondents had very mild to moderate cases of infection.
The researchers said that for every extra hour of sleep the healthcare workers had, their odds of being infected with COVID-19 dropped by 12%. It’s important to note that as this is an observational study, there are several limitations to it. Chiefly, researchers were unable to directly assess COVID-19 exposure levels, the severity of infection present in respondents with confirmed cases, or proper monitoring of self-reported sleep issues.
Authors of the study said: “In six countries, longer sleep duration was associated with lower odds of COVID-19.” A higher number of sleep issues and higher levels of burnout are also associated with greater odds of COVID-19 infection, major symptoms of which include a cough and fever, with the latter leading to stockpiling of digital thermometers (opens in new tab) during the initial outbreak of the pandemic.
Key highlights from the published results include:
- The amount of reported nightly sleep averaged under seven hours, but more than six.
- After accounting for ‘potentially influential’ factors, every extra hour of sleep at night was associated with 12% lower odds of COVID-19 infection.
- However, an extra hour’s sleep from daytime napping was associated with 6% higher odds, although this association varied by country.
- Roughly one in four respondents with COVID-19 said they had difficulties sleeping at night compared to around one in five who weren’t infected.
- Compared with respondents who had no sleep problems, those with three issues had 88% greater odds of COVID-19 infection.
In a statement (opens in new tab) publicizing the results, Dr Minha Rajput-Ray, Medical Director of NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, said: “This study spotlights an often neglected area of wellbeing: the need for quality sleep and re-charge time to prevent burnout and its consequences.
“Disruptions to the sleep-wake cycle can affect metabolic, immune and even psychological health,” added Dr Rajput-Ray. “And sleep deprivation can make calorie-dense foods, higher in fat, sugar and salt, more appealing, particularly during times of stress and/or difficult shift patterns, all of which takes a toll on overall health and wellbeing.”
How poor sleep affects the immune system
Many people ask the question, why is sleep important (opens in new tab), and the answer is sprawling. Regular, quality sleep has significant physical and mental health benefits, including lowering our risk of heart disease, helping us to control our weight better, and reducing levels of inflammation in the body. After just one night of poor sleep, our immune system is compromised, leaving us more exposed to viral and bacterial infection.
When discussing the findings of this observational study, researchers noted how: “The mechanism underlying these associations remains unclear, but it has been hypothesized that lack of sleep and sleep disorders may adversely influence the immune system by increasing proinflammatory cytokines and histamines.
“We found that lack of sleep at night, severe sleep problems and high level of burnout may be risk factors for COVID-19 in frontline [healthcare workers].”
American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term ‘burnout’ in the 1970s when describing the consequences of severe stress. In this latest study, a higher percentage of respondents with COVID-19 reported daily burnout compared to those who weren’t infected.
The researchers also highlighted other studies linking burnout to an increased risk of colds and flu, plus, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. “These studies have suggested that burnout may directly or indirectly predict illnesses by occupational stress impairing the immune system and changing cortisol levels.”
How to sleep better and protect yourself from burnout
It’s important to remember that daily burnout doesn’t only happen to people who are working and dealing with oppressive workloads, high expectations (whether from themselves or from others), and exposure to severe stress. Parents are at a high risk of burnout too, as are people who care for friends or family members living with chronic mental or physical health issues.
Prioritizing self-care is the best thing you can do to ensure you get good, regular sleep, and to better protect yourself from burning out. The best place to start is by trying to calm your mind and body. Even just sitting quietly, and being mindful of your breathing, for a few minutes a day can help. We’d recommend using a meditation app (opens in new tab) to guide through a de-stressing breathing exercise. All of them have free trial periods, so try one for a week to see if it makes a difference to you.
If burnout and stress are causing you physical discomfort and tension, use one of the best handheld massagers (opens in new tab) to unwind your muscles at the end of each day. A warm bath with essential oils is another recommended self-care practice, and costs very little.
To sleep as well as you can, make a pact with yourself to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Establishing a solid sleep/wake routine will strengthen your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock) so that, after a while, your body automatically knows when it’s time to snooze and then to wake up.
If you’re uncomfortable in bed and are looking to upgrade, read our guide to the best mattress online (opens in new tab) to see if you need something different.