North Texas Daily

UNT researchers link insomnia to flu vaccine ineffectiveness

UNT researchers link insomnia to flu vaccine ineffectiveness

October 22
13:00 2015

Jynn Schubert | Staff Writer


A new study by UNT researchers suggests people who suffer from insomnia have an increased chance of getting the flu.

The study, conducted by psychology professors Dr. Kimberly Kelly and Dr. Daniel Taylor, was the first to examine the link between insomnia and the effectiveness of flu vaccines in college students.

Two groups of UNT students were tested, one group of healthy students with insomnia, and one without. Four weeks after each group had been blood tested and received flu vaccinations, their blood was redrawn and antibody levels were counted.

“Even pre-vaccine, our kids showed antibody levels to [viruses] that were in the vaccine,” Kelly said. “What we showed was that even before the vaccine, those pre-levels floating around, the insomnia [students] were lower.”

Once the second round of blood testing was examined, the results confirmed the theory. Students with insomnia had significantly lower antibody counts than their peers who did not suffer from insomnia.

The research was sparked by Taylor’s interest in sleep studies and Kelly’s interest in psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease. The pair decided to use college students because they are less prone to health issues than elderly people and wanted to run their tests on ‘‘pure’’ insomniacs.

Kelly said those at the highest risk for the flu are very young, old or are immunocompromised, meaning their immune systems are weaker than the average person’s. Given the results of their studies on healthy, college-age students, the pair is looking into testing their theory on different groups.

“Insomnia causes significantly lower antibody production in those people who are all healthy,” Kelly said. “What about if they’re not? That’s where we want to go with our next grant.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, flu shots reduce odds of getting the flu by 70 to 90 percent. Chronic insomnia, which affects 15 percent of adults in the United States, lowers those chances.

There are other health-related issues that can affect sleeping that students should try to avoid and are actually known to worsen insomnia, said Lawrence Epstein, a sleep specialist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. Things like cigarettes, alcohol and coffee can all affect the way a person sleeps.

“Some people drink caffeine in the afternoon when they feel tired, but it becomes hard to fall asleep at night, which perpetuates the problem,” Epstein wrote in an article on “I recommend avoiding all caffeine after noon.”

Taylor suggests removing anything from the bedroom that could distract from sleep, like TVs and laptops. He said waking up at the same time every morning, regardless of how much sleep someone got the night before, is a good way to improve sleeping patterns.

Things like reversing the position of your head and feet on the bed or even sleeping on a couch or floor for a few nights can correct some problems associated with insomnia.

“While you’re up, do something that you find relaxing. If watching TV is relaxing, fine. But if it’s stimulating, that’s no good,” Epstein wrote. “Reading and listening to music are good options. Doing your taxes or playing war games on the computer are not.”

Stress can also have an affect on the amount of antibodies a person produces. For those worried about stress in this upcoming cold and flu season, UNT’s Health and Wellness Center offers eight free counseling sessions a year for personal, career and even couple’s therapy.

Though they haven’t yet filed for their next grant, Kelly and Taylor have already looked into how they’ll continue their research.

“We’ve already talked to a local hospital, and we want to look at health care workers,” Kelly said. “Primarily nurses, but whoever we can get: EMTs, physicians, whoever.”

Featured Image: Student Health and Wellness Center LVN Judy France administers a flu vaccination to marketing junior Levi Scribner. Ranjani Groth | Staff Photographer

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