Depression, stress may weaken effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine

WASHINGTON — As millions of people worldwide receive the COVID-19 vaccine, optimism that the coronavirus pandemic will soon end continues to rise. For people who deal with high levels of stress or depression however, a new study warns their mental health may disrupt the global vaccination plan. Researchers with the Association for Psychological Science say poor mental health may weaken the effectiveness of the new vaccine.

The team, led by Ohio State University researcher Annelise Madison, says there is decades of evidence showing emotional stressors inhibit the body’s immune system. They add conditions such as depression, loneliness, and stress all have a history of lowering the potency of vaccines. The new report finds people can take simple steps to reduce the effect of poor mental health on vaccines. These steps include exercising and getting a full night’s rest before receiving the shot.

“In addition to the physical toll of COVID-19, the pandemic has an equally troubling mental health component, causing anxiety and depression, among many other related problems. Emotional stressors like these can affect a person’s immune system, impairing their ability to ward off infections,” Madison says in a media release. “Our new study sheds light on vaccine efficacy and how health behaviors and emotional stressors can alter the body’s ability to develop an immune response. The trouble is that the pandemic in and of itself could be amplifying these risk factors.”

What else can hinder one’s COVID vaccine response?

Madison and her team call vaccines the most effective medical advances in history. Their ability to protect the public from a wide range of diseases has literally saved the world from illnesses like smallpox and polio.

Unfortunately, one of the keys to a vaccine’s effectiveness is actually getting it into the arms of patients. Without a large enough portion of the population receiving a vaccination, herd immunity can not be achieved.

Researchers add that environmental factors, personal genetics, and physical or emotional health issues can all contribute to weakening the body’s immune response. This slows down how fast a vaccine works in a patient. Researchers say this is particularly relevant because of the mental health concerns COVID-19 is causing. Months in isolation, economic stressors, and a general fear for the future has left countless people in a depressed state. The study adds these conditions have historically lowered immune response, especially among elderly patients.

How do vaccines protect us from disease?

It may sound strange, but vaccines are effective because they challenge a person’s immune system. Within a few hours of getting a shot, the immune system acts as though there is a potential threat in the body. Along with this immediate response, the body eventually begins to produce antibodies which target the specific virus that vaccine highlights. Scientists determine the effectiveness of a vaccine by how long a patient continues to create antibodies against that particular virus.

“In our research, we focus most heavily on the antibody response, though it is just one facet of the adaptive immune system’s response,” explains Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University.

In the case of COVID-19, researchers are optimistic about its vaccine’s 95 percent success rate. Despite that, psychological issues may still play a factor in how the public responds to the coronavirus vaccine in the long-term.

“The thing that excites me is that some of these factors are modifiable,” Kiecolt-Glaser adds. “It’s possible to do some simple things to maximize the vaccine’s initial effectiveness.”

Study authors recommend anyone preparing to get the vaccine engage in vigorous exercise and get a good night’s sleep the day before their appointment. This may help optimize the vaccine’s performance and spark a healthy immune response.

“Prior research suggests that psychological and behavioral interventions can improve vaccine responsiveness. Even shorter-term interventions can be effective,” Madison concludes. “Therefore, now is the time to identify those at risk for a poor immune response and intervene on these risk factors.”

The study appears in the Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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