5 Ways Climate Change Messes with Your Sleep

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/ April 21, 2021
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From melting ice caps and rising sea levels to record-breaking temps and bigger and more destructive storms, we can see the impact of climate change all around us. One place you might not realize climate change's consequences, though, is your sleep. 

How climate change impacts your sleep

As the world is getting warmer, the changes this is causing have the potential to wreak havoc on your ability to catch adequate Z's. Here's how climate change impacts your shuteye—and ways to mitigate the challenges without causing additional harm to the planet.

Warmer nighttime temperatures

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the ideal room temperature for rest is between 60° and 67°F, but this can be harder to maintain as the worldwide climate heats up.

At night, your body’s core temperature drops to bring on sleep and then warms up in the morning to help you wake up. This natural thermoregulation is controlled by your circadian rhythm and is a key component of getting a good night’s sleep. 

However, higher nighttime temps due to climate change can interfere with this cycle. 

“Warmer temperatures are not great for inducing and maintaining sleep,” explains Abhinav Singh, MD, board-certified doctor in sleep medicine and internal medicine and medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center. “Our bodies need to cool down to support the steady release of melatonin, our sleep initiating hormone. Darkness and cool temperatures are key. Warmer temperatures reduce slow-wave restorative [SWS] sleep.” 

According to a study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, “the thermal environment is one of the most important factors that can affect human sleep.” The study went on to report that warmer temperatures caused increased wakefulness and decreased deep sleep (or SWS) and REM sleep. Another small study found that warmer nighttime temps lead to a negative overall impact on “sleep calmness, difficulty in falling asleep, sleep satisfaction, and sleep adequateness.”

“Warmer temperatures are not great for inducing and maintaining sleep. Our bodies need to cool down to support the steady release of melatonin, our sleep initiating hormone. Darkness and cool temperatures are key. Warmer temperatures reduce slow-wave restorative sleep.” 

And the temperature changes don’t even have to be big. A study in ScienceAdvances found that just an increase of one degree Celsius could negatively impact your shuteye.

Related: How to keep night sweats from ruining your sleep

Increased humidity

While the impacts of global warming are often focused on a rise in overall temperature, studies also suggest that for certain areas, it may also cause an increase in humidity.

Though hotter nights offer their own sleep interruptions, humidity makes the problem even worse. “Humid heat exposure further increases wakefulness, decreases REM and SWS, and excessively suppresses the decrease in [the body’s core temperature]”, according to a study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology

Here’s why humid nights are worse: When your body is hot, you sweat. In low humidity, this sweat can evaporate and allow your body to cool down. When it’s hot and humid, the sweat stays. This keeps the skin wet and the body stops trying to sweat, preventing you from cooling down and getting a good night of sleep.

More air pollution

Air quality in our bedrooms is another aspect of the sleep environment that tends to get overlooked,” writes sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, in a blog post. 

Climate change could worsen your air quality. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, global warming may cause an increase in allergens and air pollution, both of which can make it harder to get some shuteye. 

“Pollution may irritate the airway and make it harder to breathe,” explains Singh. “This can induce cough, causing frequent interruptions to sleep and micro or macro awakenings from sleep.”

Related: ​​​​4 ways to improve bedroom air quality

Added anxiety

​No surprise here—stress and anxiety are bad bedfellows when it comes to getting rest. Research has found that both chronic stress and sudden occasional stress can mess with your circadian rhythm and prevent satisfying sleep.

Climate change is something that can be seriously stress-inducing—and that's especially true for kids. 

A March 2020 survey conducted by the BBC Newsround found that 73% of the young people surveyed were worried about the state of the planet, and 58% were concerned about how climate change will impact their own lives. Twenty percent of the kids surveyed said climate change anxiety has impacted their sleeping and eating habits or given them a bad dream.

This stress-induced sleep loss can start a vicious cycle. According to research out of UC Berkeley, just one night of poor sleep due to stress can lead to a 30% increase in….you guessed it, more stress! 

More extreme weather

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, increasing global temperatures are associated with an increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and heavy storms. And research suggests these extreme weather events can hurt your sleep for numerous reasons.

Many of the extreme weather events bring increased heat and humidity, which can make it harder to get quality sleep. There’s also the stress and anxiety that comes when a hurricane or tornado is heading toward your hometown. Plus, says Breus, “there’s new evidence that the weather can worsen sleep-disordered breathing. In other words, when the pressure drops, so does your ability to achieve smooth, restful breathing during the night.” 

Research doesn’t clarify exactly why this occurs, but it suggests that changes in atmospheric pressure due to weather events do affect sleep apnea.

Related: 6 ways weather messes with your sleep

How to sleep cooler (without hurting the planet)

So how can you mitigate some of the sleep challenges that come with climate change without, you know, contributing to climate change?

  • Be selective about your sheets. Not all sheets are created equal when it comes to keeping you cool. Choose breathable, natural materials like organic cotton, linen, or lyocell that allow for air to circulate as well as moisture-wicking to keep you cool and dry. As a bonus for the environment, natural materials are also produced more sustainably. (Try these organic cotton sheets.)
  • Open your windows. When you can, avoid using an air conditioner and instead opt for a ceiling fan and an open window to help circulate cooler nighttime air.
  • Go to bed in the buff. Skip the PJs and head to bed in your birthday suit. Sleeping in the nude is easy, cheap, and has more benefits than just keeping you cooler at night. (Learn more about the pros of sleeping naked.)
  • Add some green. An easy way to improve the air quality in your bedroom is to add a plant, says Breus. “Keeping plants in the bedroom—and throughout your house—is a natural, low-cost, easy way to boost oxygen levels and improve air quality.”

Still feeling too hot at night to get a good night's sleep? Here are more tips for sleeping cool without burning lots of energy.

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