The ceiling fan is squeaking. The sheets are sticky. You can't find the cool side of the pillow...
As temperatures climb, more and more folks find it harder to sleep. In some places, the rate of insomnia more than doubles in the summer months.
Stanford University sleep expert Maurice Ohayon recently shared results from an unpublished study with health-information website WebMD...
About one in four Californians and New Yorkers suffer from insomnia during summer. In Texas, 17% of residents don't get a good night's rest. That compares to about 10% of people in all three states during the rest of the year.
One major cause of insomnia in the summer results from problems with the body's internal "thermostat."
The hypothalamus is the region of your brain that secretes hormones that effectively lower your core body temperature and promote sleep. This thermostat relies on your body's natural 24-hour cycle, called your circadian rhythm, and cues from your environment.
Three main causes contribute to insomnia in the summer months...
1) The most common cause of summertime insomnia is soaring temperatures.
Every person has a slightly different comfort range, but typically a room temperature between 60 and 68 degrees is best for sleeping. Many studies link the body's temperature regulation with sleep patterns, which is why you become sleepy in colder temperatures.
One of the most crucial parts of the sleep cycle – rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – can suffer during hotter temperatures. That's because during REM, your body loses its ability to sweat or shiver. If the room is too warm, your body temperature will rise to match it, bringing you back to a point of almost wakefulness. If it's too hot, you can even wake up completely, ruining the quality of your sleep.
Thankfully, you can keep cool without breaking the bank. To start, you can install a programmable thermostat to save on energy costs. Installing a programmable thermostat can save the average household hundreds of dollars per year. Just set a lower temperature while you're asleep and put it back up during the day. The U.S. Department of Energy suggests a daytime temperature of 78 degrees (to keep you comfortable while saving money). If you don't have pets in your home, you can raise the temperature a few degrees when you're gone during the day.
You can also stay cool and save money by cleaning and replacing your air filter on a regular basis. Clogged or worn-out filters make it harder for the air to flow through the air-conditioning system.
Finally, use a ceiling fan to circulate the air. It won't lower the temperature of the room, but the air movement will help sweat evaporate from your skin, helping you cool down. You can also use fans to help circulate air from an air conditioner, allowing you to reduce the settings on the unit and save on energy costs.
2) Another culprit for lost sleep during the summer is light. Summer's longer days mean more hours of sunlight. The shift may be subtle, but the extra daylight can disrupt the natural circadian rhythm, particularly in the hypothalamus.
Light-blocking curtains keep sunlight from triggering episodes of wakefulness. Many thicker curtains not only block light, but also include thermal panels to help keep the heat out as well.
Be sure not to interrupt your sleep with any kind of light. If you need to use the bathroom during the night, don't turn on any lights. Instead, have a low-light nightlight plugged in to guide your way.
Likewise, turn off the electronic lights too.
I experienced insomnia not long after I started reading in bed on a backlit tablet that emits blue light. Blue light is just one color of light that electronics like laptops and tablets give off. But it's the one that's the most disruptive to circadian rhythms. Blue light also stops the release of melatonin – the hormone that makes you sleepy.
To give your brain time to get ready to sleep, shut off your electronics an hour before bed. Keep the lights dim and the shades closed.
3) The third biggest cause of poor summertime sleep is lifestyle. Social contact, late-night eating, and electronic-device usage all affect your sleep quality.
The longer days of summer often are filled with more social events, including cookouts, extended happy hours, and evening baseball games.
Eating close to bedtime causes weight gain and disrupts your sleep cycle. Digestive sugar spikes and the production of stomach acid can also wake you from your sleep. And although it acts as a depressant at first, alcohol causes bouts of wakefulness as your body metabolizes it.
Likewise, soda and coffee can keep you up long after you drink them. The effects of caffeine don't wear off for three to five hours, so drinking coffee after dinner could keep you up long into the night.
Do what I do... stop eating and drinking at least two hours before bed. Also, make sure to avoid caffeine after lunch so it has enough time to leave your body before sleeping. I mainly drink decaf in the afternoon.
Finally, try to relax in the last hour before bed. Unplug from electronics and end the social interactions. This lets your brain relax and prepare for sleep, too. Likewise, maintaining a regular bedtime helps your body regulate its sleep cycles naturally.
Sleep might be the closest we come to a true "cure-all." Getting enough sleep...
- Reduces stress
- Makes you three times less likely to catch a cold
- Helps you maintain a healthy weight
- Reduces risk of cancer and diabetes
And as we pointed out in our Alzheimer's issue, sleep plays a crucial role in getting the leftover "trash" proteins out of our brains before they form plaques.
Don't let the summer heat and long days keep you from taking care of yourself.
What We're Reading...
- Did you miss it? Here's our list of seven ways to improve your sleep.
- More summer sleep tips from the National Sleep Foundation.
- Something different: Dr. Heimlich finally gets to use his famous maneuver.