down-comforterFew things bother me as much at night as feeling too cold. It’s sure to keep me up and make insomnia worse. So several years ago I bought an electric blanket and a comforter for use in the winter.

But these items may not be good choices for people with insomnia or those who wake up with night sweats, according to recent paper by sleep scientists in The Netherlands. It has to do with the effects of skin temperature on core body temperature at night.

Core Body Temperature vs. Skin Temperature

Core body temperature is measured internally. It typically hovers around 98.6 degrees in the daytime, but it drops by a degree or more at night. You typically feel sleepiest when your core body temperature is going down. A lower temperature helps you fall asleep quickly and sleep through the night.

Skin temperature, on the other hand, is easily influenced by temperature changes in the environment (and changes in posture, lighting, anxiety, and pain). It typically runs somewhat cooler than core body temperature. But moderately warming the skin tends to promote sleep. It dilates blood vessels close to the skin, facilitating the release of heat from your body and thus lowering your core body temperature.

Here’s the catch, though: warming the skin too much has the opposite effect: it increases your core body temperature, and eventually you may be too hot to sleep. Then you wake up.

Reducing Heat-Related Wake-Ups

If you wake up with night sweats or are prone to insomnia like me, you may need a more subtle approach to warming yourself on winter nights. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Get rid of the electric blanket. Constantly adding heat to the body will eventually increase your core body temperature and likely wake you up.
  2. Comforters are bad news for the same reason. Yes, they make you warm and toasty when you crawl in bed. But they, too, may lead to overheating and nighttime wake-ups. Replace these items with blankets that allow for lesser temperature changes if you get too hot and have to throw one off.
  3. Finally, consider taking a hot bath or shower right before bed. Studies show that warming the skin keeps blood flow high for a few hours after bathing. This will accelerate the release of heat from the body, lower core body temperature, hasten sleep onset, and improve sleep in the early hours of the night.

If you wake up too hot at night, what have you found that helps?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

4 Comments

  1. What helps me is just turning off the heat in the bedroom, except on the very coldest winter nights.

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  2. That could work, too. My first husband was Australian and he insisted–for health reasons, he said–on cracking the window every night, even in winter! I got along with it fine back then. But I doubt I could manage that today.

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  3. Is there any damage done from getting overheated? I made the mistake of using a comforter on a summer’s eve. Started out cozy but when I woke up in the morning, I felt feverish and I had a headache all day. Never again! Should I be concerned about any lasting effects?

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  4. Sara,

    I can’t imagine any lasting harm could come from getting overheated at night. The problem is that it’s so uncomfortable that it may wake you up.

    I’ve gotten rid of all my comforters and now use blankets of different weights and fabrics. I still wake up feeling too hot sometimes, but it’s easier to make small adjustments of temperature when I’m under blankets than under a comforter.

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