Don’t Let Insomnia Spoil the Summer

Do you experience a sudden onset of insomnia at about this time every year? Not much is written on seasonal insomnia that occurs in warm weather. Yet I’m convinced it’s a real phenomenon since my posts on summer insomnia get lots of traffic starting in May.

Here’s updated information—and speculation—on what could be causing the problem and how to get a better night’s sleep.

Waking up too early caused by bright summer sunriseDo you experience a sudden onset of insomnia at about this time every year? Not much is written on seasonal insomnia that occurs in warm weather. Yet I’m convinced it’s a real phenomenon since my posts on summer insomnia get lots of traffic starting in May.

Here’s updated information—and speculation—on what could be causing the problem and how to get a better night’s sleep.

Excessive Heat and Light

Late spring and summer are the hottest, lightest times of the year, and excessive heat and light are not very conducive to sleep.

In humans, core body temperature fluctuates by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Sleep is most likely to occur when core body temperature is falling (at night) and at its low point (some two hours before you typically wake up). Some research suggests that impaired thermoregulation may be a factor in insomnia, that sometimes you may simply be too hot to fall asleep. If so, a bedroom that’s too hot may exacerbate that problem, interfering with your body’s ability to cool down.

Light, too, can interfere with sleep. It does so by blocking secretion of melatonin, a hormone typically secreted at night. Exposure to bright light late in the evening or early in the morning—a phenomenon more likely to occur in months around the summer solstice—may keep you from sleeping as long as you’d like.

Other Possible Challenges to Sleep in the Summer

Swedish researchers have found that people with environmental intolerances to things like noise and pungent chemicals are more prone to insomnia than people without these intolerances. Depending on where you live, sleeping with open windows in the warm weather—if it leads to more noise or bad odors in the bedroom—could interfere with sleep.

Finally, new research conducted at Poznan University of Medical Sciences found that medical students in Poland had higher levels of circulating cortisol—a stress hormone—in the summer than in the winter. This is a preliminary result, and whether it can be confirmed or will hold true for the general population is unknown. Yet if humans do have higher levels of cortisol in the summer than in the winter, this, too, could have a negative effect on sleep.

Sleep Better in the Hot Weather

Climate control is the answer to many environmental triggers of insomnia in the spring and summer. Yet not everyone has air conditioning. If at night you’re too hot to sleep, take care to cool your sleeping quarters down in advance:

  • In the daytime, keep window shades and curtains closed to block out heat from the sun.
  • Later in the evening, use a window fan (facing outward) to draw cool air through the house. Open and close windows strategically so the bedroom is cool by the time you’re ready to sleep.
  • If your bedroom is on an upper floor that simply won’t cool down, sleep on a makeshift bed downstairs.

If keeping windows open at night exposes you to too much outside noise, block it out with silicone ear plugs or high-tech ear plugs, or mask it with white or pink noise using a small fan, a white noise machine, or SleepPhones.

Manage Your Exposure to Sunlight

Daily exposure to bright light helps keep sleep regular—but not if the exposure comes early in the morning or at night. Sunlight that awakens you at 5 a.m. or keeps you up past your normal bedtime may shorten your summer nights, depriving you of the full amount of sleep you need. If you’re sensitive to light,

  • Install light-blocking shades, curtains, and skylight covers on bedroom windows.
  • Purchase a lightweight eye mask for use during sleep.
  • Wear sunglasses if you’re outside in the evening.
  • At home, lower shades and curtains by 8:30 or 9 p.m. even if it’s still light outside, and start your bedtime routine at the same time as you do in other seasons.
  • Avoid devices with a screens in the hour leading up to bedtime.

Reduce Stress

If circulating stress hormones are an issue during the summertime (or if for any reason you’re feeling stress), then kicking back and relaxing, typical in the summer, is not necessarily going to be a dependable path to sound sleep. To reduce stress and sleep better, find a way to make regular aerobic exercise part of your day despite the heat:

  • Do the outdoor sport of your choice—walking, jogging, bicycling—early in the morning or early in the evening. Mall-walking may not be very sexy, but it sure beats walking in 100-degree heat.
  • Buy a seasonal membership in a gym or recreation center, where you can work out in air conditioning.
  • Take up swimming.

A woman recently wrote me wondering if the allergies she normally experiences late in April could trigger seasonal insomnia. I couldn’t find any information on this. But insomnia that routinely occurs at certain times of year is probably triggered by environmental or situational factors. Figuring out what the triggers are is the first step to finding a remedy.

Sleep Hygiene May Keep You From Backsliding

Observing the rules of good sleep hygiene may not work as a standalone treatment for insomnia. But now that I’ve learned to manage my insomnia, I follow most of the rules because they help me maintain sounder, more regular sleep.

Some are especially helpful in preventing backsliding. They may help you, too.

Observing sleep hygiene can hold insomnia at bayObserving the rules of good sleep hygiene may not work as a standalone treatment for insomnia. But now that I’ve learned to manage my insomnia, I follow most of the rules because they help me maintain sounder, more regular sleep.

Some are especially helpful in preventing backsliding. They may help you, too.

Maintain a regular sleep routine.*

After sleeping when I could and all I could for decades, I finally faced the music: consistent bed and rise times were actually helpful to my sleep. Of the two, I think a consistent rise time is the more important. Getting up at the same time every day helps keep circadian rhythms synchronized and allows time enough for sleep pressure to build until it puts you to sleep and keeps you asleep at night.

But life isn’t as regular as clockwork. By the end of the week you may be feeling sleep deprived. To catch up on lost sleep, sleeping half an hour or even an hour later than usual on weekends may not throw your sleep off track.

But when I’m short on sleep, getting extra sleep at the beginning of the night (i.e., going to bed earlier than normal) works better than allowing myself to sleep late. That way, I catch up on lost sleep but avoid setting myself up for Sunday night insomnia.

Don’t watch TV or read in bed.*

If watching TV in the bedroom or reading in bed reliably puts you to sleep, you may want to ignore this rule. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned one sleep expert who finds that reading in bed is exactly the kind of soporific he needs to fall asleep.

For other insomniacs (I was one) engaging in wakeful activities in the bedroom does not reliably put us to sleep. On the contrary, activities such as reading or studying in bed lead to more wakefulness at night. Then anxiety about sleep starts creeping in.

“It’s midnight and I’m still not sleeping,” you may find yourself thinking. “It’s 1 a.m. . . . it’s 2.” If night after night things continue in this vein, simply being in bed starts to cause anxiety about sleep. But anxiety is not compatible with sleep. Insomnia, which may have begun as an occasional thing, becomes a permanent state of affairs.

It’s hard to unlearn this association between the bed and wakefulness and reprogram your brain to expect sleep. At a very minimum, it involves moving every activity except sleep (and sex)—reading, TV watching, grading papers—outside the bedroom, and leaving the bedroom if you find you can’t sleep.

Kicking and screaming, I finally managed to do it: learn to go to bed expecting to sleep rather than lying anxiously awake. And now that I’ve done it, I’m loath to go back. I follow this rule in both letter and spirit, using my bed only for sleep and sex. Period.

Exercise to promote good quality sleep.**

I was never quite a couch potato. I knew a sedentary lifestyle wasn’t healthy, so I jogged, hiked, or rode my bicycle the recommended 3 times a week.

It was when I started to keep a sleep diary that I noticed a correspondence between aerobic exercise and my sleep. After days when I exercised, I fell asleep more quickly and had good quality sleep.

Thirty minutes of vigorous exercise every afternoon hasn’t exactly turned me into a jock. But now I find a daily dose of exercise is something I crave. And when I can’t have it, I get fidgety and sometimes a little bit cross. I don’t fall asleep as easily or sleep as soundly that night.

So I build swimming or working out on the elliptical trainer into my days as regularly as I do my meals. It’s a small price to pay for holding insomnia at bay.

Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine.**

You may feel exhausted, but going straight to bed after a long, hard day can be a setup for insomnia. It was and is for me. So no matter how late I’m out or how absorbing my daytime activities are, I always make time for a wind-down ritual at the end of the day. Beyond incorporating the necessities (bathing, brushing teeth), a bedtime routine should be calming (no surfing the internet) and enjoyable (no washing the dishes).

Reading a novel works for me. Not only does it divert my attention away from the events of the day. Now that it’s habitual it also cues sleep. Suddenly I’m yawning and nodding over my book. After a few failed attempts to return to reading, it’s time to head to bed. I’m out in a flash.

If you’re a clock watcher at night, hide the clock.*

Viewing clocks at night makes me anxious. It’s another learned association, one I’ve never managed to break. So ever since going through sleep restriction (where I had to watch the clock, which drove my sleep anxiety sky high) at night I simply turn my clocks to the wall.

Observing these rules of sleep hygiene may not cure your insomnia. But once you’ve found a way to manage your sleep, it may keep your sleep more regular.

What change of habit has helped your sleep the most?

*American Sleep Association

**National Sleep Foundation

A Sleep-Friendly Bedtime Routine

A cardinal rule of sleep hygiene involves establishing a bedtime routine and here, I’m a believer. Even if I’m out till midnight, leapfrogging from a meeting or a party straight into bed is a setup for insomnia. I’ve got to have at least 45 minutes—better yet, an hour or more—to shift myself out of overdrive and into idling mode.

Here are some things to do in the run-up to bedtime to ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

Bedtime routine helps condition body and mind to expect sleepA cardinal rule of sleep hygiene involves establishing a bedtime routine and in this, I’m a believer. Even if I’m out till midnight, leapfrogging from a meeting or a party straight into bed is a setup for insomnia. I’ve got to have at least 45 minutes—better yet, an hour or more—to shift myself out of overdrive and into idling mode.

Here are some things to do in the run-up to bedtime to ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

Create a Healthy Sleep Environment

  1. Turn off devices with screens. The light they emit (and your proximity to it) may delay secretion of melatonin, a sleep-friendly hormone whose levels normally start to rise a couple hours before bedtime.
  2. Set the bedroom up for comfort in advance. Adjust thermostats, windows, or fans so that by the time you go to bed, the room temperature will be a little cooler than is comfortable during the daytime. Turn down the covers and set the alarm clock. Your sleep environment should be set up so that at bedtime, the only thing you have to do is slip between the sheets.
  3. Turn clocks to the wall. If you’re a sleep onset insomniac like me, clock watching at night will make you anxious—and anxiety is incompatible with sleep. Stay away from rooms with wall clocks.

Dial Down Stress

  1. Take an evening walk. High levels of circulating stress hormones prepare your body for action—not to slow down. Work the stress out with physical activity, even if it’s only walking around the house.
  2. Relieve tension with the help of a shiatsu massage pillow for 15 or 20 minutes.
  3. Do 20 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga. All these activities help to reduce stress.
  4. Take a bath or a shower. Warmth relieves muscle tension. Warming the skin also increases your core body temperature, triggering an internal cooling mechanism conducive to sleep. In the summer months, lower your body temperature more quickly by taking a cool shower instead.

Immerse Yourself in a Relaxing Pastime

  1. Read an engaging book (but steer clear of books that are scary or upsetting), and keep a stash of them by your favorite chair. Or listen to a book on CD. If reading’s not your thing, stream movies on the TV (but not on the computer screen).
  2. Listen to mellow music or make music yourself (if you can do it without disturbing others).
  3. Page through photo albums, coffee table books, old National Geographics and Life magazines, or catalogs. Arresting images capture the attention quickly: they’re a good way to refocus your attention outside yourself.
  4. Do crafts: beading, needlework, scrapbooking, knitting, woodworking, leatherworking, macramé, or any other sedentary activity involving use of the hands.
  5. Keep a sketchpad and pencil next to your favorite chair and draw.
  6. Do crossword puzzles or play Sudoku or any other word game.
  7. Play Solitaire (with cards, not online).
  8. Work on jigsaw puzzles.

Once you’ve got a comfortable bedtime routine, stick with it. Going through the same routine night after night will condition your mind and body to expect sleep when it’s finally time to turn the lights out.

What type of activity helps you fall asleep at night?