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.

15 Tips for Better Sleep in the Summer

I love warm weather and long summer days. Birds singing, trees leafed out, garden thriving. Me, outside in shorts and a tee-shirt, able to appreciate the natural beauty till almost 10 p.m. What’s not to like?

Insomnia, in a word. On long, hot days I’m just not sleepy at my usual bedtime. I’m up later and later till—oops—I’m in the insomnia trap again.

You’d think I’d know by now: heat and light may boost my spirits but, in too big a dose, they’re a bane to sleep. So now it’s time to knuckle down and observe the rules for better sleep in the summer. Here they are:

Manage insomnia in the summer by cooling off & darkening the house
Here I am planting coleus in the iris bed.

I love warm weather and long summer days. Birds singing, trees leafed out, garden thriving. Me, outside in shorts and a tee-shirt, able to appreciate the natural beauty till almost 10 p.m. What’s not to like?

Insomnia, in a word. On long, hot days I’m just not sleepy at my usual bedtime. I’m up later and later till—oops—I’m in the insomnia trap again.

You’d think I’d know by now: heat and light may boost my spirits but, in too big a dose, they’re a bane to sleep. So now it’s time to knuckle down and observe the rules for better sleep in the summer. Here they are:

Reduce Exposure to Late Evening Light

I love the late evening light but it does not love me. One effect of light on sleep—especially light containing lots of blue light, such as sunlight and the light from devices with screens—is that it blocks release of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin secretion typically starts some two hours before bedtime. Exposure to daylight late in the evening may delay secretion, altering circadian rhythms and keeping us awake later than usual. If you’re light sensitive and looking for insomnia relief,

  1. Wear dark glasses if you’re out for an evening stroll.
  2. Don’t wait until the sun sets to darken your windows. Lower shades and close drapes by 8:30 p.m.
  3. Start your pre-sleep routine at the same time as usual—even if it’s still light outside.
  4. An hour or two before bedtime, get off computers, tablets and and smart phones. Blue-blocker glasses and apps that filter out blue wavelengths are supposed to make light less harmful at night. But I installed f.lux software on my computer and I still think looking at the screen after 9:30 or so has a negative effect on my sleep.

Reduce Exposure to Early Morning Light

Especially if you live at the eastern edge of a time zone, your problem may have to do with the early sunrise at this time of year. Sunlight may start streaming in the bedroom window and wake you up as early as 4:30 a.m. What a lousy start to a summer day! If early awakening is a problem and you’re after insomnia relief,

  1. Invest in a lightweight, light blocking eye mask.
  2. Install light blocking window treatments on bedroom windows and keep them drawn at night.
  3. Consider sleeping in a room with fewer windows around the time of the summer solstice.

Cool Your Bedroom Down in Advance

People with insomnia may have greater temperature sensitivity than good sleepers, or less ability to recognize what a comfortable ambient sleeping temperature is. Summer heat may be the cause of your trouble sleeping now—I know it’s a factor for me. If it feels too hot to sleep,

  1. Keep shades and drapes drawn during the daytime to block out heat from the sun.
  2. If you have air conditioning and want to save on energy during the daytime, turn the thermostat down a degree or two about a half hour before bedtime.
  3. In the absence of air conditioning, use a window fan. But don’t wait till bedtime to turn it on. Keep tabs on the temperature outside and, when it starts to drop, turn on the fan.
  4. If A/C and fans don’t do the trick, try sleeping on a lower level of the house.

Cool Yourself Down

People tend to fall asleep more easily when their core body temperature is falling, which normally it does at night. But research suggests that compared with good sleepers, people with insomnia may have more trouble downregulating internal temperature. If this is true, then especially in the summertime, it’s important to take measures to cool your body down before you go to bed. Research has shown that when done late in the afternoon or early in the evening,

  1. Exercise heats your body up, triggering an internal cooling mechanism that may later help you fall asleep.
  2. You can achieve the same delayed cooling effect by indulging in a warm shower, bath or sauna early in the evening.

But if at 11 p.m. you return to a hot house expecting to take a quick shower and hop into bed, it’s time for emergency measures:

  1. Turn on the A/C and/or fans full blast and take a cool shower.
  2. Place a cool, wet washcloth on your forehead when you finally turn in.

If you have trouble sleeping in the summer, what do you think is the cause of the problem?

Q&A: Can’t Sleep Due to Temperature Sensitivity

A reader named Gunjan recently asked a question about trouble sleeping due to temperature changes at night. Here it is, lightly edited:

“It seems my body is very sensitive to temperature while I am sleeping. Many times it has happened that I went to bed at an optimal temperature. But as soon as my body sleeps, I wake up feeling too cold. Then I go to bed after switching off the fan or covering myself with the bed sheet but then I can’t sleep because I’m too hot. This is quite frustrating. . . . Does anybody . . . have any help to offer?”

Insomnia sufferers may have increased temperature sensitivity at nightA reader named Gunjan recently asked a question about trouble sleeping due to temperature changes at night. Here it is, lightly edited:

“It seems my body is very sensitive to temperature while I am sleeping. Many times it has happened that I went to bed at an optimal temperature. But as soon as my body sleeps, I wake up feeling too cold. Then I go to bed after switching off the fan or covering myself with the bed sheet but then I can’t sleep because I’m too hot. This is quite frustrating. . . . Does anybody . . . have any help to offer?”

Insomnia and Thermosensitivity

Insomnia may have something to do with compromised thermoregulation, but the issue has not been fully investigated, say authors of a paper on sleep and thermosensitivity. Evidence shows that older adults may have an impaired ability to recognize the most comfortable temperature for sleep, and this may relate to abnormalities in the area of the brain that evaluates comfort. Not much else is known.

But I’m never surprised when people complain of trouble sleeping related to temperature sensitivity. I have the problem myself. I’ve gone to bed in very hot and very cold situations and lain awake for a good chunk of the night. Like Gunjan, I regularly have to make small temperature-related adjustments in the middle of the night. Now, with some nights warm and others cool, is the season when it’s trickiest to get it right.

Temperature Changes at Night

Core body temperature varies by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the 24-hour day. From a temperature high in the evening, it descends and reaches its low point some 1 to 3 hours before normal wake-up time. If you keep the bedroom windows open at night (a cool bedroom is good for sleep), the room temperature will likely drop as well. The combination of internal and environmental temperatures falling could easily explain why you might wake up feeling cold at night.

Covering yourself with a blanket or a bed sheet is the obvious way to make yourself comfortable enough to get back to sleep. But what if, like Gunjan, you then feel too hot?

Covering up can create a closed system where, once the skin temperature has risen enough to dilate the blood vessels close to the skin, the body heat then released has no place to go. It’s similar to the situation created by an electric blanket. The blanket continues to add heat to the body, increasing skin and core body temperatures. The heat the body would normally throw off is then trapped underneath the blanket. You wake up feeling too hot to sleep.

Here are two ways to keep from overheating at night:

  • Use sheets and blankets made of a breathable fabric such as cotton. Fabrics like polyester are more likely to trap heat rather than allow for its release.
  • When you cover up, see if keeping your feet outside the covers helps. You lose lots of heat through your extremities, so keeping them uncovered, or partially covered, may make you comfortable enough to sleep through the night.

Help for Sleep Onset Insomnia

It’s easier to go to sleep when core body temperature is falling, and people who have problems falling asleep—sleep onset insomnia—may have trouble cooling down at night.

Ideally, the temperature in the bedroom should be a little lower than is comfortable during the day. But there are also ways to facilitate internal heat loss. Activities that increase skin temperature eventually help to cool you down. Warming the skin dilates blood vessels close to the skin. This enables the release of body heat and a lowering of core body temperature to occur for a few hours after the activity ends, in turn facilitating sleep.

Early in the evening these activities may trigger processes that help you fall asleep:

  • Take a hot shower or bath
  • Spend time in a sauna
  • Do a resistance workout or aerobic exercise

As you’re winding down on cooler nights, mild heating of the hands and feet may dilate the blood vessels enough to facilitate heat loss, lowering your core body temperature and inducing sleep. But this is a losing strategy on the warmer nights. Lightly clad and barefoot is the way you want to be.

If you’re sensitive to temperature changes at night, what have you found that helps?

Tips for Better Sleep on the Road

My husband and I are going on a road trip this summer and we won’t be staying at the Marriott. Not just because 4-star hotels are too expensive. Where we’re headed, we’ll be lucky to find a Super 8. More likely we’ll end up in budget motels with names like Willow the Wisp and All Tucked Inn.

Being the finicky sleeper that I am, I carry the potential for insomniac nights wherever I go. At least a dozen possible hazards can throw my sleep off track. Here’s what I do to boost my chances of getting better sleep on the road.

Travel with insomnia can be challenging if you're sleeping in budget motelsMy husband and I are going on a road trip this summer and we won’t be staying at the Marriott. Not just because 4-star hotels are too expensive. Where we’re headed, we’ll be lucky to find a Super 8. More likely we’ll end up in budget motels with names like Willow the Wisp and All Tucked Inn.

Being the finicky sleeper that I am, I carry the potential for insomniac nights wherever I go. (But hey, a new study found that even good sleepers tend to sleep less soundly the first night they’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place. This is called “first-night effect.”) At least a dozen possible hazards can throw my sleep off track. Here’s what I do to boost my chances of getting better sleep on the road.

Noise Control

Noise is my No. 1 enemy when I’m staying overnight in budget motels. So, I

(1) Pack earplugs. Not just one set but two, in case one gets lost or left behind. I use silicone earplugs that mold to the shape of the ear and form an airtight seal. Some people prefer to mask noise at night. My sister uses a white noise machine. A friend of mine packs along a small fan.

(2) Open the conversation in the office by saying I’m looking for a room that’s QUIET. Then I choose the room strategically. I take one facing away from the road when possible. If plenty of rooms are available, I ask for one far away from others currently occupied. I don’t care if they think I’m a misanthrope. I can’t be nice to my fellow human beings after a night of rowdy partying in the room next door.

(3) Check the appliances for potential noise. Does the refrigerator sound like a Mack truck? I’m out of there in a red-hot second. Does the A/C shut off with a loud judder? Same thing. And neighbors whose TV is blaring when I inspect the room are not necessarily going to want to turn it down.

Light Control

Budget motel rooms rarely come with lighting favorable to the sleep challenged. So, I

(4) Pack along an eye mask. My eye mask is lightweight and molds to my face so it blocks out light but isn’t too hot to wear.

(5) Pack a mini-flashlight. A middle-of-the-night trip to a bathroom with bright fluorescent lighting can sabotage my sleep for the rest of the night. A flashlight is the answer here. A night light can work, too—if you remember to pack it up in the morning.

Temperature Control

I’m sure to have insomnia if I feel too hot to sleep. So, I

(6) Check out the A/C to make sure it works and that I can control the thermostat. A/C whose only setting keeps the room in a deep freeze is just not good enough.

(7) Pack along a lightweight blanket. Bed linen at motels these days consists of sheets and a comforter or a quilted bedspread—which means I either freeze or boil. Yes, my body cools down at night. But to stay comfortable what I need is a lightweight blanket, not a so-called comforter.

Beyond insomnia, when traveling I have to think about my back. I’m sure to wake up with back pain if I sleep on a too-soft mattress. When I check out a room, I flop down on the bed to make sure the mattress is hard enough so I won’t wake up with back pain. (I pack along a knee pillow, too, so my spine stays straight when I’m sleeping and a basketball that serves as a prop for my back exercises.)

I guess I’m high maintenance traveler. Aren’t you glad you’re not coming on the trip?

Tips for Overheated Sleepers

Feeling cold at night is the pits. Not only is it unpleasant, but it also gives me a whopping case of insomnia. So 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.

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?