When we think about increasing global temperatures we tend to think melting ice caps, flooding, and conspiracy theorists who believe scientists (or the Chinese) make this stuff up to exert some unknown power and influence. However, the temperature at night has a direct influence on the quality of our sleep too. So, I’m back to talking about sleep again (the sigh of relief from my adoring crowd is audible – thank you). A recent paper, published in Science, has shown that global warming will not just have an effect on political alliances but also on our sleep. Trump, take note.
The premise of the recent paper, by Dr Nick Obradovich and colleagues, is a simple but profound one. As the summer months trundle on by (and yes, we get some occasional sunshine here in the UK too) you are probably acutely aware of the nightly sojourn to bed and futile attempts at sleep in the oppressive heat. Unless you have the advantage of a trusty fan or even a hint of a breeze outside you know you are going to toss, turn, and throw the covers around until you eventually nod off for a few fragmented hours. Temperature has an evident ability on our ability to get to sleep. This is shown clearly when we consider the changes in body temperature throughout a typical night. As we drift off our body temperature reduces and remains lowered during the sleep period until we wake up. At this point, it starts to rise again helping to improve alertness during the day. This pattern, or circadian rhythm, is no accident – it helps to send us off to sleep. This rise and fall is important and if we increase our temperature too much (e.g. lying in a particularly stuffy room) then we delay the time at which we drop off and are more likely to wake up during the night.
It is this quirk that a research group explored in relation to global warming. In light of what we know, will the increase in global temperature negatively influence our sleep? We can assess this by looking at unseasonably hot days during a month and correlate this with the reported number of nights of poor sleep in the population. This is exactly what Obradovich and colleagues did. They assessed the temperature changes from the average in a number of cities across the US and identified the sleep habits of hundreds of thousands of respondents to a large survey assessing health and disease. They controlled for potential confounders and found that as the temperature increased from the average, for any given month, that there was an increase in reports of nights with disturbed sleep. In fact, as the temperature rises then so does the number of disturbed nights of sleep. When the group compared low and high earners and young and old populations they found that those who were poorer and older tended to suffer more from the effects of temperatures spikes. Finally, as would be expected, they found that these effects were only significant when they looked at the summer months.
This highlighted largely what we already know: that temperature negatively impacts on sleep quality by interfering with the normal process of drifting to sleep. However, the interesting point comes from the next finding of their study. They identified the predicted increases in global temperature until the end of the century from NASA. They then plugged in these values from the first part of the study to identify the effect of increasing temperatures of the number of nights sleep loss until the end of the century. Somewhat worryingly, they found that over the next century the number of nights poor sleep increases in line with the increases in temperature in part due to global warming and climate change. This has implication for physical and mental health which has consistently been tied to the quality and duration of our sleep.
It is important to note that there are plenty of caveats to this study. For example, its indirect and correlational measure of sleep and temperature should raise some concerns about the validity of the findings. Furthermore, it’s important to note that sleep was assessed with a single self-report question, “During the past 30 days, for about how many days have you felt you did not get enough rest or sleep?”. As the authors suggest, further experimental data is needed to back up their claims. However, the findings from this study do fall in line with what we already know about the effect of temperature on sleep. It is not a stretch to claim that global warming, ignoring other external factors, will have a negative impact on our sleep. There are of course ways to mitigate the negative effects of increasing global temperature but this study also accounted for that. The poorest and oldest stand to suffer most as they cannot afford to keep air conditioning running all night. Therefore, although this is one admittedly large-scale study there is still additional research which needs to further understand the true impact our warming climate will have on our sleep and subsequent health. For the time being, it raises an important reminder that the effects of global warming are far reaching and ignoring the clear evidence for its existent is nothing short of irresponsible and short-sighted. Again, take note Mr. President.
Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Mednick, S. C., & Fowler, J. H. (2017). Nighttime temperature and human sleep loss in a changing climate. Science Advances, 3(5), e1601555.