Years of research have shown the importance of sleep for human health. Poor sleep can lead to a multitude of medical problems including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, reflux, dementia, decreased metabolism, depression, and of course all of the problems that come with overwhelming fatigue including car accidents, and lost productivity at work. Even our immune system can be significantly impaired with lack of sleep.
Sleep was not always considered critical to health. But there have now been decades of research documenting the powerful effects of sleep and circadian rhythm on sleep, or lack thereof.
What can cause a lack of sleep? Insomnia, where you either can not fall asleep, can not stay asleep, or wake up too early and can not go back to bed are all causes of a poor night’s sleep. Sleep Apnea is a major cause of sleep disturbance. 20 percent of Americans have sleep apnea, and the likelihood of having it increases as we age.
Sleep apnea is a condition during sleep where you stop breathing for at least ten seconds at a time, while your body is trying its best to take a breath. During this time, oxygen is not getting to your critical organs including your brain. When this happens over and over during the night, your heart works harder, your lungs work harder, and eventually, these heart muscles wear out and can lead to a multitude of problems including stroke, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, diabetes, insulin resistance, decreased metabolism, cognitive decline, or dementia, depression, weight gain, and of course extreme fatigue which may lead to falling asleep while driving, poor work performances and anxiety.
Now there is extensive research on the effects of another sleep disrupter: climate change.
Climate change has evolved over time as its effects on ecosystems, and thus human health has become more apparent. Prominent medical journals are now reporting research on the effects of these environmental changes such as rising temperatures to severe weather events on human health, and now, specifically looking at the effects of these events on sleep.
It is well known that sleep is best at cooler temperatures. Sleeping in a hot room is never a good idea. Studies have shown an increase in sleep-related problems during heat waves, or in situations where there is a loss of power during the warmer months and air conditioning is not available.
We know that with climate change, there is not only an increase in ambient temperatures, but also more extreme weather events, water borne illnesses due to stagnant water, animals changing habitats. All of these may affect sleep down the line.
A literature review published in “Sleep Medicine Review” looked at empirical studies published between 1980 and 2017 that examined the association between climate change and sleep. They examined studies that examined the effects of temperature and sleep, extreme weather and sleep, and floods, wildfires, and sleep. According to the authors, enough evidence from these studies shows that climate change affects total sleep times and can lead to insomnia. The main point is that all of these effects from climate change, including rising average and extreme temperatures can lead to extreme weather events and changes in precipitation. This in turn can lead to floods, droughts, and wildfires. It can also lead to food insecurity as the environment changes and migrations of animals change, or certain crops don’t grow, or normal populations of insects including the all-important bees and other pollinators die off or move to a different region. It can lead to waterborne illnesses, viruses, ozone pollutants, and contaminants, and all of these can lead to insomnia or difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up early, or sleep-related breathing disorders. All of this in turn can lead to insufficient sleep and inadequate sleep leading to Depression, Dementia, Type II diabetes, and Hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
Why does this matter? We spend a third of our lives sleeping, yet we focus our health prevention on waking hours. We need to shift our focus to include sleep. Quality sleep is integral to our well-being, and the health benefits of a good night’s sleep are endless. We need to figure out how we can help to alleviate the factors contributing to climate change, so that in turn we improve our quality of sleep.