Climate Change Affects Sleep For Different, Equally Bad Reasons

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There's no doubt the planet is getting warmer, and evidence suggests that climate change affects everything from the global water supply to human health, including sleep quality. If you've never stopped to think about how climate change will affect your sleep, the connection between a warmer planet and poor sleep quality is fairly significant, especially among vulnerable populations.

"Sleep scientists know that a person’s internal (or 'core') temperature is directly related to their ability to sleep through the night — and typically, the warmer you are, the worse your sleep," Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, tells Bustle.

According to NASA's Global Climate Change initiative, the temperature on Earth climbed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the 20th century. No biggie, right — what's a few measly degrees? As it turns out, two degrees is a lot. In fact, a two-degree temperature increase is extreme in the history of the planet, NASA noted, and one of the results is an increase in sleepless nights.

And while climate change is a problem for everyone, sleep loss and other consequences of climate change disproportionately affect people of color and low-income populations, Dr. Caroline Wellbery, a family physician and professor in the Georgetown University Department of Family Medicine, where she promotes climate change solutions through patient education, advocacy, and sustainable healthcare practices, tells Bustle.

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"The field of environmental injustice is vast, and climate change exacerbates vulnerabilities that were put in place decades and even centuries ago. Race and poverty play a major role in susceptibility. [Low-income populations] and people of color have a history of being displaced to areas that are less economically viable," Dr. Wellbery says.

"These were the neighborhoods where there were no trees, and where government/corporations built their highways, power plants, and factories. As a result, these areas become heat islands, have no local refuges (nature, parks), and are susceptible to chemical and other contamination during climate disasters."

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urban heat islands develop when natural landscapes are replaced with buildings and roads. On hot days, the sun can heat these surfaces to temperatures 50-90 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the air. This in turn can result in urban air temperatures being up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than neighboring areas that are less developed.

Dr. Hafeez notes that for people living in urban heat islands who are unlikely to have proper air conditioning, the impact can be devastating, especially for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly who are more likely to suffer from heat-related health problems.

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While the majority of sleep disruption is due to an increase in temperature, some of those sleepless nights might be due to anxiety over a climate change-induced apocalypse, like Amabella experiences on HBO's Big Little Lies. This is called eco-anxiety. In a news release from the University of Helsinki in Finland, environmental researcher Panu Pihkala said that eco-anxiety can lead to feelings of "shock and fear, which often have psychophysical manifestations, including sleep disorders and physical discomfort."

"Mental health is also impacted through a combination of disaster-related post-traumatic stress, anxiety about the future, and loss of human ‘habitat’ — e.g. the destruction of nature," Dr. Wellbery says, and studies confirm that these problems are significant.

"Many effects of climate change are likely to have an impact of the prevalence of inadequate sleep and sleep disorders," a 2018 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews reported. "Extreme weather events caused by the rise in global temperatures can lead to stress and trauma — both physical and psychological. They also lead to population displacement, an increase in food scarcity, and other stressors that directly affect sleep."

Over time, a decrease in both the quality and quantity of sleep people get can lead to significant long-term health problems. "The hotter nights mean people aren’t getting enough sleep, which leads to exhaustion and fatigue," Dr. Hafeez says. "As climate change worsens, this will lead to a slew of other problems such as inability to focus at work, memory problems, slower reflexes, increased blood pressure, weakening of the immune system, and thinking issues."

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Unfortunately, climate change is not something that will be reversed overnight. In the meantime, there are some things you can do at home to reduce the impact it has on your sleep. Dr. Hafeez suggests adopting some eco friendly measures like decorating your bedroom with indoor plants, which absorb heat and sunlight to produce their own food. Dr. Leonard Perry, horticulture professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, wrote in an article on the school's website that the USDA estimates proper use of plants can reduce indoor temperatures by up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition, invest in blackout curtains to keep the temperature down in your bedroom, and use cooling sheets made from moisture-wicking materials like bamboo. If you have anxiety-induced insomnia, Harvard Medical School recommends seeking help for your anxiety and adopting some relaxation techniques. "Meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation (alternately tensing and releasing muscles) can counter anxiety and racing thoughts."

While these things can help reduce sleep loss on an individual level, climate change is a much larger problem. And as Dr. Wellbery says, "a hot world is essentially unlivable." The World Wildlife Fund recommends contacting your senator or congressperson, educating yourself about carbon emissions, driving less, recycling, and learning how to reduce the amount of energy you use in your home. These might seem like small things, but if everyone — both individuals and global corporations alike — does a little, we can change a lot.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.