How to

19 August 2016

How Temperature Affects your Sleep Pattern

A warm shower, hot chocolate, reading a book – everyone has their own method of getting to sleep. Our bodies drop in temperature and all sorts of things happen during the night, not in a Paranormal Activity kind of way, but in a way that gives our body a chance to repair muscles and other tissues, replace aging or dead cells, and give our brain a chance to organise and archive memories.

How much of this can be influenced by the temperature in the room? Our bodies naturally cool down so we can go to sleep, so what would happen if we manipulate the temperature to improve our sleep?

Getting into a cool bed helps trigger a drop in body temperature, which continues to fall throughout the night. The shift in temperature signals the body to produce melatonin, which induces sleep. Hence the attraction of a warm bath or hot shower before going to bed: Both raise your body temperature, which gradually cools afterwards, cueing your body to feel sleepy.

At the same time, our metabolic rate drops too. This is the time of day when you would feel most tired, as the low temperature coincides with adrenaline at its lowest level. Low body temperatures increase your likelihood of sleeping deeply and so give the body chance to rest and rebuild. As body temperature starts to rise, it remains more difficult to stay in a deep sleep.

So if you were to lower your bedroom thermostat to around 20°C, the cool room would mimic something your body's does naturally. The alternative to controlling your body’s temperature externally is to do so internally. Tibetan Monks do this through meditation.

To compare modern humans with our ancestors, a recent study of two isolated hunter-gatherer tribes demonstrated that they slept approximately seven hours a night but reported feeling well rested, despite their daily activity levels being similar to modern humans. The clearest environmental factor that matched their sleep patterns was temperature. The tribes went to sleep once the temperature started dropping later in the evening and woke up as it began rising in the morning.

Getting to sleep can be even more difficult for women during menopause; just over 20% of women have night sweats or hot flashes that trouble their sleep.

Your body loses some ability to regulate its temperature during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, so over-chilling your environment will backfire.  

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So Temperature does affect the quality of your sleep. As you get into deep sleep, your body actually heats up a little; at this point your brain is most active which is where you begin dreaming. A fever or even spicy food can produce nightmares; the theory behind this is because it raises body temperature.

So, if you want to have a good night’s sleep, you’ll need a room temperature of around 20°C. If you’re in a cold room, heat it up a touch, if you’re in a warm room, tune that temp down, if you’re Leonardo Dicaprio, get into an animal carcass and dream of Oscarville. 

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Cameron Sutherland

Cameron is a journalism and public relations student, powered by flat whites, George Orwell and a dash of Kanye West.