A guide to keeping your cool at night
How are you handling the heat at night?
During the summers here on the West Coast of Canada, it can reach nearly 30°C (86°F) in our house at night. I’ve long since lost my ancestral tolerance of heat from my sub-tropical roots. And now anything past 30 degrees in my bedroom at night can make for an uncomfortable and sometimes sleepless night.
Maybe you can tolerate more heat than I can before you start tossing and turning, or perhaps you’re a damp, sweaty mess at night in lower temperatures — either way, being too hot can indeed affect your sleep.
As a sleep therapist, I regularly hear complaints about how it’s too hot to sleep, and the frustration it can add to an already fragile relationship with sleep. But you’re not alone and there are things you can do. The first is what you’re already doing — building knowledge about how your unique body and sleep works, and secondly, focusing on the things you can control.
Human sleep is highly regulated by temperature. Your internal temperature naturally drops as it gets later in the evening and gradually increases as the morning approaches. This process is predictable and follows your internal 24-hour(ish) circadian rhythm.
A drop in ambient temperature, which comes with the sun going down, is a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time to prepare for sleep.
But nighttime heat waves impact sleep quality by disrupting your body’s ability to cool down. Feeling too hot can keep your blood pressure elevated and interrupt sleep cycles, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. There doesn’t have to be a heatwave to impact your sleep, either. Researchers have found that even a moderate bump in temperature of 1-degree Celcius at night can result in poorer sleep.
Tossing and turning because you’re uncomfortable and sweaty can add to your frustration when it’s time for bed, especially if you’re already struggling with insomnia. So here are a few science-backed strategies to help you cool down and sleep better during those hot summer months or uncomfortably warmer nights.
1) Mind your mind
- Frustration and sleep don’t go well together. If you’re struggling to fall asleep due to the heat, don’t add to the frustration by laying in bed hoping that you’ll eventually fall unconscious.
- Get up and try a few of these strategies to cool yourself down. Relax and do something soothing until you’re comfortable again. Remember, you’re not alone in this, and it will pass, as seasons do.
- Even if you had a rough night, getting up and going with your day will make the falling asleep a lot easier the next day. We tend to think less about discomfort when we really need sleep.
2) Place fans strategically
- Sweating is our body’s amazing ability to regulate its temperature. Humans are especially good at it with the over two million sweat glands all over our body . The highest concentration of these glands is on our palms, soles of our feet, and head.
- The beads of sweat on your skin evaporate, which dissipates the heat. Fans help this process along by moving the air around you, not by cooling your bedroom, so turn off the fan when you’re not in the room.
- Use fans to your advantage by placing them near a window facing you and your room’s interior. Placing your fans this way draws in the cooler air from outside. If you can’t open the window due to concerns about noise, bring in the cooler air from the hallway or living room window by placing the fan by your bedroom doorway.
3) Help your skin do its job
- Opt for a minimal amount of loose-fitting clothing made of naturally breathable fabrics such as cotton, bamboo, linen, and silk for pajamas, as well for bedding. These fabrics make it easier for sweat to evaporate, which helps to cool down your body. Dampness is the enemy of comfort, so switch out that thick blanket or comforter for a light sheet.
4) Focus on your feet
- My favorite way to cool down at night is to take a clean wet cloth, wring it out, and place it underneath my feet while in bed. This technique works exceptionally well with towels made of a microfiber-type material that feels dry to the touch when wrung out. The water will slowly evaporate, helping to cool your feet down.
- Notice how you stick your feet out from under the covers when it’s warmer? Or slip your feet back under the covers when it’s a bit chilly? Feet, like your hands, head, and armpits are full of blood vessels closer to your skin’s surface. These areas of your body play an essential role in regulating body temperature. When it’s unusually warm, cooling down these areas can help you feel comfortable faster.
5) Embrace the darkness
- Keep your home cooler during the day by keeping the sun out with blackout shades and curtains. A bonus is that they also keep your bedroom dark, another important cue your body for sleep. They can also prevent early morning wakeups from the sunrise.
- Quality sleep happens in a dark, cool, and quiet space. If your bedroom is still unbearably hot, take a light sheet, and find a cooler area in your home.
6) Focus on daytime hydration
- Stay well hydrated throughout the day to help your body at night. Drinking enough water helps your body regulate temperature and function better overall. Dehydration can cause dryness in your mouth and nasal passages, which can increase discomfort at night.
- We also tend to lose more body fluids by sweating and breathing when it’s warmer than usual. If you’re already dehydrated, it can make you feel more tired and groggy the next day.
- Avoid gulping down glassfuls of water right before bed, which can lead to more trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Being too hot or cold can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, but try to shift your focus on what you can control. We can’t force ourselves to sleep, but we can create a more friendly physical and mental environment for sleep to unfold on its own.
Tony Ho, MSW, RSW, is a Registered Social Worker and sleep therapist in Vancouver, Canada. He specializes in addressing insomnia to help people feel, think, and perform their best with a better night’s sleep. He’s been featured in CTV Morning News on the topic of better sleep, and his writing on sleep tips has been published in the Focus on Adoption Magazine.