We all know that sleeping in the middle of a blazing summer is no fun, assuming you’ve got no air conditioning, but did you know why?
There’s a biological reason why we find it so difficult and this explains why some methods will help us get to sleep and others definitely won’t.
(Tip: anyone who tells you to avoid spicy food when it’s hot is very much missing the point!)
In short, your body cannot produce sufficient quantities of the hormone Melatonin when the ambient temperature is too hot. So the most effective strategies to sleep during a heatwave all come from reducing the temperature of the room. Opening windows and using a fan can help to some degree, but by far the best solution is to invest in a portable air conditioner which will set your room at the perfect temperature for sleeping.
I’m sure you’ve got a whole bunch more questions that I’m gonna try to give my best shot at, so keep reading!
Why is sleeping when it’s hot so hard?
Your body’s sleep cycle is dictated by a hormone called Melatonin which is produced in its highest quantities between 10pm and 5am.
Above a certain temperature, your body finds it more and more difficult to produce this hormone and in fact, your core body temperature is about half a degree cooler at night compared to the daytime.
When it’s getting really hot, aside from making you sticky and uncomfortable, your body is unable to produce the required amount of Melatonin to help you fall asleep as normal.
This is also why you can sleep easily through hot conditions, it’s the act of getting to sleep in the first place that is the problem. This explains why many people will run the AC just before going to bed to help them fall asleep but will turn it off as they get into bed because they don’t need to be cool all night to get a good night’s sleep.
In addition, in the article I linked to above, sleep specialist David Brodner discusses how the longer days of summer and the increased sunlight we are exposed to interferes with our production of Melatonin as well.
You may have heard of Melatonin pills, the idea is that taking these will naturally help you fall asleep although there is some doubt as to their efficacy. I’ve tried them on numerous occasions and I’ve never fallen in love with them the way I definitely would have if they helped.
Some days, I’d drift away quickly and some days it would take me hours. There didn’t seem to be any correlation with when I took the pills. One thing they definitely affected was my dreaming, it became much wilder and there were times I wasn’t sure if I was awake or asleep.
It was kinda spooky.
You can buy them over-the-counter so they’re certainly worth a try if you’re looking for some kind of non-prescription sleep aid.
What temperature is best for sleep? (And when is it too hot?)
Here’s a great article that explains that subject with an interview with Dr Alex Bartle, who is a sleep expert. He says:
Ideally, your bedroom should be between 16C and 18C… If temperatures climb over 22C, you’re going to have trouble sleeping… Most people’s sleep will be disrupted when the temperature climbs above 25C.
To convert that into Fahrenheit, it means that the ideal bedroom temperature is between 61F and 64F, you will have trouble sleeping over 72F and most people will experience sleep disruption over 77F.
So you can see how at those relatively tame temperatures why it’s so difficult to sleep in summertime.
What is the best portable AC?
So if you accept that the best way to deal with heatwave insomnia is through reducing the ambient temperature of the room, the only way to truly deal with the problem is with air conditioning. If you live in a generally hot climate (and in a western country), it’s probable that you already have AC, if not, what can you do?
Well, you might be happy to learn that portable air conditioning units are extremely effective nowadays and are an absolute pittance compared to the $1000s you’d be spending on installing a full home AC system.
Here’s the best model available at the moment (Amazon link), the Black and Decker 14,000 BTU Portable AC Unit.
It’s super easy to install and cools the room down fast, you’ve basically got the function of a full AC unit for a fraction of the price. This one is particularly well-sized too, it’s not gonna take up loads of space at just 17.1 x 13.8 x 28.1 in.
Also, it’s got a snazzy, modern LED display on the front and comes with a remote control for easy adjusting.
Its main limitation, being a portable AC, is that it will only work optimally in a room up to about 300 square feet. You can go a little over this – there are Amazon reviews of people using it up to 600 sqft – but its output won’t be as effective as it is with the smaller sized rooms.
Assorted other tips
Ok, let’s assume a portable AC is off the table for cost reasons or simply that it’s 1am where you are and you’re not driving out to pick one up tonight! What can you do? Here are a few tips that can work.
1. Open windows. Your first port of call should be to get any and all windows open as far as they can. If it’s night time then it’s likely that the outside temperature will be significantly lower than inside your house and so you can let convection do its magic and cool your room down a little. (I think that’s convection anyway…)
2. Open doors to create a draft. A potent combination with #1, a little wind can create a strong cooling draft which might just be enough to get you over the line and into the land of Nod. (By the way, not such a good combination with #3 if you’re sharing a house with roommates or anyone else you do not know intimately.)
3. Sleep in the nude. Get over your shyness and let it all hang out. I know that you love sleeping in your PJ’s or boy boxers or mumu but when it gets hot, even a small and thin amount of fabric is going to insulate you to some degree making you a little hotter.
4. Avoid alcohol. Drinking large quantities of alcohol is perhaps one of the worst things you can do when it’s hot, but paradoxically one of the most attractive activities on a beautiful summer’s day. Alcohol will raise your core body temperature and make a hot night that much more brutal.
5. Sleep on top of covers. Yes, I’m aware that being underneath your duvet is comfortable but it is providing an insulating barrier that is making you hotter. Sleep on top or just get rid of it altogether to get a small amount of relief.
6. Sleep on the ground floor or basement. We’ve all heard that heat rises, well if you’re on the top floor of a well-insulated house then it’s possible that all that hot air is getting trapped in your bedroom and making a mini-sauna. Descend a few stairs and find a place to sleep somewhere nearer the ground for a potentially cooler environment.
7. Use a fan. If getting an AC unit is out of your price range, the cheaper option of using a fan can help to some extent. Artificially creating a draft will cool down the air around your body, giving you a better chance to get to sleep.
8. Keep curtains shut throughout the day. Did you know that while the sun is at its hottest at midday, the hottest temperature throughout the day is from 12pm-4pm. This is because that burning sunlight is absorbed and heats the ground and surrounding areas which keeps it hot. The same thing happens in your house, particularly if it’s insulated, and keeps it a lot hotter than it would be otherwise which also explains why your house is hotter at night than outside. Keeping your curtains stops this heat getting in, bonus points if you have blackout curtains you can use!
9. Turn your pillow over. I do this most nights anyway, but particularly when it’s hot, the thrill of having a cool side of the pillow to rest your head against is just awesome.
What do people in tropical countries do?
If you’ve ever taken a trip to somewhere exotic and near the equator like Thailand, Ecuador or Brazil, you can’t have helped but notice it’s ridiculously hot practically all the time.
These countries have temperatures of 90+F year round and don’t have seasons like winter and fall like we do, being away from the equator. So how on earth do people sleep in these countries?
To answer this question, I’m first going to exclude the invention of air conditioning, which didn’t exist 100 years ago and people were happily living and thriving for many millennia before then. And depending on the development, only a select few of the richer population will have regular access to AC.
The first point is that people who live in very hot climates begin to adapt their thermoregulatory systems so they do not have the same problems. Their bodies will automatically tune their body temperatures to be cool enough at night. It’s worth noting that the use of AC will stop this adaptive effect.
You can read this informative article about how the blood thins in warmer climates for a variety of reasons, but it seems to take over a year for the full effects to take place.
In addition, the design of houses is different in these hot countries and they take into consideration the heat.
For example, there is basically no insulation to keep heat in as it is not needed, unlike the large amounts of insulation you would find in a country that’s cold in winter so that the heating stays in. You also tend to see more brighter colored houses that reflect heat and sunlight during the daytime.