The climate crisis is a health crisis, meaning it threatens the well-being of people as much as it does the planet. Some ways that it affects public health are obvious, like extreme storms driving people from their homes and inescapable heat washing over communities. Others are harder to see. In fact, one of them happens when our eyes are closed.
How climate change might affect sleep.
There is limited research on the connection between climate change and sleep, but it’s well summarized in a 2018 systematic review published by a George Washington University team in Sleep Medicine Reviews.
The review included 16 studies that focused on how climate change events like rising temperatures, extreme weather, floods, and wildfires affected people’s rest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team concluded that climate change caused “diminished total sleep times and sleep disruption” across the board.
First, consider temperature: Since we sleep best in a cool, dark, quiet environment, warmer environments are bound to disrupt rest. “Being in hot, uncomfortable environments influences your ability to sleep deeply, to sleep soundly, to get to sleep, and to have a full night’s sleep,” Melissa J. Perry, ScD, MHS, a professor and chair at GW’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and co-author on the study, tells mindbodygreen.
Extreme storms and natural disasters also, understandably, seem to have a negative impact on sleep and overall well-being in both the short and long term. Not only do they cause immediate harm and threaten safety, but they can also lead to lingering stress, which has been shown to disturb sleep in the long run.
In this research, vulnerable populations—namely the elderly and low-income communities—were at the highest risk of losing sleep. They tend to be on the front lines of the worst impacts of climate change and don’t have access to quality health resources once disaster strikes.
By highlighting these connections and inequities, lead study author and sleep doctor Daniel I. Rifkin, M.D., hopes to help more people “recognize the importance of sleep and sleep health, and how climate change will affect it,” he tells mbg. Since high-quality sleep plays a huge role in everything from mental well-being to immune function, it should only become even more of a priority in a warming world.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the association between sleep and climate, and both Rifkin and Perry agree that more research—particularly prospective studies that collect data on people’s health before, during, and after a climate event—is necessary.
“And at the same time,” Perry adds, “I don’t think we need to hold off on making some conclusions about the importance of climate events and how they affect health and sleep health.”
These early hints of climate change’s impact on sleep only reinforce the need for environmental action. As world leaders return from the COP26 climate conference, keeping pressure on legislators to enact policies that keep our planet and our health safe is more essential than ever.
This research also reminds us of some harsh realities that lie ahead. Many Americans—especially those in western and northern states, where nighttime temperatures are projected to increase most intensely in the coming decades—need to double down on sleep hygiene, brace for warmer nights, and prepare for more potential sleep disturbances.
Finally, this connection between sleep and climate can help inform the future of humanitarian work. Rifkin explains that the handbook for protocols in humanitarian and disaster relief does not once mention the importance of a healthy sleep environment.
He hopes that in the future, sleep aids like eye masks, earplugs, and journals will be distributed to survivors of disasters, alongside other basic necessities like food and water. Sleep is, after all, an essential component of health. Rifkin is also spearheading an initiative to bring virtual sleep services to those who need them most, including those who have been displaced.
If stress about climate change keeps you up at night, know you’re not alone. “Climate change, in its entirety, is the greatest threat to health in so many different ways,” says Rifkin. The hope is that as research continues to come out on the many ways climate and health are connected, we will take the action necessary to achieve a safer future in which we can all rest easy.