climate & sleep

The climate crisis threatens one of our most fundamental human needs: sleep. Here, we'll investigate how poor air quality & rising temperatures as factors of the climate crisis relate to sleep health in the United States.

Essential Sleep

Sleeping is a basic human need; healthy sleep necessitates sufficient duration, quality, timing, and regularity with the absence of sleep disturbances or disorders (NHLBI). The recommended amount of sleep for adults in the US is 7 hours or more. Sleeping an adequate amount lowers a person's risk of suffering from numerous chronic health conditions (CDC).

When evaluating the implications of the climate crisis, the vulnerability of sleep quality is a factor that is perhaps not widely considered, however, poor air quality and high ambient temperatures contribute to sleep loss, a recognized public health epidemic.

Climate change affects air quality in a multitude of ways, whether through excessive periods of drought with dust and high temperatures, increasing wildfire frequency and ground-level ozone pollution, or through shifts in the growing season.

More then one third of Americans report insufficient sleep.


Air Pollutants

Air pollution is the result of the release of harmful or excessive quantities of gaseous substances such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter (PM) into the atmosphere (NCBI). According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, more than 100 million people in the USA reside where air pollution exceeds health-based air quality standards.

The World Health Organization reported in 2018 that 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, and an estimated 7 million people die every year due to exposure to fine particles in polluted air (WHO). The climate crisis will continue to worsen these existing air pollution levels.

Observe decade annual reports from 1980 through 2019. Overall maximum values have come down into a more moderate range, however key locations in the US experience strikingly high AQI levels as a result of wildfires, droughts, and industrial activities.

The frequency and severity of respiratory illnesses such as asthma are expected to continue to increase as a result of the climate crisis. These increases are due to changes in weather which contributes to the concentrations of both ozone and particulate matter in the air, both of which adversely affect human health (NCA).

9 out of 10 people worldwide regularly breath polluted air.


Asthma & Sleep

Asthma is believed to be the result of an immune system response to allergens in the environment. (ODPHP) Ozone and particle pollution in particular can make symptoms worse. (CDC) When you are asleep, you breathe less often, less deeply, and absorb less oxygen. For people who suffer from asthma, their symptoms typically worsen during early morning sleep. (NHLBI) Many studies have shown a strong correlation between air pollution and asthma in children. Particulate matter 2.5 as well as higher levels of nitrogen dioxide are also associated with greater odds of moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

There is no significant difference between urban and rural areas with rates of insufficient sleep. Regionally, overall rates of insufficient sleep are highest in the Southeast and lowest in the Midwest. Rates of adult asthma prevalence are also lowest in the Midwest, while higher rates appear across the rest of the country. Those with lower annual household income are also more likely to have asthma. (CDC)

Nearly 25 million Americans, or approximately 8% of the population, have asthma.


Extended Allergen Season

Global heating impacts allergens as it prolongs and enhances pollen production. (ODPHP) The increase of air pollutants including ozone and particulate matter further irritates the respiratory systems of people with asthma. High concentrations of CO2 from warmer temperatures causes allergenic plants, like ragweed, to grow more quickly and produce higher levels of pollen. Rising temperatures also contribute to the extended growing season and increase of aeroallergens. (NCA)

The climate crisis is not equally distributed. Those who are vulnerable based on income level, elderly age, or preexisting conditions will experience greater impacts due to deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems, and economic inequality. (NCA)

Body temperature and ambient temperature both considerably impact sleep patterns.

(Obradovich et al)

Rising Temperatures
& Sleep Loss

Temperature is a main factor that affects sleep quality. The circadian rhythm, which follows a 24-hour clock, controls a normal sleep-wake cycle. Thermoregulation is a main component in falling asleep and remaining sleep. As your body’s core cools, the temperature drop produces sleep onset (Obradovich et al). Not all people are able to control their ambient temperature with an air conditioner. Those in the southwest and southeast regions of the United States will experience a dramatic increase in nights where the temperature does not fall below 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the near future as temperatures continue to rise with the climate crisis. In addition, these regions also have the highest percentages of their population living in poverty. (CDC)

Mental health is also a concern in relation to rising temperatures. In addition to stress associated with environmental degradation, displacement, and climate crisis anxiety, some people with mental illness are more vulnerable to heat. Suicide rates rise with high temperatures and some medications interfere with temperature regulation. (CDC)

There are a number of studies exploring the relationship between the climate crisis and sleep health, however it is a relatively new focus and increased research is needed in this area.

Utilizing data from United States government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I explore both recent and historical data. This project aims to increase understanding of current climate circumstances to improve social well-being.

please visit my GitHub for methodology and sources