Climate change is real and dangerous. We have looked at the data and seen the reality. What most people don’t realize, however, is the extent to which the changing climate can affect our daily lives. 

Our worries normally concern future generations. We have a desire and a sense of duty to leave a better world for those that come after us; to use the simple cliche, we want our grandchildren to live on a planet that hasn’t decimated the polar bears. But in worrying about the distant future, we tend to overlook the problems climate change is causing today. The truth is that climate change poses a substantial threat to human health, and it is and has been exerting a harmful influence on all of our lives… but not just our waking lives. 

Ok… but what’s it got to do with sleeping?

Since 1895, U.S. average temperatures have increased by 1.3-1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. And to make it worse, temperatures are projected to rise another 2-4 degrees in the next few decades. This increase in temperature is linked to a number of health risks, like food and waterborne diseases, and many extreme weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes, which often cause fatalities. 

These effects of climate change are well documented in this sense. What is less well documented is how climate change affects our sleep, and why we need to spread awareness about these devastating effects. 

In 2015, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared sleep disorders, and insufficient sleep in particular, to be a public health epidemic. It’s interesting to note that humans spend about a third of their lives asleep but only 47% of adults in the U.S. actually achieve the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Consequently, approximately 50-70 million Americans have a sleep disorder and according to the first ever pan-African and Asian sleep analysis, around 150 million people are suffering from sleep-related problems across the developing world.

As a species, us humans already seem to have a problem with sleep – and climate change is only going to make things a lot worse. Extreme weather events – like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes – can lead to stress and trauma. Everyone knows how difficult it is to sleep when you are stressed. Just imagine trying to fall asleep after your house has been devastated by a flood or hurricane. These natural disasters also lead to food scarcity and population displacement, both of which have the potential to negatively impact sleep. In general, a recent study has shown that higher temperatures have negatively impacted almost one million Americans, as a thermal environment is a serious factor in relative sleep quality.

 

What is the research telling us?

Dr. Daniel Rifkin, our founder and brain behind Ognomy, published an article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal on the relationship between climate change and sleep. His findings will be recounted here.

In a systematic review of the literature published, it was found that all six studies reported negative effects of higher temperatures on sleep time and sleep quality. One study estimated that a 1 degree Celsius deviation in nighttime temperature was associated with an increase of three nights with insufficient sleep per 100 people. It was also found that this negative effect between temperature and sleep disproportionately harms the elderly and people with lower income.   

As is to be expected, the studies that showed the relationship between extreme weather events and sleep yielded similar results. A report after Hurricane Andrew in the early 1990s was the first study to show an increase in sleep complaints following a natural disaster. The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), a subjective test to measure sleep quality, was administered after the hurricane. A significant decline in sleep was recorded. In another study conducted after the 2011 summer floods in Brisbane, Australia, residents directly affected by the flood reported higher rates of poor sleep quality. 

Highly relevant to Dr. Rifkin’s analysis of the scientific literature relating to climate change and sleep was the overall lack of such literature. The relationship between our sleep health and the changing world has been mostly neglected by scientists and researchers. “This needs to change”, he says. One of the more important changes that needs to take place relates to the humanitarian response for natural disasters. The Sphere Project (a comprehensive guideline for humanitarian response) does not include total sleep hours as a “core standard.” Governmental aid agencies and NGOs need to prioritize sleep environments in their humanitarian response. In his study, Dr. Rifkin notes that, “just as one requires a certain amount of water each day, so too does one require sleep for ongoing health.” 

 

What can we do to help?

All in all these findings seem obvious, but they aren’t receiving adequate attention. In the upcoming years, natural disasters are only going to get worse and become more prevalent. One only has to look at the fires devastating the west right now. If you have friends living out in California or Oregon, give them a call and ask how they have been sleeping. I’m willing to bet that the answers won’t be pretty. 

Poor quality sleep doesn’t just affect the sleep-deprived individual. In the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries, 1,550 deaths, and 12.5 billion in monetary losses are attributed to drowsy driving accidents each year. And in general, lack of sleep is connected to a number of horrible side effects. Obstructive Sleep Apnea, for example, increases the risk of many chronic diseases like diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

 

Your sleep should be a top priority

The effects of poor sleep on quality of life are clear, but unfortunately, one cannot control rising temperatures and extreme weather events on one’s own. To mitigate climate change is to improve the quality of all our lives. The warming globe doesn’t just pose a threat to the generations to come, but to humanity at large.

As Greta Thunberg (environmental activist) quoted, “the climate crisis has already been solved…all we have to do is to wake up and change”. 

But first, let’s make sure to get a good night’s sleep!