Britons suffering sleep deprivation
Britain’s longest heatwave since 1976 has led to an upsurge in sleeping problems, with people tired, irritable and less productive at work after sweaty nights of poor-quality shut-eye.
Record temperatures of up to 32.4C (90.3F) have been stopping many people getting a proper rest as they struggle to sleep in rooms that are uncomfortably warm, experts say.
Dr Michael Farquhar, a consultant in sleep medicine at Evelina children’s hospital in London, said: “I’m very aware of people reporting more difficulties sleeping as the temperature increases, both personally and professionally.
“It’s a phenomenon we’re becoming used to as we have yet another London summer where bedroom temperatures are regularly sitting at 30C. It’s a factor commonly cited in our clinics as a reason why children’s sleep patterns can worsen over the summer months.”
A further spell of unusually hot weather is expected over the weekend, replacing the cooler weather of the past few days in many parts of the country and making a renewed spike in sleeplessness likely.
Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert and former director of sleep research at Surrey University, said: “Between 30% and 50% of the patients I have spoken to recently have talked about having sleep issues related to the heat.
“People can have their sleep massively impacted. Also at this time of year it doesn’t get dark until about 9pm or 10pm, but when we go to bed it is still hot and sticky and the sun comes up earlier too, which means our sleep is disturbed.”
Farquhar said a contributing factor to heatwave-induced sleep deprivation was that houses in Britain were designed for cooler weather.
“As a result, bedroom temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels during sustained heatwaves. Temperature is a powerful influencing factor on our sleep. We have a relatively narrow range of temperatures in which we sleep comfortably,” he said. “16C to 18C is the usual optimum comfort zone – and either too hot or too cold leads to poorer sleep.”
The main problem, he added, was that people were unable to cool their homes down before bedtime.
“When the bedroom temperature is hot, it prevents natural cooling,” he said, “which makes getting to sleep harder. When it’s humid it’s even harder as the humidity makes it harder to lose heat from our bodies by sweat evaporation.
“And when we do get to sleep, the sleep tends to be more fitful and restless, particularly in the early part of sleep, with more periods of wake.”
Without adequate sleep, Farquhar said, the resulting effect was that people were more likely to be “more irritable, more short-tempered, less likely to detect sarcasm, slower, more sluggish, with poorer reaction times and impaired judgment”.
“In short,” he said, “we become less nice people who don’t function as well.
“Scaled up to the whole country, a restless night’s sleep caused by high overnight temperature can potentially have a big cumulative impact on national productivity and effectiveness,” Farquhar said.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Ideally, a bedroom should be between 18C and 24C to enable restful sleep, so it’s not surprising that many people struggle during periods of extremely warmer weather.”
She advised those experiencing poor sleep during the heatwave to place a rotating fan near their bed or to sleep under thin cotton sheets to get cool enough to recharge their batteries properly overnight.
Eating a light dinner earlier in the evening than usual and restricting alcohol intake to a minimum were other useful ways to maximise the chances of a decent sleep, as the body would then have fewer calories to burn off overnight, she added.
Farquhar said having a cool shower, a glass of iced water or spraying cool water on your skin just before bedtime could help make it easier to get to sleep. Putting bedding, especially pillow cases, in the freezer for a while would produce a cool surface that was easier to sleep on, he added.
He also recommended using cotton pyjamas and bedding, as they helped draw sweat away from the body; keeping bedroom curtains shut during the day; leaving windows open and using earplugs to counteract any noise; and – perhaps the most difficult suggestion – sleeping alone.
“In the long run, I’d invest in air conditioning,” he said. “Hot summers are here to stay, I think.”
The weather has left people unable to cool their homes down by bedtime