“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Summer is the season of barbeque, beach trips, and some of the simplest joys of life, but if you’re not careful, it can also be the lone enemy of one of the most important joys of them all: sleep.
The ideal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees, according to the National Sleep Foundation, so summer – with its hot temperatures and increased daylight – is not often a welcome answer for sweet slumber. Coupled with more activities throwing off your routine, how can someone enjoy summer and still sleep well?
The Penn Medicine News blog checked in with Yana Banerjee, CRNP, a nurse practitioner in the Penn Sleep Center, for answers. Banerjee regularly sees patients for sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, but many of the same techniques she prescribes for them are helpful to all patients and anyone looking to maintain a good night’s sleep.
Banerjee also delivers cognitive behavioral therapy for patients with insomnia, or CBT-I. CBT-I, which needs to be delivered by a trained practitioner, is a comprehensive way of employing strategies – such as sleep restriction (limiting time spent awake in bed), and stimulus control instructions (which identifies behaviors that may be prohibiting sleep) – to train the body to sleep without using pills. Another part of CBT-I is sleep hygiene education, such as avoiding caffeine and alcohol late at night, which can be valuable for any of us, especially during the summer months.
Your room is too hot and bright
To stay cool, fans and air conditioning are common solutions, but also consider sheets with more breathable fabrics, like cotton. Banerjee says while there is no exact temperature that is perfect for everyone, the bedroom should be cool.
As you begin sleeping, your body temperature decreases. Having a room that falls within this temperature range helps your body get to this ideal temperature, which helps prevent restlessness and helps ensure quality rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, (the stage of sleep characterized by the highest brain activity).
Seminal research in 1997 by Alan Pack and David Dinges found that restorative sleep including healthy REM, has strong influence on mood and alertness. Quality REM is key to, pardon the earworm, being shiny, happy, people.
To keep the room dark, consider blackout curtains, which can help shield you from outside light at night. If you are unable to put down your cell phone or other blue-light emitting device in the couple hours before you sleep – downloading a blue light app on your phone can help your body produce melatonin to ease you into sleep.
You’re lying awake in bed
Banerjee, like many other sleep experts, says that the bed is “for sleep and sex and nothing else.”
If you’re in your bed for reading, hanging out, or watching TV, it becomes harder for your body and brain to separate sleep from everything else.
If you lie awake at night and can’t fall asleep, experts recommend getting out of bed to do another activity, such as reading, doing a crossword puzzle, etc., and then get back into bed – you’re more likely to fall asleep that way.
“If I have a lot on my mind, I may write down some thoughts to help me know I will revisit them in the morning so I can clear my mind. Once I feel tired again, I will go back to my bedroom and try to sleep,” Ilene M. Rosen, a professor of Sleep Medicine, recently said in a Time article.
You’re relying on unproven tools
Banerjee does not prescribe lavender and other popular remedies for sleep because the evidence for their success is still under debate.
“There’s all these different studies about things that can help, like lavender, and while some of these have been effective for some of my patients, none are as proven as CBT-I,” Banerjee says.
You’re often letting late-night activities interfere with your sleep routine
There are more activities at night and during the weekend in the summer that tempt us to be out longer, but often can throw off our critically important sleep schedule. Although there will be occasional times when it’s not possible, Banerjee recommends maintaining a regular sleep schedule, including a “wind-down” period to tell your brain it’s time to go to sleep. The wind-down can include taking a shower, reading, deep breathing, or some other routine to prepare your body to go to sleep each day.
You’re eating unhealthy food and drinks late at night
Drinking caffeinated beverages late at night can make it harder to fall asleep and worsen the quality of your sleep.
Also, timing meals later at night, rather than eating earlier in the day, can cause weight gain and impair fat metabolism, according to research from Namni Goel, PhD, a research associate professor of psychology in Sleep and Chronobiology and Kelly Allison, PhD, director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders. It can also raise your insulin, fasting glucose, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
You don't exercise
Physical activity is good for sleep, and has been shown to reduce insomnia. As little as 10 minutes of regular aerobic exercise, even if it’s walking, can significantly improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, the National Sleep Foundation reports. The important thing is not to exercise too close to your bedtime, as the added energy from the activity can keep you awake.
You nap too long in the afternoon
A 10 or 15 minute nap can help be healthy, as it sends the brain into light non-REM sleep. Long naps for longer than 20 minutes increase the risk that the body will enter deep sleep – which causes that groggy feeling. “Being awake is like carrying a bag on your back,” David Dinges, PhD, chief of sleep and chronobiology, told the Wall Street Journal. The longer you’re awake, the more bricks you add,” he says. “And when you take a nap, you remove some of those bricks.”
Summer can be good for sleep, if you know how to manage the season
Natural sunlight generally does improve our mood. Sunlight also can help us wake up in the morning, and contribute to regulating our circadian rhythms over a 24-hour day.
“People tend to feel better in summer months,” Philip Gehrman, PhD, an associate professor in Psychiatry and the Penn Sleep Center, said in a Cheat Sheet article. “There’s a slight elevation in our mood. More positive emotions are reported.”
Sleep may be tougher or easier in the summer – the key is being thoughtful about how aspects like temperature, light, and activities influence that critically important slumber.
The Penn Sleep Center is busy year-round, but anecdotally Banerjee says a spike in such issues would make sense.
“In the summer, it’s hotter and there’s more light, and those are two main things you want to avoid for quality sleep. You want it to be cool and dark, and the summer is hot and bright.”
Sometimes it is that simple.