The Sleepless Nights of Summer

It’s late May as I write this, but even now I’m noticing just how bright it is, both at night and in the morning. It’s also getting warmer. The late-day sun makes my bedroom a tad bit toastier than I’m used to, so I’ve opened the windows to let in cool air.

For me, it feels downright unnatural to go to bed while the sun’s still up. However, as the solstice approaches, I know it’ll remain light out until my preferred bedtime, which ranges between 10:30 and 11:00. I’ll still find a way to fall asleep, but it won’t be easy, especially as the days warm up.

Summer sleep isn't always magical

Still, for some, summer is a time of tossing and turning. The struggle to find sleep persists all season. It’s too light and too warm; the brain and the body simply can’t shut down properly.

Insomnia—the challenge of falling asleep or maintaining sleep (or rising too early in the morning) —can create enormous distress for many during the summer.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why the midsummer night isn’t always the magical time for sleep we wish it would be.

The circadian connection: light

If you’ve traveled to Alaska or other far northern latitudes during the summer, you’ve seen the way the sun never leaves the sky. Residents here go to great lengths to protect their sleep in these locales. But even further south, what seems like chronic insomnia may, in fact, be a circadian disruption caused by too much light.

Circadian rhythm basics

Our circadian rhythms are tuned to the light-dark and seasonal rhythms of the planet.1 This explains why, after a long winter, we’re energized by the spring, and after a long summer, we want to “hibernate” during the winter. Natural light exposure, as captured by the human eye, tips off a tiny organ in the brain (the pineal gland) to perform a huge task: maintaining the sleep-wake schedule. When the eyes perceive light, they signal the pineal gland to release certain hormones to promote wakefulness. When that same light slowly dims, it releases other hormones to promote sleepiness. You’ve probably heard of one of them: melatonin.

If you feel like summer only brings you chronic insomnia, consider this: it may be a reaction to late summer light caused by circadian disruption instead. Too much light, too late at night. Or, you may find yourself awakening far too early, due to the brightness of the incoming sunrise. Losing that last hour or two of morning sleep can leave you feeling sleepy in midday; this certainly happens to me.

Solutions for late (or early) light

In Alaska, people use room-darkening shades or drapes to block out intrusive light during the summer. Another less expensive option: wear an eye mask to bed. I find I don’t need a mask when I go to bed, but I sure could use one first thing in the morning!

The circadian connection: temperature

We may also feel like we’ll never fall asleep when the temperature rises. For some, it doesn’t need to be hot to make sleep a struggle, though. Humidity can also make it difficult to sleep. Again, this comes back to the circadian system and its sensitive mechanisms, which include the rise and fall of the body’s core temperature.

Circadian rhythm basics

At night, your body should drop slightly in temperature as part of that circadian transition from wakefulness to sleep.2 Unless, of course, your bedroom stifles with heat and humidity. Then, you may find you’re awake much later, waiting to cool down. Also, in the morning, the body’s core body temperature intentionally warms up as part of the transition from sleep to wakefulness.

Solutions for hot summer nights

Obvious tricks include using air conditioning or fans, but these aren’t always available. A cool bath or shower before you retire can reduce core body temperature. Even a glass of cold water at bedtime can help. Avoid heavy blankets, too. If you sleep in an upper story, consider making a nest in a basement or ground floor setting using a hide-a-bed, futon, air mattress, or couch.

The circadian connection: SAD

SAD stands for seasonal affective disorder. It, too, is a circadian rhythm disorder. But it can cause sleeplessness for some during the summer.3 Typically, people experience this during the darker seasons, but some cannot comfortably tolerate the tyranny of the late sunset in summer. SAD can lead to changes in energy levels, withdrawal behaviors, and mood disruptions. It can also cause insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness.

If you suspect you have summertime SAD

You should discuss your options with a sleep specialist. A wide array of therapies exists to thwart this often-disabling circadian disruption.

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