Quality sleep, a key brain health factor, is easier when you’re cool. Learn many low and high-tech tips for keeping cool when the weather turns hot.
Getting enough sleep is always hard for the nearly 41 million US adults who struggle with chronic insomnia.
But sleeping well during the hottest months can present an additional challenge.
Let’s look at the steps you can take when you find it too hot to sleep.
Why It’s Harder to Sleep in the Summer
Even if you normally sleep fairly well, you may find you have a harder time getting to sleep, and staying asleep, in the summer.
Your ears may be assaulted with summer sounds of dogs barking, teens hanging out, cars speeding, crickets chirping, or frogs croaking.
Sleep is most often disrupted by artificial light, but depending on the latitude of your location, natural light could be a problem too.
It may stay light past your bedtime or become light hours before you want to wake up.
Exercising in the evening can stimulate you enough to make it hard to sleep.
Eating later at night can disturb sleep by causing acid reflux.
Beverages like sangria, mojitos, and cold beer epitomize summertime.
But while drinking alcohol may help you fall asleep, it also contributes to nocturnal waking and low-quality sleep. (1)
And since alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate, it actually makes you feel hotter!
But mostly, summer is just hotter, making it harder to sleep.
The Ideal Temperature for Sleep
The ideal sleeping temperature is between 60° and 67°F (15.5 and 19.4°C). (2)
Here’s why you sleep better when it’s cool.
Right before you fall asleep, many changes take place in your body.
Your brainwave patterns change, your heart and breathing rates slow, and your body temperature starts to drop.
This temperature change can help you fall and stay asleep. (3)
Also, you spend approximately 20-25% of the time you sleep in the “rapid eye movement” stage.
During this part of the sleep cycle, you temporarily lose your ability to sweat and shiver, leaving your body unable to adjust your inner temperature to the surrounding air temperature. (4)
So when the room temperature is too warm, your body starts to heat up which can wake you and make it hard to get back to sleep.
And air conditioning is not always a big help.
You may wake feeling alternately too hot and then too cool as the AC cycles on and off.
Cool-Down Tips When It’s Too Hot to Sleep
I live in the desert of the American Southwest where we experience 100+°F (38+°C) temperatures all summer long, so I’ve learned a few things about sleeping in the heat!
There are three main concepts to remember in order to sleep better when it’s hot.
You want to keep your bedroom cool, keep your bed cool, and keep yourself cool.
You’ll sleep best if you use a few of the tips that follow.
Keeping Your Bedroom Cool
For many of us, attaining the ideal bedroom temperature of 60-67°F (15.5-19.4°C) is unrealistic.
If you don’t have air conditioning, it’s not even possible.
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But even if you do, keeping the temperature set this low would be energy-intensive and expensive.
This first set of tips is for those with central AC.
The rest of the tips in this article can be helpful for everyone.
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1. If You Have Central Air Conditioning, Optimize It
If you have central AC, take good care of it.
This means getting it serviced every spring before the hottest months of the year.
Change the filter
Change your air filter regularly.
According to my HVAC contractor, surprisingly few people actually do this.
A clogged, dirty filter will significantly decrease both the air flow and efficiency of your AC system.
Adjust the air vents
Adjust your vents to optimize air flow.
Don’t assume they are in the right position.
Your vents may be perfectly adjusted for winter, but not so great for summer.
Keep your bedroom vents fully open and close vents in rooms you rarely use.
2. Block Out the Sun
People who live in hot climates have done this for centuries.
Close windows and window treatments during the day to block the sun and keep your bedroom cool.
If the sun hits your bedroom directly, invest in thermal window treatments — blinds, shades, or curtains.
Then open up in the evening as the temperature drops.
3. Avoid Heat-Generating Electronics
Minimize heat-generating electronics in the bedroom.
Computers, televisions, laptops, and even light bulbs all add heat to make your bedroom hotter.
Switch from traditional incandescent bulbs to light emitting diode bulbs (LEDs).
A whopping 90% of incandescent bulb energy is given off as heat. (5)
There really is something to the old adage that “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
Putting a dehumidifier in the bedroom can make you feel much more comfortable at the same temperature.
You can see on the chart below that an 80°F bedroom can feel like 91°F or 73°F depending on the humidity!
5. Get a Portable Air Conditioner
At one time, if you didn’t have central air conditioning, the next best option was to install a window air conditioner unit in your bedrooms.
But these have some disadvantages.
They can be difficult to install, don’t work in every kind of window, should be removed when summer is over, plus you lose the use of one window.
They can be noisy and an eyesore both inside and out.
That’s why some homeowner associations prohibit them.
Portable air conditioners, on the other hand, are a snap to set up and easily moved from room to room.
Your neighbors won’t complain and your HOA won’t know about it. 😉
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6. Move Down or Out
There’s no rule that says you have to sleep in your bedroom.
Heat rises, so upstairs bedrooms are the hottest rooms in the house.
Temporarily move to the ground floor or better yet the basement, if you have one.
Ironically, many houses in the hottest parts of the country don’t have basements.
You might want to move your mattress to the floor.
Since heat rises, this can be a few degrees cooler than sleeping on the mattress on your bed frame.
You may even want to sleep outside.
Houses built before air conditioning in hot climates in the US often had an outside room for relaxing and sleeping — e.g., Florida or Arizona rooms.
7. Sleep in a Hammock
If it’s not too buggy outside, consider backyard camping or sleeping in a hammock.
There’s a growing number of proponents of hammock sleeping and you can even set one up indoors.
Research has proven what moms everywhere already know — that gentle rocking induces sleep.
The swaying of a hammock can help adults fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply by synchronizing brain waves. (6)
If your lifestyle allows it, supplement your night’s sleep with an afternoon nap.
The great idea of taking an afternoon siesta was born in hot climates for a reason.
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How to Keep Your Bed Cool
Now that you’ve done what you can to keep your bedroom cool, it’s time to address how to keep your bed cool.
Here’s a handful of low-tech ways to make your bed feel cooler:
Do you remember waterbeds?
One of their drawbacks is that they pull heat away from you and need to be heated when it’s cool outside.
But this makes them perfect for summertime.
2. Bed Fans
Bed fans are an interesting way to cool your bed.
These units sit on the floor and blow a stream of air directly at the foot of your bed.
3. No Pets
Don’t let your pets sleep with you — they generate a lot of heat.
They’ll be happier too, if you provide a cooler place for them to sleep like their own cooling dog bed.
4. Get Out of Bed
If you wake in the middle of the night and it feels like someone microwaved your mattress, get out of bed.
Getting your hot body out of bed is sometimes the only way to give your bed a chance to cool down.
You can splash cold water on your face or stick your head in the fridge for a few minutes while waiting.
5. Cooling Pillows
The typical pillow absorbs the heat from your head and radiates it back to you.
If you haven’t shopped for pillows lately, you may be surprised at the number of cooling pillow options.
There are natural cooling pillows such as those made with dried buckwheat hulls or bamboo.
Buckwheat pillows don’t heat up like standard pillows, but if you aren’t used to them you may find them a little too crunchy to be comfortable.
Some bamboo pillows are bamboo all the way through, while others have a bamboo cover.
There are numerous cooling pillows that contain cooling gel.
Some you literally have to fill with water like a mini-waterbed, while others have a gel layer embedded in memory foam.
6. Cooling Sheets
It used to be that cotton was king for sheets that help keep you cool.
Sheets made of bamboo can be cooler as well.
7. Cooling Mattress Toppers
There’s a wide range of cooling mattress toppers to choose from — copper-infused, gel-infused memory foam, ventilated memory foam, CoolMax, bamboo, and even wool.
The idea of sleeping on top of wool sounds hot but, in fact, wool has impressive temperature-regulating properties.
It can help you feel warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
A study done at the University of Sydney found that wool helps regulate sleep temperature and that sleeping on wool leads to better sleep. (7)
A top-of-the-line mattress topper is the ChiliPad Cube Cooling and Warming Mattress Pad which circulates cooled or heated water to keep you comfortable all year.
This dual-zone pad lets you and your partner each choose your sleep temperature anywhere from a nippy 55°F to a toasty 110°F.
Two Questionable Ways to Cool Your Bed
One of the worst ideas to keep cool that I’ve read about is to put your sheets in the freezer.
You’d better be quick because by the time you’ve made your bed, the sheets will no longer be cool and you’ll be hotter.
The other bad idea is the “Egyptian method” of wrapping yourself in a wet sheet to stay cool.
This sounds like an ideal way to grow mold on your mattress, especially if you live in a humid climate.
Ways to Keep Yourself Cool
There’s sometimes only so much you can do to keep your external environment cool.
Here’s how to keep yourself cool with some tips that go right to the source!
Avoid evening exercise
Avoid strenuous exercise in the evening as it will elevate your core body temperature. (8)
Eat light and early
Digestion can raise your body temperature, so have a light dinner and eat earlier rather than closer to bedtime.
Use a ceiling fan
Use a ceiling fan if you have one.
The air movement won’t cool your room, but it will make you feel up to 5°F cooler.
Use a portable fan
If you get hot but your sleep partner doesn’t, put a small portable fan on your nightstand.
I have an old-fashioned hand fan that I use in a pinch to cool down silently.
Keep it light
Wear breathable lightweight sleepwear, or nothing at all!
Use Water Wisely to Keep Yourself Cool
When you want to stay cool, water is your best friend.
If you don’t have enough fluids to perspire, your core temperature will rise.
Here are some simple ways to use water to stay cool:
Use a cooling towel
Cooling towels are towels specifically made to keep you cool.
These are generally made of hyper-evaporative material that retains a lot of water while remaining dry to the touch.
They will help you stay cool for several hours.
Applying a cooling towel to your neck works amazingly well.
This low-tech cooling solution has a lot of great uses beyond the bedroom too.
Use it while exercising or for relief from hot flashes.
Keep water by the bed
Keep an insulated glass of ice-cold water by your bed.
Take a tepid shower
Take a tepid shower or bath.
Taking a truly cold shower can have a rebound effect as your body’s thermostat revs up to counteract the cold.
Use manual AC
Place ice packs, frozen water bottles, or a pan of ice in front of a fan so you’ll be refreshed with a cool, rather than hot, breeze.
This is how people used to cool down before air conditioning went high-tech.
Keep a damp cloth nearby
Keep a damp washcloth by your bed to dampen your wrists, face, or neck as needed.
Use peppermint oil
Keep a spray bottle of water with a few drops of peppermint essential oil at your bedside.
Spritz all over as needed to cool yourself down.
This is especially refreshing on hot feet.
Go to bed damp
Go to bed with slightly damp hair.
The continual evaporation will keep your head cool.
Why Your Brain Needs Sleep
You may be wondering “Why is there an article on sleeping in the heat on a brain fitness blog?”.
It’s because getting enough high-quality sleep is critical for brain health and function.
One night of poor sleep can affect your memory, concentration, coordination, mood, judgment, and ability to handle stress the following day.
According to research, moderate sleep deprivation can affect your mental performance as much as being legally drunk! (9)
Chronic insomnia is linked to a long list of diseases, including mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. (14)
Inadequate sleep even disrupts your genes — just a single week of insufficient sleep can alter the activity of over 700 genes. (15)
Too Hot to Sleep: Take the Next Step
Sleeping in the heat can be challenging.
Fortunately, there’s an abundance of ways to stay cool — both low and high-tech.
These range from old standbys like fans, natural fibers, and cold water to “new and improved” man-made materials like hyper-evaporative fibers and cooling gels.