How Air Conditioning Impacts Your Sleep Cycle (and Overall Health)

Summer is upon us, and depending on where you live, that might mean high temperatures, aggressive humidity, wildly disparate daytime and nighttime temperatures, or a combination of all of these.

Whatever the case, you may be one of the many people whose sleep is impacted by their environment. (We all know someone who can sleep through, in or on anything, including oppressive heat. Kudos to them, right?) If you’re not in that group, you may have concocted a number of strategies to combat summertime weather during the nighttime so you’re rested to take on busy summer days.

One of the most common solutions is to crank up the air conditioning to lower a home’s temperature overnight. While this can create a cool, comfortable environment, are there things we should take into consideration before we turn down the temperature before heading to bed?

We checked in with some experts to find out if–when it comes to your health and your sleep–air conditioning really is the best way to stay cool overnight.

Getting quality sleep–even when it’s hot–is important

“Sleep plays a key role in every aspect of our health–everything from heart health, immune system function, weight regulation and mental health,” says Dr. Sujay Kansagra, director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program and Mattress Firm’s sleep health consultant. “When we become sleep deprived, the effects are astonishing and the damage is quick. A lack of sleep often leads to progressive declines in mental function, as well as difficulty concentrating, increased stress, dark under-eye circles and aged skin.”

The environment we sleep in greatly impacts how rested we are. Too hot, too cold, too lumpy—it’s classic Goldilocks Syndrome, and the impact on your well-being truly hangs in the balance.

“Just one night of disrupted or shortened sleep will wreak havoc on the body,” says Dr. Kansagra. Worse? Lost sleep accumulates, so you may end up playing catch-up all summer if your environment isn’t ideal.

Temperature regulation really is key to quality sleep

When we sleep, our internal temperature drops. You are coolest during your deepest phases of sleep, Dr. Kansagra explains, which means that sleeping in a cold environment will give you the most benefit for your shut-eye.

“Because of the sleep-temperature connection, cooler temperatures cause sleepiness and helps achieve better sleep,” he says. “The optimum room temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, so keeping your bedroom cool in the evening will improve the quality of your sleep.”

Does this mean cranking up the air conditioner just before bed?

Richard Cerisi, owner of the Aire Serv of Louisville, Ky., says no. “Use your thermostat to maintain a consistent relatively cool state throughout the day, rather than turning the air on overnight to lower the temperature a few degrees.” While there is a small cost in energy usage, your home will overall be cooler when you head to bed (and the slightly cooler air at night can make up the difference). Plus, your unit will be more efficient in the cooler temperature.

There’s more than just air conditioning

Air conditioning is a luxury, and it’s definitely not the most economical or environmentally friendly solution to cooling a room. Dr. Kansagra suggests keeping blinds and shades closed during the day to keep out the sun’s rays. You can also take a hot shower immediately before bed to artificially raise your body’s temperature before sleep. The subsequent fast drop in temperature can make it easier to fall asleep. You may also want to consider using temperature-regulating bedding.

“Sheets, pillows, mattress covers and blankets made with heat-dissipating fabrics reduce heat concentration and help ensure consistent cool comfort throughout the night,” Dr. Kansagra advises.

Sleeping under or on a damp or frozen towel can also work wonders when the heat is too much for even the most efficient of cooling units.

So, how can you use air conditioning to its advantage?

According to Dr. Ledys Blanquicett, pulmonologist, internist and former professor at Universidads Libre and San Martín in Colombia, even if an air conditioner is turned on, it might be causing more harm to your health than good.

“If air conditioners’ filters aren’t cleaned regularly—about every three months—they can start to accumulate fungi and bacteria,” she says. “The air conditioner will spread the bacteria around the home, making the people inhaling this air prone to infections, mainly of the respiratory system.” If you’re asthmatic, it can also trigger an attack.

So, you might be cooled off, but your sleep might be compromised by an onset of allergies, burning eyes or asthma? Not ideal. Check your filter often to prevent a build up.

Cerisi also counsels that humidity will interfere with your body’s ability to properly evaporate water to cool itself. “When this occurs, you may have a restless night sleep or awake often in sweaty discomfort,” he says. Yup, been there. To get the most out of your air conditioner, he says it’s smart to control the temperature and relative humidity in your home. Newer systems can run for a longer period of time at a lower capacity and use less energy while tackling temperature and humidity at the same time.

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.