A Warming Planet: Disrupting Sleep and Increasing Risks of Infectious Diseases

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Global warming is currently in a crucial stage. According to some estimates, there is currently more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has ever been in the past 800,000 years. Even though it might not appear highly concerning, there are some unsettling truths about this phenomenon.

According to NASA, the Earth’s climate is already changing due to rising human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting, lake and river ice is breaking up early, plant and animal geographic ranges are shifting, and plants and trees are blossoming earlier.

The effects of global warming, however, extend beyond the environment to include the health of humans. According to a review by the University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences, sleep disturbances can interfere with a person’s ability to get a good night’s sleep and impair their ability to fight off infections. 

How The Heat Can Mess Your Sleep And Gets You Sick

The evolution of behavioral techniques for sleep preparation and the choice of the best sleeping conditions across species is attributed to thermal variables, which are crucial to regulating sleep. According to detailed reviews by others, sleep in both humans, and other mammals is accompanied by drops in core body temperature and modifications in the activity of the thermoregulatory effectors.

There has been limited research on how ambient air temperature affects sleep. Still, those that have been done suggest that warmer temperatures can cause sleep disturbances, according to Dr. Michael Irwin, who has extensively examined how sleep modulates the immune system. Additionally, studies have indicated that insufficient sleep is linked to a higher risk of contracting an infectious disease and may reduce the effectiveness of some vaccinations.

Irwin said this raises pertinent questions about whether climate change leads to increased infectious disease risk concerning the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a monkeypox outbreak, and the re-emergence of the poliovirus in New York and London. Research suggests a possible association between poor sleep and reduced immune response.

The author underlined that no one had before combined the idea that the current climate catastrophe is causing sleep disturbance and may be responsible for the increased risk of infectious diseases we are now witnessing.

Irwin’s paper examines how immune system dysfunction can increase a person’s susceptibility to infectious disease threats. He cites the following studies:

  1. Sleep and thermoregulation, or the process by which people maintain a constant internal body temperature, are closely related.

According to experimental investigations, lowering air temperatures to a level where people can maintain a healthy body temperature without using excessive energy improves the quality of their sleep while raising it makes people more awake. Increases in nighttime temperatures were also shown to increase self-reported nights of poor sleep, according to a survey of 765,000 persons in the United States. These impacts were more pronounced during the summer and among lower-income and elderly individuals.

  1. Sleep is believed to aid the body’s preparation for potential infection or injury that may arise the following day. 

The body’s ability to protect itself against various infections is weakened, and inflammation is increased when sleep is disturbed. As inflammatory illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and various forms of depression, are more common in older adults and patients with a higher frequency of sleeplessness, there may be an increased risk.

  1. Poor sleep may also lead to a less effective immune response to vaccination, according to a few modest experimental trials in humans.  

In one study, participants who experienced partial sleep deprivation for four consecutive nights before receiving the trivalent influenza vaccine had 50% lower antibody titers than those with regular sleep patterns. Short sleep duration is likely linked to a lowered adaptive immunologic response and perhaps clinical protection, at least in healthy individuals, according to other research that looked at the consequences of sleep disruption following influenza or hepatitis vaccination.

  1. The length of sleep is connected to the likelihood of contracting an infectious disease. 

According to basic research, longer sleep reduces the bacterial burden and improves survival in a range of infectious disease models. According to self-reported surveys, lower sleep duration is associated with a higher risk of infection.

  1. It is well supported that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased sleep disturbance and depression symptoms, but little is known about how these changes may affect COVID-19 infection risk and outcomes. 

However, a recent study involving more than 46,000 patients demonstrated that individuals with COVID-19 had a significantly increased mortality risk, nearly 2-fold higher than those without COVID-19.

According to the study, additional research on this subject needs to consider how changing ambient temperatures impact immune function and sleep. The author argued that attention should also be paid to how diverse and underserved populations may be impacted by rising ambient temperatures.

There is a significant opportunity to improve interventions that take into account the distinct and overlapping influences of these external and internal variables on sleep continuity and sleep depth now that it is known that sleep is influenced by a variety of factors, including physical activity, the circadian rhythm of sleep-wake cycles, and the homeostatic drive to sleep.

Journal Reference

Irwin, M. R. (2022). Sleep disruption induces activation of inflammation and heightens the risk for infectious disease: Role of impairments in thermoregulation and elevated ambient temperature. Temperature, 1–37. https://doi.org/10.1080/23328940.2022.2109932 

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