Sleep Care

Body Temperature & Sleep

Some people prefer to sleep with several extra blankets on them at night for weight or warmth. Others sleep with as little covering them as possible. Regardless of which side of the spectrum you may fall on, chances are good that you’ve woken up in the middle of the night on the opposite: if you went to sleep feeling cold, you wake up feeling too warm, and vice versa. What happens during the night to cause these changes?

Circadian Rhythms and Core Body Temperature

Part of the answer to the mystery lies in the role that circadian rhythms play in regulating the body’s temperature during the course of a roughly twenty-four hour period. The body’s core temperature—98.6 degrees Fahrenheit—actually fluctuates slightly up and down, taking about twelve hours to go from high to low (or vice versa). Usually these increases or decreases are only about one degree Fahrenheit. For example, if your body temperature at four in the afternoon is 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit (the high end of the range), then it will be about 97.6 degrees around four in the morning. In this scenario, if you went to bed around 10 pm and woke up at 3 am, you’d likely feel colder because your core body temperature had been falling the entire time you’d been in bed asleep. Of course, for some people the situation is the opposite—when they go to bed,

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their body temperature is rising instead of falling, which means they’re likely to wake up feeling warmer than they did when they went to bed.

Incidentally, the periods when our core body temperatures go from rising to falling or vice versa—usually about half an hour—are where we tend to feel the most drowsy if awake, or rest very soundly if we’re already asleep. For most individuals, these temperature changes occur around three to four in the morning, which may help explain why it’s so easy to feel like taking a nap twelve hours later in the afternoon the following day.

Another interesting application of this phenomenon is the use of very hot baths to help promote sleep for insomniacs. By soaking in hot water for at least twenty minutes about two hours before bedtime, the body’s internal temperature can be temporarily driven upward, so that it starts falling as the individual is laying down to go to sleep. Of course, this temperature fluctuation will help promote sleep for the otherwise awake person.

The Poor Temperature Control of REM Sleep

A second interaction between body temperature and sleep occurs during periods of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is primarily where dreaming occurs. These periods occur at roughly ninety minute intervals, and initially are fairly brief—about ten minutes or so. In the second half of the night, however, they can be somewhat lengthy, lasting for about thirty or forty minutes.

During REM sleep, the cells in the brain that are responsible for regulating the body’s temperature are turned off. This means that the body’s temperature will approach whatever the ambient temperature in the room is set to. For example, a person sleeping in a cold room, (or perhaps during a bitter winter night), may wake up out of REM sleep feeling pretty cold—even if they have blankets on them. Conversely, a person waking up from REM in a warm room or during a hot summer night might find themselves sweating a lot or feeling pretty flushed. Interestingly, the lack of

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thermoregulation in REM sleep does not apply to women in menopause experiencing hot flashes during the night.

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