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Archive for Monday, July 16, 2007

Steamy summer nights complicate quest for rest

Tossing, turning sleepers try anything to get relief from heat

July 16, 2007

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"To sleep, perchance to dream," William Shakespeare wrote.

Yeah, but what if it's the height of summer, and you don't have air conditioning, and you wake up in a sweaty mess with your damp sheets wrapped around your ankles, and night sounds pounding in your head?

Some cautionary tales from burning-up beds, and expert advice on how to cope:

Joni Kirk of Moscow, Idaho, was experiencing one of those hot summer nights when she had a brainstorm. "Thinking I was very smart, I put ice packs on the bed to cool it down and hopefully allow my husband and I to sleep better. An hour or so later we were ready to tuck in for the night," Kirk, 31, said.

"We crawled into bed, and it was soaked. The ice packs had defrosted. It was one of the biggest 'duh' moments of my life," she said.

While his old house in Lancaster, Pa., has fans, Neil Gussman, 54, said he's had hot nights where air conditioning might be a better choice. Except his wife likes the heat.

"Most of the year it's fine. But those August days when the overnight temperature stays above 75, the house never cools off and I'm miserable," Gussman said.

When he can't sleep, he sometimes goes down to the cooler basement for relief, he added.

"I spent 11 years in the Army, mostly in tanks, so on the worst nights I try to remind myself how much better off I am now compared to spending summers in a 14-inch-thick metal container," Gussman said.

Boston-based Christina Carlson, 24, has found her own way to cool off on hot summer nights. She falls asleep on her back with a gel ice pack wrapped in a cotton T-shirt on her rib cage.

Carlson has the right idea, sort of, according to sleep specialist Dr. Rafael Pelayo of Stanford University. Pelayo said ice packs or cool cloths work, but the best places to put them are on your forehead, hands or feet.

"The head is very vascular and an area to exchange heat. Same with hands and feet," Pelayo said.

The doctor said it's a biological fact that we sleep better when it's cool than when it's hot. "The issue is that with our biological rhythm for sleep we get a little bit drowsy when we're cool and perk up when we're hot," he said. "The way our bodies are wired we don't sleep well in hot temperatures."

Dr. Pelayo said in addition to fans and air conditioning he's seen people try all sorts of techniques to cool off on hot summer nights, from lying on the floor, to taking a hot bath (which he said helps your body get rid of heat and cool down) to using ice packs - which he recommended always be covered with a cloth so as not to hurt your skin.

Sleeping pills used for a few nights on hot nights to help you sleep - whether over the counter or by prescription - are OK too, Dr. Pelayo said.

But he added the psychological effects of a heat wave are what keep many people awake.

Avoid getting into the rut of thinking you will have to sleep that way night after night. The heat wave will pass," Dr. Pelayo said.

For those who are wide awake in a sweaty mess at 3 a.m., Dr. Pelayo said consider it may be your mind rather than the heat that's keeping you awake.

"Early morning your body temperature is actually at its low point," Dr. Pelayo said.

"What wakes you up may be what's keeping you awake: unfinished issues," Pelayo said. "So you can't blame everything on the heat."

Still, just in case she wakes up, Cynthia Shannon, 23, of New York, said she's keeping iced water at hand.

"You wake up in the middle of the night and you're totally dehydrated so the water helps," Shannon said. If she really can't sleep she brings plastic ice cubes into her bed.

"They really help but your mattress gets wet, which is kind of annoying," Shannon said.

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