Have Scientists Found a Connection Between Air Pollution and Sleep Problems?

You’ve tossed, you’ve turned, you’ve counted sheep — and still, you cannot sleep. Maybe you simply cannot stop visualizing how your big presentation to the boss will go tomorrow, or perhaps you keep rehashing a lover’s quarrel in your head. Regardless of the cause, truly restful sleep continues to elude you, leading to exhausting days of trying not to pass out at your work desk.

Are you sure your sleep troubles all stem from your overthinking mind though? Could environmental factors play a role in continued sleep disorders? Recent scientific research implies that pollution may have as much to do with your missing Zzz’s as your hectic daytime schedule.

How Does Pollution Impact Sleep?

Most people automatically think of insomnia when they hear the term “sleep disorder.” While insomnia certainly causes untold levels of grief, other sleep disorders impact overall health more than the occasional sleepless night as well.

Narcolepsy disrupts normal sleep cycles and causes excessive daytime sleepiness. Some sufferers fall asleep during the day even when they’re engaged in other activities. Restless leg syndrome results in an inability to control motor movements while at rest. Those suffering from restless leg syndrome lose sleep from repeated interruptions of their REM cycle even if they don’t recall awakening during the night come morning light.

Sleep apnea likewise disrupts the normal rest cycle, leading to daytime drowsiness. Frighteningly, sleep apnea patients experience motor vehicle accidents more than twice as often as well-rested individuals. Other sleep problems include early waking, night terrors and sleepwalking. Individuals who are blind risk developing non-24 disorder, when they feel sleepy during the day instead of at night. Those working the graveyard shift often develop sleep disorders, as do those scheduled to work a combination of days and nights.

Recent research suggests that exposure to high air pollution levels leads to greater sleep apnea risks. Particulates in the atmosphere cause irritation to the delicate tissues lining the mouth, nose, and throat.

According to the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), those exposed to certain common pollutants face far higher risks of developing sleep apnea. A five microgram increase in fine particulate pollution led to a 60 percent higher risk of developing sleep apnea. Exposure to nitrogen dioxide from vehicle exhaust fumes likewise upped the participants’ risk for developing this sleep disorder.

While the study failed to eliminate other risk factors such as obesity, the research points to a burgeoning public health problem linked to pollution levels. Low-income urban dwellers often reside in areas with high pollution and additionally lack the financial resources to seek treatment. The MESA study primarily focused on the impact of air pollution on sleep cycles. However, other forms of pollution also hinder people from obtaining a good seven to eight hours in the sack.

Drinking contaminated water may lead to the development of sleep disorders. Shockingly, 30 percent of the drinking water in the U.S. contains levels of lead in excess of EPA minimal safety standards. Exposure to excess lead causes a number of health woes, including difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Noise pollution interrupts many good nights’ sleep, especially among those in urban areas. Long-term exposure to high levels of noise pollution can cause cardiovascular disease, partially due to the excess stress that often accompanies insomnia.

Capturing Those Elusive Sheep

So what measures can we take to avoid letting our environmental problems cause sleep interruptions? Here are a few:

Stay clean: Keeping a tidy home cuts down on dust particulates in the air. Strive to vacuum at least twice weekly, more often if you have four-legged friends leaving dander everywhere.

Try an air purifier: Those with the economic means to do so can benefit from investing in an air purifier. Air purifiers remove dust, mold, pollen, and bacteria from indoor air, decreasing nose, and throat irritation.

Invest in some houseplants: Houseplants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, making them natural air filters. Add a ficus or two to your indoor decor to improve your home’s overall air quality. Exercise caution, however, when you’re selecting plants, especially if you’re sensitive to pollen.

Consider a water filtration system: Invest in a home water filtration system to remove excess lead and other chemical waste — you’ll reduce your risk of developing sleep disorders while also making your tap water much tastier. Water filtration systems also prevent that dry, itchy skin you sometimes experience post-shower and help your hair retain its luster.

Get yourself some earplugs: Earplugs cost little and can serve as lifesavers for those who live in noisy locales. Upgrading your windows and adding insulation further eliminates noise pollution.

A Good Night’s Sleep for All?

Sleep problems cause millions of Americans unnecessary suffering and cost the economy billions in lost productivity. This is just another of the many problems we are facing as a result of our polluted environment. Find out what kinds of green initiatives are going on in your locale to see how you can help improve our environment, health, and quality of life.