A warming planet could mess with our sleep — and make us more vulnerable to infectious disease: Research suggests rising temperatures could disrupt sleep and blunt immune response

It’s a scene that will be familiar for many after yet another scorching summer: You’re lying awake during a warm night, bedsheets kicked aside, an overmatched ceiling fan providing little respite as you struggle to get a good night’s sleep.

But a warming planet doesn’t just mean more people may find it harder to get quality sleep. There is also evidence suggesting that sleep disturbance could make it harder for the body to fend off infection, according to a new research paper from Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavorial sciences at UCLA.

Irwin, who has extensively studied how sleep regulates the immune system, said while there are few studies on how ambient, or surrounding air, temperature affects sleep, they indicate that warmer temperatures contribute to sleep disturbance. Studies have also shown that poor sleep is associated with heightened risk of infectious disease and could make some vaccination less effective, Irwin writes in a research review published in the peer-reviewed journal Temperature last week.

Given research showing a potential link between poor sleep and reduced immune response, Irwin said this raises timely questions about whether climate change results in heightened infectious disease risk amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a monkeypox outbreak and the reemergence of the poliovirus in New York and London.

“No one has previously put together this notion that the ongoing climate crisis is contributing to sleep disturbance and that it’s possibly contributing to the altered risk of infectious disease we’re seeing,” said Irwin, the director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Irwin said the issue also raises important implications about disparities, since low-income communities and communities of color face heightened risk from heat and have less access to air conditioning.

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