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Cool yourself to sleep (6/20/11)

June 20, 2011

Cooling Off  Insomnia

Can cooling your head treat insomnia?  That’s the promise of a new device coming out of Daniel Buysse’s research group at the University of Pittsburgh.

What Did They Do?

Put a cooling cap at night on the front of insomniac’s heads, which lowered the temperature near the top of their head – including the frontal lobes, which help control decision making.  With their caps, the insomniacs slept as well as the normal controls.

Does This Really Work?

It did for the study participants.  Whether it will work for other insomniacs, and longer term, remains to be seen.  This being America, a commercial version is now being set up, which may affect future research testing – though Buysse’s group is one of the best anywhere.

Why Should Cooling Work?

Temperature is a marker for the whole circadian – body clock system.  When people’s temperature is going up, they’re more awake – when it’s going down, they get sleepy.  As for insomnia, people have talked about the “temperature sleep gate” for decades.  Lower people’s core temperature quickly (the temperature inside your body, not on the skin’s surface) and they want to go to sleep.

Has Temperature Cooling Worked Before?

Many times.  You can show increased sleep from people taking Tylenol or aspirin right before sleep.  Though the effect is slight, it’s real, and appears to be related to both drugs’ ability to lower your body’s core temperature.  Melatonin, which resets body clocks, also tends to lower core body temperature – which is one reason it helps a minority of the population fall asleep.

Others have long found that cooling following exercise also helps people sleep – generally three to five hours after rather intense exercise.  Tim Ferriss, in his “Four Hour Body,” sometimes puts himself to sleep by laying in a bed of ice before bed (please see my review of his book at

Will This Work In All Insomniacs?

Insomnia is very, very complicated, with many causes.  I’m just back from the national Sleep Research meetings in Minneapolis, and insomnia is now getting divvied up into so many different formats it can make your head spin.  The reason is that thousands of variables affect people’s ability to fall asleep – and many people feel they are unrested who actually show pretty good sleep measures when they go into a sleep lab. Add to today’s night-time environment the internet, texting at night, bright lights from cell phones resetting internal clocks, caffeine in many different forms,  beverages, and melatonin in brownies sold to children, and studying insomnia is not for the faint of heart.

What Can I Do Before My Cooling Cap Appears at Walgreens?

To get a good night’s sleep, still start by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day.  Resetting clocks through that simple maneuver helps most people sleep – and function better in most ways.

Physiologically, filling your bathtub with ice and lying there for ten or fifteen minutes may help put some folks to sleep.  However, a much easier, more pleasant solution is a hot bath.

So go in, and make the bath hot.  Turn off the lights.  Think of the dreams you want to dream that night (“predreaming”) and then take a few moments to remember and visualize the best natural scenery or hike you ever had.

Let the water’s surface tension move up and down as you breathe.  Increase your relaxation by breathing in to the count of four, breathing out to the count of eight.

When you start to feel sweat coming from your forehead or ears, think about coming from the bath and going to bed.

When you sweat your  body is cooling down – fast.  Janet Mullington’s group at Harvard showed such baths could 1. Increase the speed of going  to sleep 2. Increase the amounts of the deeper phases of sleep 3. Improve sleep continuity through the night.

Bottom Line:

There are many ways to improve sleep – for insomniacs and good sleepers.  Cooling body temperature before sleep can improve rest – and succeed without side effects.  You can do it with a hot bath, exercise before sleep, and various different medications.
Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news

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