Can't Sleep? Keep a Cool Head

Insomniacs may finally have a drug-free method for dealing with their sleeplessness.

June 27, 2011

Stay cool: Research suggests cooling down may help you get more sleep.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—You've probably heard the horror stories about people taking prescription sleep medication and, without knowing it, eating themselves out of house and home or losing all their money as they unconsciously gamble it all away at the local casino. If you're looking for a little help with your insomnia, you'd probably welcome a solution that doesn't put the health of your body or your bank account at risk. And it could be just around the corner. Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh presented research at this month's Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, or SLEEP, conference showing that a non-pharmaceutical sleeping cap that cools down the brain was able to get insomniacs to sleep as quickly as, and as long as, healthy sleepers.


THE DETAILS: For this small study, the authors recruited 12 adults with insomnia and 12 healthy people to determine whether cooling down a specific region of the brain could help with insomnia. Some of the participants were outfitted with a specially designed cap filled with circulating water that was set at varying temperatures (neutral, moderate, and maximal cooling), while others wore no cap. The caps proved pretty effective. The people with insomnia who wore the caps set to maximal cooling fell asleep within 13 minutes, and they stayed asleep for 89 percent of the night. That was just about even with healthy adults who weren't wearing any cap; they fell asleep within 16 minutes and slept for the same amount of time.

WHAT IT MEANS: You no longer need to lock your refrigerator door at night when dealing with your insomnia. Eric Nofzinger, MD, professor and director of the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, lead author of the study, has found in his previous research into how the brain works that people with insomnia have increased metabolism in various regions of the brain compared with healthy adults, caused by brain activity or stress, fear, or anxiety. This study, he noted, shows that cooling off those regions can slow the metabolism and make it easier to get a good night's rest. It's something he calls "cerebral hypothermia." In a statement accompanying his presentation, he said, "The primary medical treatment for insomnia has long been the prescription of hypnotics, or sleeping pills, yet only about 25 percent of patients using these treatments are satisfied, citing concerns regarding side effects and the possibility of dependence on a pill to help them sleep at night. The device used in this study opens the door to a novel, safe, and more natural way to achieve restorative sleep in insomnia care."

You might not have access to a cold cap that will help you sleep, but you can try a few other tricks to cool off your brain at night:

• Ice down your pillow. One way to cool down your brain is to toss an ice pack into your pillowcase, on top of your pillow. Those gel packs you use to keep a cooler of food cold work will work, or you can make your own by freezing a 50/50 mix of rubbing alcohol and water. Wrap either in a washcloth and put it on top of your pillow for a fast brain freeze.

• Lower the thermostat. Though not the greenest, or most energy-efficient, alternative, you can lower your air conditioner to between 61 and 66 degrees, the temperature at which studies have shown people sleep best. However, if that's too cold for you, raise the thermostat. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that too cold a room can cause you to wake up. They recommend sleeping at the coolest temperature that's comfortable for you and making your room as quiet, dark, and "cavelike" as you can.

<• strong>Try a cool shower. There's some evidence suggesting that insomniacs have higher core body temperatures than healthy sleepers, and one way to cool yourself down is to take a cold shower just before bed. Just be careful not to make it too cold; an ice-cold shower can wake you up and make it harder to drift off.

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