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Sleep Disorders and the Sleeping Environment: A Neurological Approach

by Neville Bezzina, Adrian Attard Trevisan, Gurch Randhawa and Chris Papadopoulos(more info)

listed in sleep and insomnia, originally published in issue 194 - May 2012


Note: This article is adapted from an academic paper published as collaboration between Sense of Nature R&T Department the University of Bedfordshire Institute for Health Research. The original can be accessed at  


Sleep disorders

Types of Sleeping Disorders

People who suffer from sleeping disorders primarily complain about how they find it hard to relax enough to fall asleep as well, as well as their inability to achieve continuous sleep throughout the night.

Several potential causes for sleep disorders have been cited, including poor working environments, an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, depression, and stress. For instance, insomnia - a condition that stops sufferers from getting quality sleep - has been connected to neurological problems. Researchers into insomnia, however, have rarely examined the role played by sleeping environments and how they affect the neurological system that makes healthy sleep possible.

Insomnia: Causes, Types and Treatment

One of the myths that we are working to dispel is that insomnia only affects older citizens. In reality, all age groups and genders are susceptible to this disorder. There are three categories of insomnia sufferers:

  1. Transient:  results from a recent negative experience such as losing someone important
  2. Acute: also called short-term insomnia that lasts a few weeks at most
  3. Chronic: the sufferer displays symptoms for months or even years due to underlying medical conditions.

A separate category of this sleep disorder is hypersomnia, which causes excessive sleep times and can be just as harmful, and can possible result in obesity, anxiety, depression, reduced reaction time, and an increased risk of catching diseases.

Treatment for chronic insomnia requires a thorough physical exam conducted by a sleep physiology expert to determine any underlying medical conditions that might cause the insomnia. The other types can cause by external factors such as drug and alcohol abused. In cases of transient insomnia, psychological help should be sought out to deal with issues such stress, depression, and anxiety.

Effect of Bedroom Humidity on Medical Conditions

Sleeping in a humid or damp environment has been identified as one possible cause for insomnia sufferers by Janson et al. (2005).  The study, which focused on three Northern European countries, showed that sleeping in a damp building resulted in a higher prevalence rate of insomnia (29.4%) than those who did not live in damp buildings (23.6%), a significant difference even when accounting for other factors such as age and gender.

Prior to this, only a single study had explored the link between room dampness and sleeping disturbances. Packer, Stewart-Brown & Fowle (1994) identified a strong correlation between dampness in a home and problems with the inhabitants’ respiratory system, resulting in excessive coughing, sore throat, headaches, and in some cases even chronic bronchitis. A damp sleeping environment during childhood increases the possibility of infants developing respiratory problems, as children react negatively to mould in a building and may develop asthma, a major cause of sleep interruptions. The major cause of asthma attacks, dust mites, spreads faster when the sleeping environment is damp.

Reducing humidity in the sleeping environment can have a massively beneficial effect by preventing the development of such underlying medical disorders that have been known to cause insomnia due to the discomfort associated with them.

Body Temperatures and Sleeping Disorders

Body temperatures are major factors that regulate our sleeping and wakefulness patterns. There is a strong relationship between the temperature of the skin and the person’s ability to initiate sleep (Raymann, Swaab and Van Someren, 2007.) This relationship changes with ageing; the body becomes more susceptible to overheating, and according to the sleeping position adopted by the sleeper. For instance, the studies by Kräuchi, Cajochen and Wirz-Justice (1997) and Tikuisis & Ducharme (1996) found that changes in body position from upright position to a supine position when preparing to sleep increases the body temperature.

Several external factors can be identified that influence the body’s temperature and incidence of sleeping disorders, including the type of bedding as well as bath water temperatures. Interestingly, even simple preparations for sleeping, such as switching off the light can increase the skin’s temperature (Kräuchi and Wirz-Justice, 2001). Other studies, such as the ones published by Okamoto, Mizuno & Okudaira (1997) and Vokac and Hjeltnes (1981) put forward the theory that sleeping with typical bedding increases the body temperature from 34 degrees Celsius to 36 degrees Celsius.  A particularly powerful factor that can regulate the body’s temperature so as to make falling asleep easier is taking a hot bath in the evening before getting into the bed, as the body then experiences a temperature drop (Kanda, Tochihara and Ohnaka 1999). These studies accurately illustrate that an increase in body temperature also increases the sleep-onset latency, meaning that a hotter sleeping environment makes it harder to transition from being awake to sleeping.

The type of bedding materials use on the bed can strongly influence a person’s ability to initiate and maintain sleep. Bedding textiles surround the sleeping body and provide for heat transfer (Nielsen & Nielsen, 1984), air permeability, moisture regain, type of fabric and fabric moisture content. All these factors should interact together to provide a level of thermal comfort that makes sleeping possible, and a delicate balance between them is important for reducing health complications. For instance, certain bedding types may have lower heat transfer and air permeability, which leads to a higher body temperature and may cause night sweats. As discussed above, most types of moisture in the sleeping environment will have negative effects on the body. Sweating at night, for this reason, will cause several discomforts that typically interrupt sleep, which results in tiredness. In order to improve the quality and length of waking time, a movement away from the thermoneutral zone of bedding is required (Muzet, Libert and Candas 1984).


The work done so far has established that the prevalence of sleeping disorders among the populace of developed countries is becoming increasingly common. These problems can cause a range of complications to a person’s emotional, physical and psychological well-being. We explored how sleeping environment and the sleeping body are connected in intricate ways which require further research in order to fully comprehend how to effectively counter negative effects. 


Janson, C. Norback, D. Omenaas, E. Gislason, T. et al. Insomnia is more common among subjects living in damp buildings. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 62(2), pp. 113-118. 2005.

Kanda, K. Tochihara, Y. & Ohnaka, T. Bathing before sleep in the young and in the elderly. Eur J Appl Physiol, 80(2), pp. 71–5. 1999.

Kräuchi, K. Cajochen, C. & Wirz-Justice, A. A relationship between heat loss and sleepiness: effects of postural change and melatonin administration. J Appl Physiol, 83(1), pp. 134–9. 1997.

Kräuchi, K. & Wirz-Justice, A. Circadian clues to sleep onset mechanisms. Neuropsychopharmacol, 25(5), pp. S92–6. 2001.

Muzet, A. Libert, J.P. & Candas, V. Ambient temperature and human sleep. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 40(5), pp. 425-429. 1984.

Nielsen, R. & Nielsen, B. Influence of skin temperature distribution on thermal sensation in a cool environment. European Journal of Applied physiology and occupational physiology, 53, pp. 225-230. 1984.

Okamoto, K. Mizuno, K. & Okudaira, N. The effects of a newly designed air mattress upon sleep and bed climate. Appl Hum Sci, 16(4), pp. 161–6. 1997.

Packer, C.N. Stewart-Brown, S. & Fowle, S.E. Damp housing and adult health: results from a lifestyle study in Worcester, England. J Epidemiol Community Health, 48, pp. 555-9. 1994.

Raymann, R.J. Swaab, D. & Van Someren, E. Skin temperature and sleep-onset latency: changes with age and insomnia. Physiology & Behaviour, 90, pp. 257-266. 2007.

Tikuisis, P. & Ducharme, M.B. The effect of postural changes on body temperatures and heat balance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 72(5–6), pp. 451–9. 1996.

Vokac, Z. & Hjeltnes, N. Core-peripheral heat redistribution during sleep and its effect on rectal temperature. In: Reinberg A, Vieux N, Andlauer P, editors. Night and Shift Work. Biological and Social Aspects. Oxford: Pergamon Press; 1981. pp. 109–15. 1981.


  1. rochelle said..

    Other factors such as old injuries are being completely unaccounted. In my case there is no position that is comfotable for long and I often awake because of pain though I may not have gone to sleep in pain. I have insomnia but also Tinnitus which I notice much more if I try to go to sleep without the radio or MP3 on. Insomnia like cancer or depression has multiple causes and looking soley for one cause or another is a useless approach. The best way is to look at the bigger picture for each individual. (Psychological and physical) Even staring at screens to read rather than books has a bad effect on me especially late at night.

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About Neville Bezzina, Adrian Attard Trevisan, Gurch Randhawa and Chris Papadopoulos

Neville Bezzina, Digital PR member of the Sense of Nature team, adapted this article from an academic paper published as collaboration between the Sense of Nature Research and Technology (R&T), Department, Adrian Attard Trevisan, Head of R&T,  and Gurch Randhawa and Chris Papadopoulos from the University of Bedfordshire Institute for Health Research. Neville Bezzina may be contacted via Tel: +356 2133 6970;; Adrian Attard Trevisan may be contacted via . The original article can be accessed at

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