New research suggests air and sleep quality are profoundly connected

As the pandemic wears on, many of us are having a hard time getting a decent night’s sleep. However, new research suggests that it could be more than stress that’s stopping you from sleeping well. Scientists in the United States have found that air quality could significantly affect the quality of your sleep. In this study, researchers found that people who lived in areas with poor air quality were 60% more likely to sleep badly than those who breathed cleaner air.

The data were drawn from an ongoing project called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), which is looking for links between poor air quality and sleep deprivation. Two measures of sleep quality were considered: sleep efficiency or the total time spent asleep; and the frequency with which participants woke up. Low sleep efficiency was defined as being asleep less than 88% of the time spent in bed. 

The impact of pollution on sleep quality

The study involved 1,863 participants in six cities, with an average age of 68. Researchers monitored their sleep via a wearable electronic device similar to a Fitbit and then compared this data with information about the concentrations of two key pollutants in the subjects’ homes. These included nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate pollution (PM2.5).  

The researchers found that the percentage of people suffering from low sleep efficiency, as well as the total number of times they were awoken, increased with the concentration of air pollution in their homes. Although there were other variables, such as traffic noise, researchers hypothesized that pollutants were causing airway irritation. Equally, these minute particles can enter the bloodstream and affect brain activity.

Health problems associated with poor sleep

Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a wide range of health problems, not least poor performance and low moods during the day. Air pollution is, of course, link to respiratory conditions, including asthma and even lung cancer. However, over time, sleeping badly can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other types of cancer.

For instance, a further study conducted at Birmingham University found that for every 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre of air, the chance of developing any type of cancer increased by 22%. Other studies suggest that pregnant women who breathe highly polluted air are more likely to have premature babies, while a study at the University of Lancaster found that poor air quality was linked to dementia.

Clean air for better sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to your mood, productivity and health, and with the state of current affairs at the moment, this is getting harder and harder. As this research suggests, it could be more than anxiety or noise that’s disturbing you; air quality could be having a significant impact on sleep quality and your long-term health. However, even for those that live in dense, highly polluted urban areas, there is a solution. Air purifiers can eliminate as much as 99.99% of harmful bacteria, viruses, and particles in the air – helping you sleep well.