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Urban and Rural Sleep Differences: Fact or Fiction

 

While bustling traffic and brightly lit streets are signs of a vibrant city, these environmental factors can interfere with sleep when you're ready to rest. Research shows that Americans aren't getting enough shut-eye, and the light and noise in urban centers are partly to blame. Moving to the countryside, however, doesn't guarantee better sleep. Before you pack your bags to escape the city, read on to learn more about urban and rural sleep differences and the importance of good sleep hygiene, no matter where you live.

Why Is Sleep So Elusive?

Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night, but Americans are falling short of this target. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 32% of American adults don't get enough sleep. In fact, the chances of being a short-sleeper, or someone who gets less than six hours of sleep per night, has increased in recent years.

Here are reasons people are finding it hard to get adequate sleep:

  • Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and parasomnia
  • Diets that include heavy foods, caffeine and alcohol
  • Stress
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor sleep habits, such as staying up late and sleeping too much during the day
  • Use of electronic devices right before bed
  • Medication side effects
  • Health conditions, such as back pain or chronic disease
  • Shifts in circadian rhythms
  • Work schedules

How Environmental Factors Impact Sleep

Researchers are exploring the impact of environmental factors on sleep, including noise, light and air pollution — many of which are characteristics of city living.

Noise

The more densely populated an area is, the more noise you can expect. In New York City, which has more than 27,000 people per square mile, nearly 40% of the population reported sleep disturbances from noise three or more nights a week.  Sirens, traffic, restaurants, street activity, construction and neighbors were all cited as reasons for disrupted sleep.

Even if the sounds in your environment don't fully wake you, they can cause physiological reactions in your body that impact your quality of sleep. These responses include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Body movement
  • Arousals
  • Changes in sleep stages

Air Quality

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors air pollution because of its negative impact on health. Air pollutants tend to be higher in urban areas, with air quality improving as areas become increasingly rural. While more research needs to be conducted, some studies have suggested a link between air quality and sleep.

Particulate matter that's breathed in can cause:

  • Respiratory inflammation, which increases the risk of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sleep disorders linked to breathing
  • Neural inflammation, which can affect sleep-wake cycles

Light

Our internal circadian rhythms, which signal to our bodies when we should be awake or sleepy, are influenced by natural and artificial light.

In one survey of New York City residents, almost one in seven adults experienced sleep disruptions because of sunlight, street lights and other light at least three days per week. Nearly one in five New Yorkers were disturbed by light when trying to sleep, three or more days per week.

Are There Urban and Rural Sleep Differences?

Rural areas have less noise, light and air pollution than more densely populated urban areas, but living in the countryside doesn't automatically translate to better sleep. In fact, when the CDC compared health-related behaviors in urban and rural areas, it found no variation in sleep quality. Americans were consistently short on sleep, no matter where they lived.

Research suggests that different factors come into play when it comes to sleep quality in rural areas, particularly health disparities. Rural populations tend to get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep because of:

  • Poorer health
  • Limited access to health care
  • Higher rates of poverty
  • Physical inactivity
  • Longer commutes

Rural populations also tend to be older. Age-related issues related to nutrition, isolation and mental health can also impact the quality of sleep.

Differences in Circadian Rhythms

While the CDC didn't find urban and rural sleep differences in terms of quantity of sleep, research does show variations in sleep patterns between internal circadian rhythms.

Our sleep-wake cycles are impacted by sunlight, artificial light, lifestyle and work schedules. Rural populations, particularly those who work in agriculture, are more likely than urban populations to organize their schedule around natural daylight. As a result, they tend to have:

  • More light exposure earlier in the day
  • More predictable sleep patterns
  • Earlier sleep patterns

In comparison, urban populations tend to work indoors and rely less on natural daylight for their activities. As a result, city dwellers are more likely to perform activities at random times of the day and have a later sleep pattern.

Importance of Good Sleep Habits

Moving away from the city doesn't guarantee better sleep. The best way to improve your quality of sleep is to determine why your sleep is disrupted. If you think your lifestyle or environment is having an impact, take steps to improve your sleep hygiene.

  • Establish a routine with set sleep and wake times
  • Use room darkening curtains to block exterior light
  • Try a white noise machine to reduce environmental noise
  • Avoid using electronic devices before bed
  • Get regular exercise
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol in the evenings

Consult your doctor if you think you may have a sleep disorder.

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