Image credit: PixabayImage credit: PixabayAir pollution may be affecting more than just your breathing. According to a new study, it may also be disrupting your sleep.

"Prior studies have shown that air pollution impacts heart health and affects breathing and lung function, but less is known about whether air pollution affects sleep," said lead author Martha E. Billings, MD, MSc, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington. "We thought an effect was likely given that air pollution causes upper airway irritation, swelling and congestion, and may also affect the central nervous system and brain areas that control breathing patterns and sleep."

Analyzing data from 1,863 participants (average age 68) in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) who also participated in both MESA's Sleep and Air Pollution studies, researchers focused on two of the most common air pollutants: NO2 (traffic-related pollutant gas) and PM2.5 (fine-particle pollution).

Researchers measured air pollution data collected from hundreds of MESA Air and Environmental Protection Agency monitoring sites in six U.S. cities and estimated air pollution exposures at each participant's home at one year and again at five years.

Using wrist actigraphy to provide detailed estimates of sleep and wake patterns for seven days straight, researchers found that those with the highest NO2 levels had a nearly 60 percent increased likelihood of having low sleep efficiency compared to those with the lowest NO2 levels. Additionally, those with higher levels of small particulate (PM2.5) exposure had an almost 50 percent increased chance of having low sleep efficiency.

"These new findings indicate the possibility that commonly experienced levels of air pollution not only affect heart and lung disease, but also sleep quality. Improving air quality may be one way to enhance sleep health and perhaps reduce health disparities," Dr. Billings said.

According to researchers, future studies need to explore the relationship between other air pollutants and sleep, the mechanisms by which these pollutants may disrupt sleep patterns and whether traffic noise is contributing to poor sleep quality.

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