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Winter and Sleep - How the darker months affect your sleep routine


Winter and Sleep - How the darker months affect your sleep routine

With the cold, dark nights that virtually demand settling down in your warm, cozy bed, the winter season should, in theory, be the best time for great, restful sleep. However, for many people, these cold months tend to trigger the exact opposite reaction; restlessness and disrupted sleep that leaves one with a feeling of lethargy and sleepiness throughout the day.

From the hazy feeling of ‘Winter Blues’ to the more apparent side effects of the seasonal affective disorder (SAD) syndrome, the darker months of the winter season often bring about a malaise which typically leads to poor quality sleep. This, as a result, causes your body and mind to suffer from  the frequent bouts of bad night's sleep.  It is therefore best to be fully aware of the adverse effects that this time of year can have on you.

Here are some of the common winter sleep problems, and tips on how to potentially deal with each problem.

Oversleeping and Lethargy
Do you find it unusually difficult to get out of bed every single morning when temperatures drop and the months are darker? If so, you are not alone! During the winter season, many people tend to feel sluggish and tired in the morning. In fact, one of the first, and rather obvious, signs that you are suffering from a seasonal slump is an abnormal reluctance to actually roll out of bed in the morning, which far surpasses the usual brief hesitation to begin the day. Contrary to what many might think, spending more hours in bed is not always the best thing when it comes to sleep, and particularly if you’re only lying awake.

Spending too much unproductive time in bed can very quickly create a knock-on effect which negatively affects their following night’s sleep, thereby creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.  Furthermore, spending a lot of time in your bed when you are not sleeping - or trying to get some sleep - can subtly give rise to negative associations, which may later on evolve into sleep depriving habits. Getting into bed should always be a signal to settle down and catch a restful, good night’s sleep. Otherwise, when you associate being in bed with agitated wakefulness, this does nothing to relax your mind.

For the SAD sufferers, they often experience excessive fatigue that normally manifests in a listless mood that persists throughout their day and prolonged lie-ins.

So, what should one do?

Eat and Drink Right: Generally speaking, a good diet is absolutely necessary for your overall health and wellbeing throughout all the seasons of the year. However, when you are feeling low, what you eat and drink comes into particular focus since this is usually the time when you’re most likely to veer off-course, and adopt unhealthy eating habits. The temptation to fill up on junk food and guzzle down energy drinks is a natural response to extreme fatigue, almost like an emergency alarm set off by the body begging for assistance. But unfortunately, this type of diet only delivers a spike of energy, which in a little while is followed by a dramatic slump that demands a repeat of the process.

Avoiding such situations is pretty straight forward - simply make a habit of consuming a nutritious meals at appropriate times of the day, on a daily basis. It’s also good to bear in mind that bad eating habits are not just linked to chronic sleep deprivation, but they also bring about other serious health conditions like obesity, which is a known risk factor for sleep apnea (a potentially serious sleep disorder that’s characterized by difficulty breathing while sleeping). Therefore, rather than eating unhealthy snacks and junk foods, ditch these for fruits, leafy green vegetables, and whole grains instead; and avoid taking heavy meals close to your bedtime.

Expend as much energy as possible during the day: Although working out may be the last thing you feel like doing during the cold winter season, the best way to expend energy and make sure you are suitably tired at the end of your day is through regular exercise. Even in its mildest form, physical activity ensures you don’t store pent-up energy as this will only make it more difficult for you to sleep. So, whether it’s working out in the gym; getting actively involved in sports; joining a fitness class; or just taking a gentle stroll around your neighborhood, moderately-intensive exercise will enable your body adhere to a clear routine, which will greatly help with good sleep. In fact, winter is a terrific time for experimenting with new and different kinds of fun-filled activities, such as ice skating and skiing.

If you’re one of those people who finds it difficult to get motivated to work out during these chillier, darker months, try focusing on the positives instead – that is, not only will you sleep much better, but also you’ll be able to stave off the dreaded winter weight gain.

Stick to a regular sleep routine: Technically speaking, our bodies do not require any more sleep in winter than in summer. You should aim for about eight hours of peaceful slumber every night and try to follow a reliable bedtime schedule on a daily basis. It’s also important to ensure that the environment in your bedroom is conducive enough for getting some shuteye – get warm, comfy bed linen, switch off all distracting electronics like the TV, clear any clutter; and set the bedroom’s temperature to a level that’s comfortable and cool, but not too dry.

In addition, maintaining a regular sleep and morning routine, helps to more or less ‘train’ the body into responding at the appropriate times. This would mean resisting the twin temptations of later nights and prolonged lie-ins, which in turn will greatly enhance the quality of your sleep and leave you feeling much better during the daytime.  Therefore, though it might be hard, try going to bed and waking up at similar times every day, including the weekends as well.

Low Light Levels
Typically, during the winter season there is reduced daylight exposure, which is one of the main reasons why this time of the year tends to trigger a seasonal slump. The amount of daylight during this period is more limited compared to other seasons, due to the fact that winter months usually have shorter, darker days than other months in the calendar. As a result, this change in light levels can negatively affect the time and quality of sleep, since it has a huge impact on your body’s body clock (or what is referred to as the body’s natural circadian rhythm), which is actively regulated by the amount of light exposure one gets in every 24-hour period. For many people, the urge to remain indoors when the weather looks gloomy can be quite irresistible, but by giving in you will only be worsening your feeling of lethargy, thereby aggravating the problem.

In a nutshell, your body needs light. This is because, light exposure triggers the production of an important hormone called serotonin, which in effect communicates to the body that it’s time to be up and active. Therefore, without sufficient exposure to light at the right time, you’ll be contributing towards keeping your body in a low energy state. By spending your day this way, this would mean that when it’s time to finally go to bed in the evening, your body (as well as your mind) will not be adequately prepared to wind down for sleep, and as a result you risk ending up with that cruel sensation of feeling tired but not being able to actually fall asleep.

So, what should one do in this case?

Get outdoors in natural daylight: Unsurprisingly, the best and easiest way of getting sufficient exposure to light is by simply spending time outside as much as possible, regardless of how unpleasant the weather might be. Natural daylight generally has a positive effect in energizing our bodies, even at its weakest levels. Also, make a habit of opening your curtains or blinds as soon as you roll out of bed, so as to allow more sunlight into the house. Let your work and home environment have as much natural light and fresh air as possible.

In extreme cases, try some light therapy: Where the situation is a bit extreme - may be due to your current geographical location, the severity of your symptoms, or an inability to go outside that’s avoidable - light therapy can be used as an alternative. This is an effective technique which usually involves using unique lamps that are specially designed to imitate natural daylight.

Learn to relax
Another great tip worth trying out during this period is learning how to relax the body and mind.  With shorter daylight hours, your may at times feel pressured to get everything on your daily schedule done before it gets dark, which in turn could contribute to your fatigue as stress has been shown to make one feel extremely tired. Though there no quick-fire fixes, there are several simple things you can do to help relieve your stress levels. For instance, if you’re feeling stressed-out for any reason, try calming yourself down with yoga, meditation, work outs and breathing exercises.

If you are struggling to sleep this Winter, hopefully the tips above will help you.

Further Reading
If you enjoyed this article you will find the below of interest:
10 proven tips for better sleep
How sleeping with your phone is harming your life
How does stress affect how you sleep and work?

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