Do you ever struggle to get to sleep in winter? If the answer is yes, we’re really not surprised. Sleep can feel elusive at the best of times, but the weather is a huge contributing factor to the quality of sleep we get, so it’s important to arm yourself with the knowledge to ensure you get some decent kip when the temperature drops.
Trying to get some rest each night sees many of us experimenting with lengthy nightly rituals, listening to calming podcasts and trying visualisation techniques. But as the colder months draw in, nippy nights can make this even worse, creating a less than ideal sleeping situation.
Of course, it’s no fun trying to get to sleep when you’re feeling chilly. But there are more factors than the temperature that can affect our sleep patterns in the winter.
We’ve spoken to sleep experts at the luxury mattress store Naturalmat, to find out what the most common sleep problems in cold weather are and how to avoid them.
One of the biggest influences on our sleep is light exposure and, although you might think that darker mornings would mean more of a lie in, this issue can affect our ability to sleep in a way you might not have thought about.
You see, light exposure during the day is needed for the production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates the timing and duration of sleep – later in the evening. It is the contrast between light exposure during the day and darkness during the evening that is recognised by the brain as a signal for sleep. In the winter, not only is there less sunlight but we also tend to spend much more time indoors, so we miss out on natural daylight exposure. Because of this, our brains can struggle to understand when it’s time to sleep, making it much harder to drop off.
With less daytime light exposure, melatonin concentrations are generally lower, and this can cause sleep disruption. In addition, the low level of light exposure may lead to feelings of tiredness during the day.
Tips from the experts: “Try to spend more time outside in the winter months in order to get an adequate level of light exposure. Going for a walk during your lunch break is a good way to achieve this or walking/cycling to work.
“Make sure your work and home environments are as light as possible during the day. Open your curtains and blinds as soon as you wake up in the morning and try to sit by a window at your place of work. In addition, dim your lights at home in the evening to encourage melatonin onset before you head off to bed.”
Most people are aware that we are more susceptible to common colds and flu in the winter. But this isn’t because cold temperatures cause these infections, but because these viruses are able to survive better in colder environments.
There’s also the reduced exposure to sunlight which leads to lower levels of vitamin D that can impair our immune system. Meanwhile the increased use of artificial heating in the winter produces hot, dry air which dries out your mucus membranes, making your body more susceptible to infections such as colds or flu.
From there, the common symptoms of colds and flu such as a blocked nose, sore throat, breathing problems, headaches, aching limbs and fever all make it harder to sleep. Which is ironic, because infections usually cause tiredness and an increased need for sleep.
Tips from the experts: “Spend as much time as possible outdoors to boost vitamin D, serotonin and melatonin production. Prioritise your sleep to strengthen your immune system so it is fully prepared to fight infections. Make sure your diet includes plenty of vitamin C and antioxidants – nutrients needed for your immune system to function – by eating fruit and vegetables and drink plenty of water.”
Reduced levels of sunlight and vitamin D have been linked to low mood, irritability, fatigue and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a mood disorder characterised by depressive episodes that occur in the autumn and winter. Besides a persistent low mood, other symptoms of SAD include a lack of energy and feeling sleepy during the day, sleeping for longer and finding it hard to get up in the morning.
These symptoms can in turn disrupt our natural sleep rhythms, so it is more difficult to sleep at nighttime. Many people notice a lack of energy in the winter and occasional low mood but for SAD sufferers these symptoms are more debilitating. SAD can be treated with light therapy so speak to your doctor if this is something that you think seriously affects you.
Tips from the experts: “If you are working indoors then ensure that you are letting as much sunlight into your working life as possible by opening up the curtains and sitting next to a window. It’s also important to keep in contact with friends and family members as regular interaction will help the process of feeling better.” Arrange virtual meet-ups, or outdoor walks if you’re in the appropriate tier system.
With the shorter days and colder temperatures, it’s hard to find the motivation to exercise in the winter, particularly if you are feeling tired. But regular, moderate exercise has been associated with better quality sleep and can increase the amount of deep sleep you get at night.
If exercising outside isn’t your thing (especially when it’s nippy), we’ve got just the cold weather motivation for you over on Stylist’s Strong Women.
Tips from the experts: “Remind yourself that any exercise is worth doing for the sake of your physical and mental health but if you can combine this with a burst of natural daylight this is a double benefit to your sleep and energy levels. However, don’t exercise too close to bedtime because this can actually disrupt your sleep as your body takes several hours to cool down to a level optimal for sleep.”
When temperatures drop in the winter, we tend to compensate by turning up the heating, but this might not always be the best idea. While it’s important that your bedroom is not too cold, environments that are too hot can be more disruptive to your sleep. In addition, artificial heating produces hot, dry air and this can lead to dehydration and dry out your mucus membranes, reducing your ability to fight infections which may disturb your sleep. If you have your heating on at night you may wake with a dry mouth or feeling thirsty and then not be able to return to sleep.
Tips from the experts: “Aim for a cool bedroom in the range of 16-18°C as this is the optimum temperature level for sleep. Turn your heating off at night and use duvets, blankets and bed linen made from natural fibres such as cotton and wool as these will regulate your body temperature more efficiently than manmade fibres.”