How to sleep well during the darker months, according to an expert

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Lauren Geall
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The change in seasons can play havoc with our sleeping patterns – here’s how to get a good night’s sleep this winter, according to an expert.

If there’s one thing all of us need right now, it’s a good night’s sleep.

At a time when we’re having to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, handle the stress of working from home and face the reality of a recession, getting enough rest is one of the most important things we can do for our mental health.

However, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always easy. While making small changes to our bedtime routine – such as going to bed earlier or switching our phones off before bed – can definitely help, there are other factors which play into whether or not we’re able to enjoy a restful night’s sleep, including the time of year.

If you’ve noticed that your sleeping pattern has changed over the last couple of months, you’re not alone. 

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“We often hear the term circadian rhythm (day cycle), but we also have an infradian rhythm (annual cycle) – a circannual cycle which responds to seasonal cues,” explains Hope Bastine, psychologist and resident sleep expert at the sleep tech firm SIMBA.

“As temperatures fall, nights get longer and days get darker, winter can take its toll on how our bodies adapt to sleep.”

Thanks to the additional pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and the change in season, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us are finding it hard to switch off at the moment.

So, what can we do about it? Here, Bastine shares some of her top tips for getting a great night’s sleep throughout the winter months.

Switch off that heating

Hot temperatures can disrupt the body's natural sleeping process – fight the temptation to crank up the central heating as winter approaches.

We all love getting warm and cosy in the winter but doing so isn’t necessarily good news for our sleep. In fact, if you’re struggling to get to sleep or find yourself waking up lots during the night, your central heating could be to blame.

“Central heating can be the enemy of restorative slumber,” explains Bastine. “When we start playing with the thermostat, too cold or too warm temperatures can disrupt your body’s natural sleeping process.”

Bastine continues: “Artificial heat produces warm, dry air which can cause dehydration and dry out mucus membranes. If you have your heating on at night, you may wake up with a dry mouth or feel thirsty, and that can prevent you from getting back to sleep.”

According to Bastine, the optimum bedroom temperature for getting a good night’s sleep should be between 16-18 degrees, because this temperature mimics the body’s hibernation state. 

Make light a priority

A window
Increasing your light exposure throughout the day can have a big impact on your sleep.

The amount of sunlight exposure we get during the day doesn’t just have the power to alter our mood – it can impact our sleep patterns, too.

Because we tend to spend more time inside during the winter months (especially now we’re working from home), the amount of sunlight we’re exposed to is massively reduced. As a result, our circadian rhythm is disrupted (because we produce more melatonin and less serotonin), making getting a good night’s sleep more of a challenge.

By ensuring we up our sunlight exposure (whether by getting outside more or investing in a SAD lamp), we can limit the amount of disruption this time of year causes to our sleep. 

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“If you’re looking to achieve a better night’s sleep, getting the right amount of sunlight during the day is just as critical as the amount of darkness needed in your bedroom at night,” Bastine explains.

“Morning daylight has been linked to a good night’s sleep. In 2017, researchers found that people who were exposed to greater amounts of light during the morning hours between 8am and midday, fell asleep more quickly at night and had fewer sleep disturbances during the night compared to those exposed to low light in the morning.”

Make your diet sleep-friendly

A bowl of pasta
Avoiding complex carbs right before bed is a good idea if you're struggling to get to sleep.

We all love a big bowl of pasta on a cold, drizzly night, but eating too much of these complex carbohydrates too close to bedtime can wreak havoc with our sleep.

“When you eat a large meal, especially close to bed, it fires up your metabolism, making it difficult to fall asleep, so aim to have heavier meals earlier on in the day,” Bastine explains.

Alongside monitoring the amount of heavy foods you eat before bed, there are also a number of foods you can add to your diet which have the potential to boost your sleep.

“Look out for ingredients that contain vitamin B6, which boost melatonin that relaxes us and prepares us for sleep,” Bastine says. 

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“Baked sweet potatoes are a great option here – the skin is also a great source of fibre, so you’re less likely to wake up hungry during the night.”

She continues: “Sipping a warm glass of milk sprinkled with cocoa before bed can release snooze inducing tryptophan and give you just enough of a serotonin boost to slide you down to slumberland.”

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.