Have you ever noticed that as the weather gets colder, you get sleepier? Suddenly, turning in at 9 p.m. doesn’t feel like such a bad idea. You might still sleep until your normal wake-up time, increasing your total number of hours of shuteye. If this describes your experience as the seasons change, you’re not alone.
“Sleep seems to be related to the change of seasons, with a greater duration of sleep in the winter months,” says Renee Wellenstein, DO, a functional medicine physician and health coach. In other words, people tend to sleep a little bit more in the winter.
This effect varies between people, though. Seasonal sleep changes have been studied extensively, and there seem to be several variables that affect the results, Wellenstein says. What we know: Our sleep needs don’t change in the winter, but some people tend to sleep longer during this time. Ahead, sleep experts explain why this happens, the potential benefits, and how to maximize your sleep quality in colder months.
Why do we sleep more in the winter? As it turns out, there are quite a few reasons.
“Sunlight and darkness are powerful drivers of your circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep-wake cycles,” explains Dr. Stephanie Stahl, a sleep medicine physician at Indiana University Health. When there’s sunlight later into the evening, it delays the production of melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland that promotes sleep. Melatonin is triggered by darkness. So, when it gets dark out earlier, we’re more likely to feel tired or ready for bed sooner, Stahl says.
“The shift in our sleep-wake cycle during daylight saving time usually leads to sleep disturbances,” Wellenstein says. “This can cause people to sleep more or require more sleep during the adjustment period, which, on average, takes up to a week.” So, while the effect of this shift might not be long-lasting, it might also be enough to make you notice you need more sleep right around the time the seasons shift.
You’ve probably heard it’s a good idea to keep your room cool to promote better sleep. Outdoor temperatures can also have an impact. “It’s actually easier to fall asleep in the colder months when compared to summertime,” says Jeff Rodgers, DMD, a dental sleep medicine practitioner. “The hot temperatures of the summer make it difficult for our bodies to sleep, as we experience a natural dip in core body temperature to prepare for bed. The fall and winter months, on the other hand, facilitate this process, helping us fall asleep more quickly.”
BENEFITS OF SLEEPING MORE IN WINTER
“Sleep is intimately tied to our immunity levels and hormonal levels, including stress hormones.” says Dr. Kuljeet K. Gill, a sleep medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Getting good sleep and good quality sleep is part of fighting off infection. This is why, when we have a fever, there are natural neurologic hormones released that will induce more sleep.” If you weren’t getting enough sleep in warmer months, and start getting enough in colder months, better immunity and reduced stress hormones could be among the benefits.
But in some ways, a seasonal sleep increase is a double-edged sword. It’s thought that serotonin, one of the body’s feel-good hormones, is produced in response to sunlight. “While more and better quality sleep, both of which can occur in the winter with colder temperatures and with less sunlight, can improve immunity, lower serotonin levels may negatively impact immunity, though more research is needed in this area,” Wellenstein says.
For the record, more sleep is usually better — unless you’re going over 10 hours per night regularly. In that case, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor, according to Jason Piper, a certified sleep coach — regardless of the season. But when it comes to reaping the benefits of getting more sleep, the quality of your sleep matters, too.
“High-quality sleep depends on a person’s sleep architecture, or their sleep profile for the night, including the different phases of sleep they move through,” Piper says. Imagine you look at two different sleep profiles: Person A sleeps 8 hours, and only 20% of his sleep is spent in deep sleep and REM (the two high-quality sleep phases), compared to person B, who sleeps 8 hours but 50% of her time is spent in the high-quality sleep phases. “Person B is going to have better health benefits from their sleep, and this is what a healthy sleep structure looks like,” Piper explains.
Going to bed earlier because of less sunlight might also make a difference. “During the deep sleep phase, which occurs in the first half of the night, is when a person is going to recharge their batteries, release growth hormone to repair injuries and build muscle, and reload their immune system,” Piper says. “Going to bed at a decent hour is important so you can get the full benefits of this phase. Hitting the snooze button in the morning is not getting you any more of this type of sleep.”
6 TIPS FOR BETTER SLEEP IN THE COLDER MONTHS
Use these expert-approved strategies to ensure you’re accounting for both quantity and quality.
GET PLENTY OF SUNLIGHT IN THE MORNING
“Our circadian rhythm is primarily set by light, which suppresses melatonin,” Wellenstein explains. So, getting outside to get some sunlight in the morning (even if it’s cloudy!) is especially important to help you wake up and, in turn, feel tired when it’s time to go to bed. Because sunlight triggers serotonin, it may also help combat mood disorders over the winter months, Wellenstein adds.
EAT SEASONAL PRODUCE
“What you consume directly impacts your immune system, which influences your sleep pattern,” Wellenstein explains. She recommends adding in more seasonal fruits and vegetables like citrus fruits, cranberries, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, which are packed with vitamins A and C.
DON’T OVERDO IT WITH LAYERS AND BLANKETS
When it’s colder outside and in your bedroom, you might be tempted to snuggle up, but this isn’t a great strategy, Piper says, because you’re likely to wake up hot and sweaty. “The bed may be cold at first, but your body heat will warm it up.”
INVEST IN A SUNRISE ALARM CLOCK
“This is a great and non-jarring way to wake up on dark mornings,” Piper notes. “The light will help to turn off your melatonin production and get you energized.”
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
“If it’s feeling a little more sleepy, honor that and go to bed,” Piper recommends. “The sleep industry is trying to erase the idea that sleep is a sign of weakness or laziness. It isn’t. You need it to live and be healthy.”
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