The winter months could be viewed as promoting a good night’s sleep. Darker evenings and their association with cosy, relaxing nights indoors snuggled up in front of a boxset create a slumberous environment, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to sleeping well.
Our sleep may be easily thrown off course in the winter as the extended darkness may impact on our circadian rhythms making it more difficult to wake up, causing sluggishness and low energy.
The desire to hit the snooze button may also seem more appealing and the lack of light can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in some people, impacting on sleep quality, mood and the motivation to maintain a healthy active lifestyle and eat well.
So, what can you do to help achieve a good night’s sleep in the Winter months?
Stick to your regular sleep/wake pattern
Establishing a set routine is bedrock to sleeping well. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning is key to keep your circadian rhythms in sync. It’s often tempting to hit the hay earlier than normal and stay in bed longer, but this is not going to help with how energised you feel during the day.
Seek out the light!
Our sleep/wake cycle is governed by light. Darkness in the evening triggers the release of melatonin which is a hormone that helps to make you feel sleepy. Light triggers the release of cortisol that helps us to wake up so seek out as much light as you can during the day.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is thought to be associated with a reduced exposure to sunlight during the Winter months. Whilst not fully understood it is thought that a lack of sunlight may affect the way in which the hypothalamus functions. This is a small region of the brain that regulates many important functions in the body such as the release of hormones, appetite and body temperature. With regards to SAD it is thought to impact on the production of melatonin and serotonin whilst also affecting circadian rhythms.
Winter mornings are not light so make the most of indoor lighting. Light boxes can be used to help replicate exposure to sunlight and are used as a treatment for people with SAD.
We all rely on sunlight to provide us with adequate amounts of vitamin D but during the Winter months it has been shown that many of us are lacking. This essential vitamin helps to maintain healthy bones and supports immunity, but low intakes are associated with fatigue, muscle weakness and low mood. Research also shows that low levels of vitamin D may reduce both sleep time and quality.
Food sources of vitamin D are limited to fortified foods, oily fish, liver, mushrooms and eggs but will not provide you with everything your body needs. During the Winter months you should take a supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D (try Healthspan Vitamin D3 50 Plus Peppermint Spray, 100 sprays, 10ml £5.95.
Watch your diet
The colder months can have an impact on our eating habits and food choices. Foods that are overly rich are more desirable during the Winter months and overindulgence is typical during the festive season causing indigestion in some people.
Foods rich in carbohydrates are also craved more in the Winter which may be linked to their connection with serotonin and could be the body’s way of attempting to improve mood. These foods include those rich in sugar, too much of which may impact on sleep quality as well as doing little for your waistline. The longer evenings can also lead to snacking late at night on such foods which will do little for your ability to sleep as eating and digestion can prevent the body from shifting into sleep mode.
Eat a nourishing diet that will provide your body with the essential nutrients required for good health, some of which may be connected to sleep such as magnesium. Don’t eat too close to bedtime and keep evening meals light including lean proteins (poultry, fish, tofu) and wholegrain carbohydrates (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa) as this combination can help with the uptake of tryptophan into the brain which assists with the production of melatonin.
Avoid the pick-me-ups
If you’re feeling sluggish during the day then it can be tempting to reach for a food or drink containing caffeine or sugar to help boost your energy levels. Both caffeine and sugar have been shown to disrupt sleep. The effect is usually short-lived and often followed by a craving for more of the same creating a viscous cycle of highs and lows.
The first coffee of the day is like nectar and a perfect way to get you ready for the day but after that it may be worth avoiding, especially if you have trouble sleeping. If you haven’t slept well, then a quick nap of between 10 and 30 minutes can help to refresh you. However, anything more can have you entering into deep sleep which will be difficult to wake up from.
A brisk walk or exercising in the afternoon is a useful way to energise yourself and keep your energy levels pepped up.
Take a probiotic
Early research has suggested that the microbes in our gut (microbiome) may be linked to sleep. It is thought that while a lack of sleep may negatively impact on our microbiome the diversity of microbes in our gut may lead to disrupted sleep. The connection is not fully understood but it may be worth addressing your gut health by taking a probiotic supplement (try Healthspan Super 50 Pro – £28.95 for 60 capsules) and including plenty of prebiotic foods in your diet such as onions, garlic, beans, pulses and lentils that help gut bacteria to flourish.
The Winter months can pose challenges for people that struggle to sleep well, and everyone’s personal experiences are unique to them. Considering some of the approaches above can help you to sleep well as Winter draws in.
Find out more
Rob Hobson, Healthspan Head of Nutrition, plus a Sleep Ambassador whose new book The Art of Sleeping, out 14th November, by HQ, RRP: £9.99
Last modified: June 10, 2021