Is winter weariness keeping you down? We’ve talked about sleep on DermLetter before, as it’s one of the three pillars of healthy living along with diet and exercise – we look into the science of sleep further, and how you might help yourself out of the snooze.
We’re in the midst of the sleepy months now – your room feels so much colder than you remember, and it’s so warm under the blanket. If you feel like you’re under a spell, it’s not just your imagination; there are legitimate reasons to feel more tired during the winter. Frankly, you have a lot of things working against you.
- Less sunlight: Our bodies produce melatonin in response to darkness, and it’s an essential hormone for regulating our circadian rhythm. In the winter, where light hours are limited, we will be sleepier and have a harder time getting up as we wake up in darkness.
- Less exercise: How many of us are motivated enough to hit the gym when it’s dark and miserable? More rain and lower temperatures generally mean less exercise and more TV watching.
- Denser foods: Carbohydrate and sugar-heavy foods become more plentiful in the winter. These foods provide instant energy, but shortly afterward, they induce a crash…often right into bed due to how they influence our hormones, triggering a vicious cycle of eating into sluggishness.1
- Lower temperatures: Colder temperatures trigger more melatonin production, which leads to deeper sleep. Cool room temperature is a good thing, but it can mean that it’s tougher to get up and out of bed as well.
- The overall lifestyle: Many people have vastly different lifestyles if they compared their winter and summer months. All behaviors, including sleep schedule, foods they eat, and recreational activities, are affected. Throw in daylight savings time, and it can get chaotic on your hormones.
How to Beat the Winter Blues
Sleep, diet, and exercise are the pillars of good health, and it’s no different in the winter months. All of these dimensions interact with one another. It’s hard to do one without the other, and bad habits in one area often lead to or encourage bad habits in another. The trouble with winter is that they provide the environment for lapses in all three areas simultaneously.
- Eat whole foods, cut down on processed foods
- Eat light before sleep – more food at lunch, less at dinner
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule – your body doesn’t know what a weekend is
- Try to find a hobby – preferably a group activity – to keep up your exercise
- Keep your bedroom dark – away from blue lights (no computers, cell phones)
All of the fundamental lifestyle stuff matters. If you keep yourself healthy and get adequate sleep, the overall weariness/grogginess of winter will likely sort itself out. However, there may be a different but legitimate reason for your winter energy dip to consider as well.
You Might Actually Need the Sleep
Winter may make your tiredness more acute, but perhaps you are already chronically sleep-deprived. It’s very easy today to stay up watching just one more episode on Netflix or getting trapped into an endless YouTube or Wikipedia loop. It might not be due to some temptation for entertainment, but overworking. Partly due to our cultural ethos to view sleep as a kind of moral failure, we often overlook this possibility. If you’re trying to fight off sleepiness, there’s a good reason to believe that your biology knows better than you do. Sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker tells us that humans are the only animals that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep without good reason.2 If this is the case, your weariness maybe your body telling you to smarten up.
The consequences of chronic sleep deprivation can be much more severe than most people think. It affects your health in many ways, as well as decreasing your performance on almost every level. Some interesting and scary facts:3
- Nearly every organ is degraded by lack of sleep
- Chronic sleep deprivation increases mortality from all causes
- Increases obesity due to more ghrelin (stimulates appetite) and fewer leptin hormones being produced
- Causes physical exhaustion faster – the lactic acid build-up, loss of VO2 max
- Lowers peak muscle strength and stability muscles, higher risk of injuries
- WHO considers night shift work a probable carcinogen4
- Lowers testosterone in men (6-10 years)
Sleep is essential for your body to function optimally; don’t short yourself. If you are having difficulty getting to sleep or getting up, it’s time to clean up your sleep hygiene.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule (your circadian rhythm, like your dog, doesn’t recognize arbitrary human constructions like weekends or daylight savings)
- No electronics in the bedroom, especially blue light-emitting devices, dim the lights in the house
- Lower your core temperature to sleep easier – easy on the heaters, cool pillows, sleep naked, have a bath or shower before bed, wear socks5
Other Medical Considerations
Seasonal affective disorder is a relatively common type of depression that typically starts around Fall and ends in Spring, usually consistently around the same time each year. If you find that you are consistently moody during the winter months, it won’t hurt to talk to a doctor, as there are treatments.
- Light therapy
- Other medication
Sleep apnea is another common sleep disorder. With sleep apnea, breathing stops periodically during sleep. The most common symptom is loud snoring, but there may be other symptoms, such as gasping for air in the morning or extreme lethargy.
Most people feel more tired during the winter months, and it’s often natural due to the various environmental factors at play. Many people have poor sleep habits, so improving these areas can have a positive impact regardless of the season. There may, however, be another problem, so if the grogginess feels excessive, you may want to consider seeing a doctor.
5These may seem like a warming mechanism, but all of these drop the core temperature by moving blood and heat to the periphery.