Starting to miss some of your evening runs and outdoor boot camps yet? It's officially winter and the shorter days and colder nights make it a real task to get out of bed in the morning, much less actually exercise. If you live in a place that experiences the true four seasons, you know how harsh that winter cold can be and how depressing it is when daylight is gone by the time you leave work (so forget trying to save that sweat session for the end of the day...)
The changing weather conditions affect more than your routine outdoor activities—It actually disrupts some of your body’s natural processes, which is why you may want to assume the fetal position more often than not this time of year. Dr. Raj Dasgupta, MD, a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), clued us in as to why the winter has such an influence over our sleep cycles. The kicker is, while you may want to sleep more in the winter, it’s actually harder to achieve a consistent good night's sleep.
Here’s why you can’t stop dreaming of your bed all day, every day, and what’s actually preventing you from getting the hours you really need.
1. Less light
It's not just in your head: As the days get shorter, our desire to sleep grows. The lack of natural light in the winter suppresses the release of melatonin—the hormone that tells your body it's time to settle down to prep for sleep—and as a result disrupts our internal circadian rhythms. During the warmer months, as it gets darker during the end of the day your body produces more melatonin to signal that it’s time to get ready for bed, but with the sun going down earlier this time of year, that process starts earlier.
Dasgupta points out that during the winter it’s gloomy all day, so you won’t get the suppression of melatonin you would during other times of the year and your body won’t have a clear distinction of daytime and nighttime, leading to an increased desire to sleep and difficulty sleeping once you actually pass out. What’s more, the lack of light in the winter can lead to certain psychiatric disorders like seasonal depressive disorder. Dasgupta suggests making a point of getting more sunlight in the winter. Take walks during your lunch or just step outside for a few minutes and bask in the sun—every little bit helps!
2. You're too hot
When the cold sets in, we all fantasize about curling up under the covers. What really ends up happening, however, is most people start playing with the thermostat, and too cold or too warm temperatures can disrupt your body's natural sleeping process. “As a rule of thumb: When we lay down, our bodies cool down. When we get up, our bodies warm up,” says Dasgupta. Messing with the temperature of your house too much can get in the way of this process.
Not to mention, with the dipping temperature comes an increase in illnesses like the cold and flu, which can truly make sleep horrible. Your best defense is to keep your home temperature steady and your immune system strong by eating a healthy, balanced diet.
3. Comfort food
When the weather outside is frightful, nothing makes you feel warm and cozy like a big bowl of carbs—am I right? The problem is that in the winter time we tend to go for heavier meals, which can disrupt sleep according to Dasgupta. “Especially if you eat your meals close to bedtime, you can experience frequent awakenings,” he says. Not only can eating heavy meals before bed cause heartburn and mess with your snooze time, but if you don’t normally incorporate these foods in your diet then don’t be surprised if those winter pounds start to creep up on you. Weight gain can lead to sleep apnea, a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty breathing during sleep.
Dr. Dasgupta notes that this time of year people tend to have less motivation to exercise because of the gloominess of the day. However, fitting in time to move is even more crucial at this time because of poor dietary choices. Not to mention, with the increase in holiday festivities comes a natural uptake in alcohol, which can also disrupt proper body functioning. If you want a shot at sleeping through the night, avoid one too many beers at happy hour.
Most people experience quite a bit of stress throughout the year, but the holidays have a way of taking it up a notch. Between all your relatives coming into town and any monetary problems that might pop up, relaxing is just not in the cards this season. The problem is, high stress levels can lead to insomnia and sleep deprivation. When you can’t get your Z’s during the week, many of us have a tendency to oversleep on the weekends—which doesn’t help.
Dr. Dasgupta highly recommends having a set bedtime and a set wake time if you truly want to feel rested and reap the benefits of sleep. It may be hard, but try to go to bed and rise at similar times on the weekends, too. We tend to break our routines during the winter season, which can lead to health problems. Just like you schedule in your workouts, do you best to schedule in time for sleep. If you need more motivation, get this: Some research shows that getting enough sleep each week boosts your chances at achieving your fitness goals. Do your body some real good, and start snoozing.