Sleep and mood in the winter

Winter’s long dark nights and short cold days can affect your daytime mood and energy levels as well as your sleep. During the long dark winter, people tend to feel sleepier during the daytime and feel less happy compared to in the summer. There are a number of things that you can do to make sure you can enjoy all the great things about winter without any negative effects.

Cold temperatures and sleep:

You might hate going out in the cold, but the colder temperatures of winter can actually be good for your sleep! As we fall asleep, our body temperature drops, so we actually need the bedroom to be slightly colder. This is why we struggle to sleep during a summer heatwave. In contrast, being too cold can also make sleep difficult.

Ideally, our bedrooms should be around 18 degrees Celsius as we sleep, so make sure you turn the heating down overnight. Also, be aware of having too many layers of duvets and throws which could make you overheat in bed.

Light and sleep:

To combat this, open your curtains as soon as you wake up, and make sure you get outside for a brisk walk in the crisp winter sunshine during your lunch break. Try to get as much natural daylight as possible during the day. If you can’t physically get outside, you can use an SAD light box in the morning to mimic the effects of bright sunlight. This can be helpful to make you feel more alert as well as happier, but don’t use it too late in the day or else you will struggle to get to sleep at night.

The sun gives us a less intense light during the winter as it is lower in the sky. When we don’t get as much natural sunlight as we do in the summer, this can make us feel more sleepy and less happy. Bright light helps to make you feel more alert as it suppresses a hormone called melatonin – the sleepy hormone. So, when you don’t get enough sunlight your brain produces more melatonin and you feel more sleepy. In addition, sunlight helps us to feel happy. This reduction of bright light during winter is linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a kind of depression.

Christmas parties, alcohol and sleep:

Adults should aim to get between 7 and 9 hours sleep per night for optimal health and wellbeing benefits, including a reduced risk of cancer, dementia, obesity and diabetes. However, with the festive season, people tend to have an irregular sleep schedule and to drink a lot more alcohol than usual. Alcohol has a negative impact on your sleep. Even though it is a sedative and helps you fall asleep quickly, the quality of your sleep is disrupted leaving you feeling unrefreshed. When you can, try to give yourself time to get enough sleep, have a regular sleep and wake schedule and consume alcohol in moderation.

Wind down time:

Have a dedicated wind down time before bed which helps your brain relax and get into a sleepy frame of mind making falling asleep easier. Start by putting away your laptop and phone and don’t look at them in the hour before bed. You could embrace the dark winter nights by snuggling inside by candlelight with a good book and spend some time reading before deciding to sleep. When you get into bed, don’t have your phone next to you as it is a distraction from sleep. If possible, leave your phone outside of your bedroom altogether.

Mindfulness and journaling:

Mindfulness is an excellent technique that helps you deal with stress and anxiety. In addition, if you find that you have a lot of thoughts racing through your mind at night, you could try making time earlier in the day to do some journaling – writing about your feelings and what is on your mind – so that you won’t be thinking about it in bed.

Exercise:

With the cold dark winter evenings, exercise may be the last thing you want to do. However, exercise in the later afternoon will help you from falling asleep on the sofa, and will improve your sleep. If going for a run in the cold rain doesn’t appeal, you could embrace some winter activities such as ice skating in an outdoor rink, or play some indoor sports such as tennis or swimming. If vigorous physical activity doesn’t sound right for you, at the very least you could walk around some of the many beautiful Christmas markets in the UK to get your step count up whilst also enjoying the festive season.

Further help:

If your mood is very low during the winter, consult your GP to see if you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder which could require treatment. Also, if you are suffering from chronic sleep problems such as insomnia, it is important that, beyond these lifestyle changes, you speak directly with your GP for advice. They may recommend that you speak to a qualified sleep expert such as myself for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).

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