The winter months should, in theory, be the perfect time for great sleep – cold, dark nights that almost demand cosying up and settling down – but for many people they signal the opposite; restlessness and disrupted sleep that results in a daytime lethargy that’s hard to shake off. The first months of the year really can excel in fuelling a low mood, especially when the weather is less snow-covered Alpine postcard scene and more dull grey, relentlessly rainy and bone-chillingly windy.
From side-effects of the syndrome known as ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (‘SAD’) to the rather more vague feeling of ‘Winter Blues’, the darker months can often produce a malaise that directly results in poor quality sleep. With regular bouts of bad sleep your body and mind will soon begin to suffer, so it pays to be aware of how this time of year can slowly but surely take its toll.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues involved, and how to potentially deal with them.
Oversleeping and Lethargy
One of the tell-tale signs that you’re suffering from a seasonal slump is an unwillingness to actually get out of bed in the morning, which goes beyond a fleeting reluctance to start the day that most people experience. Spending longer in bed is better for sleep isn’t it? Well no, especially not if you’re just lying awake. With SAD sufferers there is often excessive fatigue which manifests in long lie-ins and a listlessness that continues into the day.
Spending this unproductive time in bed can quickly create a knock-on effect that impacts upon the following night’s sleep, causing a vicious circle that’s hard to break. In addition to this, spending time in bed when you’re not sleeping (or trying to sleep) can subtly create negative associations that can develop into sleep-depriving habits later on. Climbing into bed should always be a signal to settle down and sleep – associating being in bed with restless wakefulness isn’t good for relaxing the mind.
What to do: Eat right, drink right, expend energy during the day and stick to a regular routine.
Diet is a of course a key part of your health and wellbeing throughout the year, but it comes into particular focus when you’re feeling low as that’s when it’s most likely to veer off-course into unhealthy habits. Cravings for junk food and quick-hits like energy drinks are natural responses to extreme tiredness, almost like the body is setting off an emergency alarm for assistance. But this type of consumption will simply deliver a spike of energy, followed shortly by a dramatic slump that demands the process be repeated. Avoiding this situation, which is not only linked to chronic sleep deprivation but also obesity and other serious health issues, is relatively straight-forward with a nutritious diet and meals at the right times of day.
Regular exercise, even in its mildest forms, is a great way to expend energy and ensure that you’ll be suitably tired at the end of the day, rather than storing pent-up energy that will make it difficult to sleep. Whether this entails working out, sports, a fitness class or even just a gentle stroll, moderately-intensive exercise will help your body stick to a clear routine that will assist with good sleep.
Maintaining a regular bedtime and morning routine will help to almost ‘train’ your body into responding at the right times. So that means resisting the twin temptations of later nights and longer lie-ins – a course of action that will boost the quality of your sleep and make you feel much better during the day.
One of the main reasons why this period can trigger a slump is reduced daylight exposure, and the fact that the winter months naturally have shorter, darker days compared to the rest of the year. This follows on from the body’s natural circadian rhythm, or body clock, which is strongly regulated by how much light you’re exposed to throughout a 24-hour period. The temptation to stay indoors when the weather is glum can be irresistible, but in doing so you’ll be worsening your feeling of lethargy and exacerbating the problem.
In short, your body needs light.
The result of light exposure is the production of the hormone serotonin, which in effect tells the body that it’s time to be up and active. Without sufficient light exposure at the right time, you’re contributing to keeping your body in a low energy state. Spending a day like this means that when it comes to bedtime your body (and mind) won’t be prepared to wind down for sleep, and you’ll risk that cruel sensation of feeling exhausted but not being able to actually get to sleep.
What to do: Get outside, or try some light therapy in extreme cases.
Unsurprisingly, the best way to get sufficient light exposure is to spend time outside, however unpleasant the weather might be. Even the weakest levels of natural daylight can have a positive effect in energising the body. In the most extreme cases, whether due to the severity of your symptoms, your geographical location or perhaps an inability to get outside, light therapy can be an effective alternative, with the use of specialist lamps designed to mimic natural daylight.