It’s cold outside, the leaves are falling, days are shorter and today it’s snowing! My body craves sleep more than ever.
While humans are not considered seasonal animals, some of us do experience stronger responses to seasonal changes. People with seasonal affective disorder (a form of depression that impacts people primarily in the northern latitudes) feel the change more than most. Recent research shows that they secrete more melatonin at night during the winter than they do in the summer. Melatonin is the hormone that makes us drowsy, and we produce it in response to darkness.
In a little over a week, we’ll be going off daylight savings time, which will require an adjustment of our internal clocks (also known as our circadian rhythms). This change is a stressor for us, throwing our bodies out of equilibrium, and some people can need as much as a week to make the shift. Moving time ahead in the spring is considered harder than falling back, but you could still experience an increase in daytime sleepiness until you get used to the fall time change.
Most of us already experience a low point in wakefulness in the early afternoon, so when the time changes, we could be even more prone to problems with concentration and productivity. It is a good idea to be more careful than usual to avoid accidents.
Seasonal adjustments are worse if you are one of the 63% of people who say they don’t get enough sleep. Sleep problems and sleep deprivation have been associated with memory problems, being overweight, and having reduced immunity to disease. A new study out of Norway even shows that people with the most symptoms of insomnia have the most heart attacks. Lack of sleep could cause these problems because the body stores memories and repairs itself during sleep. Melatonin (the hormone that promotes sleep) acts as an antioxidant, cleaning up damaging free radicals while we sleep. If we don’t sleep enough, we miss out on that protective benefit.
Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is also linked to living a longer, healthier life. So what can you do to sleep better and handle the time change more smoothly?
- Go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time every day.
- Get regular exercise each day (especially aerobic and stretching), but not too close to bedtime.
- Expose yourself to outdoor (or bright) light each day.
- Keep your bedroom a little on the cool side.
- Make your bedroom quiet and dark. Turn off or cover anything with a glow (cell phones, digital clocks, and other electronics); and use white noise or ear plugs to muffle noises.
- Use your bed only for sleep or sex.
- Allow about 2 hours for “winding down” before going to sleep. Dim the lights, listen to quiet music, minimize screen time.
- Caffeine in the evening; too much alcohol
- Watching TV in bed
- Eating too much or too little
- Unprescribed sleeping pills
- Forcing sleep
- Sleeping with children or pets
And if you’re especially sensitive to the change back to standard time, these tips from the National Sleep Foundation might help:
- On the night of the change, resist staying up much later than usual. Try to get your usual amount of sleep.
- Be sure to use curtains or blinds to keep your room dark in the morning; it will be brighter at an earlier time which could cause you to wake sooner than you intend to.
- Try making a gradual shift in your sleep/wake time over a few days.
For fun, you might want to check out this link for a list of 10 songs about sleep. Sweet dreams!