How To Improve Your Winter Sleep

Cold temperatures and long nights can have serious effects on your sleep schedule, for better or worse.

Getting a good night's sleep in the middle of winter may seem like it should be no problem. After all, it's the season of long nights, cozy blankets, hibernation, and snuggling up by the fire. But for all the same reasons winter and sleep go well together, the opposite can also be true.

For some people, winter can wreak havoc on sleep quality and quantity. If you're one of those people—who finds that those colder, shorter months mean more tossing and turning at night—here are 10 tips that may help your winter sleep.

Get Light in the Morning

Fewer hours of daylight in the winter can have a big impact on a person's sleep-wake cycle, Nidhi Undevia, MD, an associate professor of sleep medicine at Loyola University Medical Center, told Health. That impact is especially true in northern latitudes, where the difference between seasons is most extreme. Daylight hours are the shortest in those regions. 

Daylight hours matter since sunlight triggers the suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps the body prepare for sleep.

"We sleep better during the time that melatonin is secreted. And generally, it gets secreted about an hour and a half to two hours before we go to sleep," explained Dr. Undevia. However, during winter, morning light may not be as bright. In other words, that lack of sunlight may suppress daytime melatonin production more than in the summer.

On top of that, the sun sets earlier than in the summer. Therefore, melatonin levels start rising prematurely in the afternoon or evening. 

"Because of these factors, we don't get the nice big highs and lows of melatonin secretion," said Dr. Undevia. "That means we may feel more sluggish and more fatigued during the day, and we also don't get that extra push at night to help us really power down for bed."

To counteract those seasonal changes, getting bright light shortly after waking up may help you feel alert and help you fall asleep early in the evening.

If that's not possible, sit by a window during the first few hours of daylight, recommended Dr. Undevia. You can also help keep melatonin secretion on schedule by avoiding bright light at night.

Take a Walk Outside at Lunch

Of course, leaving for work or school when it's still dark outside in the middle of the winter is not unusual. Some people won't see light all day if they leave their offices after sunset.

If that's the case, do your best to get outdoors for a few minutes while the sun is out. For example, go for a walk at lunchtime or on a short break.

"Anything we can do to get exposure to light during the daytime is going to help us sleep better at night," said Dr. Undevia.

Resist the Urge To Sleep in or Nap

"We might have a tendency to feel tired or stay in bed longer during the winter," said Dr. Undevia. "But there is no biological need for more sleep during the winter months. And if we're sleeping later than usual or napping during the day, that could make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep at night."

As cozy and comfy as your bed might be, it's not a good idea to curl up there during the day if you're not planning on sleeping. Save the movie marathons for the couch and do your work on a laptop in a home office or at a table.

"The only two things allowed in bed are sleep and sex," Neomi Shah, MD, a professor in the department of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, previously told Health. "You don't want to associate your bedroom with anything wakefulness-promoting."

Don't Skimp on Exercise

"We know that exercise improves sleep quality," said Dr. Undevia. "And we also know that when it's warm and sunny outside, we're more inclined to go outside and exercise." Cold weather, late sunrises, and early sunsets can make it hard to feel motivated and squeeze in a workout. 

Still, committing to get moving for at least 30 minutes on most days will expend extra energy during the day. Then, you'll be able to drift off to sleep easily at night. In fact, research has found that exercise improves total sleep time, how long it takes to fall asleep, and sleep quality.

Along with making a commitment, try the following strategies to stay active during the winter:

  • Find a buddy or group to exercise with.
  • Join a gym that's close to work or home.
  • Sign up for online exercise or yoga classes to do from home.
  • Take a brisk walk during lunchtime or breaks.
  • Set out your exercise clothes the night before.
  • Swim or do water aerobics at an indoor, heated pool.

Watch Out for Overeating

"For the same reasons we exercise less, we also may be inclined to eat more in the winter months," explained Dr. Undevia. "We've got holidays and colder weather, and we may be craving more comfort food or eating larger meals, more sugar, and more carbs."

A large meal might feel like just the thing to put you to sleep. However, in the long run, overeating and weight gain aren't great for sleep quality, explained Dr. Undevia. Also, eating too close to bedtime can trigger gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms, like heartburn and stomach discomfort, which disturb sleep.

To limit overeating, try the following tips:

  • Make vegetable- and bean-based soups, stews, and chilis for warm, healthy comfort food.
  • Roast vegetables when cold salads don't sound appealing.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Eliminate distracted eating. Move away from your workstation, television, or mobile screen and focus on enjoying the snack or meal.
  • Reduce temptations by getting rid of sweets and highly processed foods in your kitchen.
  • Find other sources of comfort, like taking a warm bath, enjoying a hot cup of tea, or chatting with a friend.

Don't Overheat Your House

Cold temperatures help with sleeping since the body's internal temperature drops as it prepares for slumber.

"But often, when it's cold outside, we tend to want the opposite in our homes. And we crank up the heat and pile on heavy layers," pointed out Dr. Undevia. "The worst is when your bedroom is on the second floor. Because heat rises, it tends to be the warmest part of the house."

If you're feeling restless or warm at night, turn down your heat or shed a layer of clothing or bedding.

Consider a Humidifier

Winter air can also equal dry air, triggering dry, itchy skin and irritating your nose and throat. Both can make it difficult to drift off to sleep, said Dr. Undevia. However, running a humidifier in your bedroom can help.

If you run a humidifier, clean it regularly to prevent mold and mildew from building up in the reservoir. You might also consider a combination humidifier and aromatherapy diffuser. The diffuser disperses essential oils, like lavender, throughout your bedroom, creating a calming sleep environment.

Practice Cold and Flu Prevention

Nothing hampers a good night's sleep like a stuffy nose or cough. During the winter months, those can be hard to avoid. However, you can do your best to stay healthy by practicing cold and flu prevention, which includes:

  • Getting the flu vaccine
  • Washing your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Not sharing cups or utensils
  • Avoiding others who are sick

If you get sick, stay away from others as much as possible to avoid spreading the infection to others.

Also, pay attention to the over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you take. Some decongestants and cough syrups have stimulants that keep you awake. So, make sure you're choosing a nighttime formula (and always take it as the label directs) before going to sleep.

Limit Alcohol Before Bed

Long winter nights, particularly around the holidays, often provide opportunities for overindulging. Even small amounts of alcohol can disrupt sleep, especially before bedtime.

"Alcohol acts as a sedative. But as it leaves [the body], it has the opposite effect and acts as a stimulant," Sunita Kumar, MD, a professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyal University Chicago, previously told Health. "It's common to fall asleep with alcohol in your system but then wake up four or five hours later and not be able to get back to sleep."

Keep Stress Levels Low

The hubbub of the holidays—and the pressures of getting back to work and keeping up with New Year's resolutions—can make winter a stressful time. The winter months can also trigger depression in people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

"Unfortunately, you can bring these stresses to bed. And they can interfere with your ability to have a good night's sleep," said Dr. Undevia. "So, anything you can do to lower stress levels—whether it's self-care or seeking professional help—is going to be good for your sleep routine and your health overall."

If you don't already do so, consider meditation. Research has shown that the calming effects of medication can reduce stress and improve sleep quality.

A Quick Review

Several factors could contribute if you find it difficult to get quality sleep during the winter. Try these strategies to improve winter sleep. And if poor sleep interferes with your daytime activities or ability to function, talk with a healthcare provider for more guidance.

Was this page helpful?
8 Sources uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Blume C, Garbazza C, Spitschan M. Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and moodSomnologie (Berl). 2019;23(3):147-156. doi:10.1007/s11818-019-00215-x

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Effects of light on circadian rhythms.

  3. Kredlow MA, Capozzoli MC, Hearon BA, Calkins AW, Otto MW. The effects of physical activity on sleep: a meta-analytic reviewJ Behav Med. 2015;38(3):427-449. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6

  4. National Library of Medicine. GERD.

  5. Harding EC, Franks NP, Wisden W. The Temperature Dependence of SleepFront Neurosci. 2019;13:336. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00336

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others.

  7. Rusch HL, Rosario M, Levison LM, et al. The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trialsAnn N Y Acad Sci. 2019;1445(1):5-16. doi:10.1111/nyas.13996

  8. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysisJAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

Related Articles