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

By Amanda MacMillan
January 14, 2019

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 together so well, 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 these colder, shorter months mean more tossing and turning at night—we’re here for you. Here are all the ways this season can affect sleep, for better or worse, and how to get a good night’s rest all season long.

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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, associate professor of sleep medicine at Loyola University Medical Center, tells Health—especially in northern latitudes where the difference between seasons is most extreme. That’s because 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,” Dr. Undevia says. But during the winter, morning light may not be as bright, she says—so daytime melatonin production may be suppressed less than in the summer.

On top of that, the sun sets earlier, which means melatonin levels start rising earlier in the afternoon or evening. “Because of these factors, we don’t get the nice big highs and lows of melatonin secretion,” Dr. Undevia says. “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 these seasonal changes, Dr. Undevia recommends getting outdoors in the morning, soon after the sun comes up; if that’s not possible, try to at least sit by a window during the first few hours of daylight. You can also help keep melatonin secretion on schedule by avoiding bright light at night.

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Take a walk outside at lunch

Of course, in the middle of the winter, it’s not unusual to leave for work or school when it’s still dark outside. Some people won’t see light all day, because they leave their offices after sunset as well.

If that’s the case, do your best to get outdoors for a few minutes while the sun is out—by going for a walk at lunchtime, for example. “Anything we can do to get exposure to light during the daytime is going to help us sleep better at night,” Dr. Undevia says.

Resist the urge to sleep in or nap

“We might have a tendency to feel tired or stay in bed longer during the winter,” says 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.”

And 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 all that work on your laptop for your home office.)

"The only two things allowed in bed are sleep and sex," Neomi Shah, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, previously told Health. "You don’t want to associate your bedroom with anything wakefulness-promoting."

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Don't skimp on exercise

“We know that exercise improves sleep quality,” Dr. Undevia says, “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 more difficult to squeeze in a workout—and harder to feel motivated too. But making a commitment to get moving for at least 30 minutes most days can help you expend extra energy during the day and drift off to sleep more easily at night.

Watch out for overeating

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

Sure, a large meal might feel like just the thing to put you to sleep—but overeating (and the weight gain associated with it) isn’t great for sleep quality in the long run, Dr. Undevia explains. Eating too close to bedtime can also lead to heartburn, stomach discomfort, and other issues that can disturb sleep.

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Don't overheat your house

Colder temperatures are conducive for 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,” Dr. Undevia says.

“The worst is when your bedroom is on the second floor, and because heat rises it tends to be the warmest part of the house,” she adds. If you’re feeling restless or warm at night, try turning down your heat or shedding a layer of clothing or bedding to see if that helps.

Consider a humidifier

Winter air can also equal dry air, which can trigger dry, itchy skin and irritate your nose and throat. Both can make it difficult to drift off to dreamland, Dr. Undevia says, but running a humidifier in your bedroom can help.

If you do run a humidifier, be sure to clean it regularly to prevent mold and mildew from building up in the reservoir. You might also consider a combination humidifier and aromatherapy diffuser, which will disperse essential oils (like lavender) throughout your bedroom.

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Practice cold and flu prevention

Nothing hampers a good night’s sleep like a stuffy nose or cough—and during the winter months, these can be hard to avoid. You can do your best to stay healthy, however, by practicing common sense cold and flu prevention.

Get your flu shot, wash your hands regularly, don’t share cups or utensils, and avoid others who are sick—and if you do get sick, try to avoid spreading it to friends and family members.

Pay attention to the over-the-counter medicines you’re taking, as well: Some decongestants and cough syrups contain stimulant ingredients that can keep you awake, so make sure you’re choosing a nighttime formula (and always take as directed) before attempting to catch some zzz’s.

Limit alcohol before bed

This one is true any time of year, but long winter nights—especially around the holidays—often provide opportunities for overindulging. And even small amounts of alcohol can disrupt sleep, especially before bedtime.

“Alcohol acts as a sedative, but as it leaves the body has the opposite effect and acts as a stimulant,” Sunita Kumar, MD, medical director of the Loyola Medicine sleep program, 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.”

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Keep stress levels low

The hubbub of the holidays—and then the pressures of getting back to work and keeping up with new year’s resolutions—can make winter a particularly stressful time. Winter can also increase feelings of depression for people with seasonal affective disorder as well.

“Unfortunately, you can bring these stresses to bed and they can interfere with your ability to have a good night’s sleep,” Dr. Undevia says. “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.”

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