You know the feeling:you wake up to your alarm in the morning and it’s still pitch black. Getting up and starting your day while it’s still nighttime feels totally unnatural! Plus, it’s cold and getting out of bed means leaving your warm blanket-cocoon.
It’s not just getting out of bed that’s harder in the winter. Many people are sleepier throughout the day and feel like they need more sleep in general when days are shorter.
Why? And do we really need more sleep in the winter?
If you often hit the snooze button an extra time in the winter, you’re not alone! Here are some possible reasons for your seasonal sleepiness.
Just because the Earth’s schedule changes doesn’t mean our work and school schedules do, too. During winter months, many people leave for work while it’s still dark and come home after the sun sets.
But why would less sunlight make us sleepier?
For most of us, the amount of sleep we need doesn’t really change throughout the year, but the amount of sleep we want is regulated in large part by daylight.
Our sleep cycles have a lot to do with how much sunlight we get during the day, and it’s all because of melatonin, a natural hormone the brain produces to make us feel sleepy.
The amount of light you’re exposed to tells your brain how much melatonin to produce. When it’s daytime, your brain produces almost none. Then, as darkness falls, your brain is signaled to produce more melatonin, which makes you want to sleep more.
So what happens when it’s dark most of the time and you’re not getting enough natural light?
Your brain doesn’t know how much melatonin to produce and often winds up producing it when it’s dark outside, even if that’s not when you should be sleeping. The result is daytime drowsiness.
The fix: Try not to snooze too long.
Of course, getting outside when it’s light is will help you feel more awake, but that’s not an option for everyone. One thing you can do is force yourself not to snooze in bed longer than you do in the summer. Getting up right away will help your body establish a good sleep-wake schedule, which will help you feel more awake despite the lack of daylight.
It might be tough at first, but if you stick with it, the experts say you’ll eventually start to feel more alert and getting up will actually be easier!
Getting enough vitamin D will also help your body make the best of the little sunlight it does get in the winter.
This one’s a no-brainer.
You don’t need a sleep expert to explain why a cozy warm bed is more appealing than shivering your way to the bathroom to get ready in the morning.
Not wanting to get out of bed makes most people feel like they want to keep sleeping.
This is a tricky one. It might be tempting to crank up the heat in the morning or leave the temperature high all night, but it’s actually better to let the house cool down a little. Let me explain.
You don’t want to be shivering all the time, but heating the house excessively so it’s easier to get out of bed can actually hurt your sleep schedule in the long run: most people actually sleep better in a cooler room. If you’re already toasty warm before you even get under the covers, you’re more likely to get overheated while you’re asleep.
The fix: Find the right thermostat balance.
If you can, leave the heater off at night, and keep a robe and warm slippers by your bed so you can put them on as soon as you get up.
If it’s too cold where you live to turn the heat off completely, see if your heating system has a timer so you can program it to raise the temperature right before you get up. It will stay nice and cool while you sleep, but you won’t feel like you walked into a freezer when you get out of bed.
Not surprisingly, your food can affect how tired you are.
What you eat influences your metabolism, which in turn influences your blood sugar and the hormones your body produces. Eating lots of fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods can disrupt your hormone levels and, by extension, how tired you feel.
That’s why we often crave a nap after a big, carb-heavy meal. (Thanksgiving, anyone?)
This Healthline article has a more detailed explanation of how that’s really happening inside your body.
The fix: Eat a balanced diet.
Eating well doesn’t have to be as complicated as a lot of people make it. Try to eat a variety of foods to get enough nutrients, eat plenty of produce and whole-grains, and limit added sugar and alcohol. Check out these 14 tips from UC Berkeley on healthy eating. You’ll find specific advice for women, men, vegetarians, and vegans from the BBC.
Also, if dinner is your biggest meal of the day, try to finish it up at least three hours before bed. This might sound counterintuitive, but eating too much right before bedtime has been known to keep people awake.
There are dozens of reasons not to exercise in the winter. If you normally exercise outside, the weather can be reason enough. Add the fact that you’re feeling sluggish from lack of daylight and heavy holiday food, and regular exercise becomes a major chore many people would rather skip.
The fix: Find clever ways to be more active.
If the weather is bearable, exercise outside during the day to kill two birds with one stone: get exercise and sunlight to help regulate your melatonin production.
If the weather is just too miserable to exercise outside, there are other methods. Hit the gym, join a yoga or spin class with a friend or family member, or just set aside 10-15 minutes every day to work out at home.
Unless you’re a serious athlete, there are plenty of exercises you can do without any equipment.
You can even trick yourself into being more active:
If none of these quick fixes help wake you up, there’s a chance you have more going on than just seasonal tiredness.
For most people, winter sleepiness is nothing to worry about, but in some cases, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is also called winter depression, because it’s generally worse in the winter. According to the NHS, symptoms can include:
Doctors aren’t entirely sure why this happens to some people and not others, but they think it has to do with the lack of sunlight. Some people may also be more susceptible due to their genetic makeup.
If you’re suffering from SAD, some of the tips in this article might help you, but you should see your doctor first and talk about it with family and friends rather than trying to go it alone.
Remember, SAD is the result of a chemical imbalance in your brain, and not mental weakness. It’s not your fault you have it, and there are plenty of good treatment options to try.
Do we need more sleep in the winter? The answer is: most people don’t. We just feel like we need more sleep as a result of less daylight, cold weather, and other lifestyle habits that change with the seasons.
That’s why so many of us are tempted to hit snooze a little more often when November hits.
What do you do to keep yourself alert during the winter? Share your suggestions in the comments!