5 things you can do now to improve your sleep this autumn and winter

Written by Alice Porter

Sleep is particularly important during autumn and winter due to the effects of seasonal colds and illnesses. Here’s how to start preparing for changes in weather and daylight so you sleep well until spring.

For many people, autumn and winter are a time of rest. Weekend lie-ins seem all the more appealing when you can hear the rain landing on your roof and many outdoor activities, such as swimming and hiking, are swapped out for things that can be done from the comfort of your own home (or, ideally, your bed).

It makes sense, then, that the way we sleep and the amount of sleep we get changes in the colder months. Research has found that we are more likely to go to bed earlier during autumn and winter than we do in the summer, and participants in the study published in npj Digital Medicine also slept for 25 minutes longer each night in the winter compared to spring.

It’s thought that this could be down to melatonin production, a hormone produced naturally by our bodies that promotes sleep. According to researchers who worked on the paper: “The production of melatonin is tied to light exposure and increased day length,” with increased light inhibiting melatonin production. This means that those dark winter days could be making us feel more sleepy.

Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder and clinical lead at Sleep School, explains that the change in season could have a big impact on your sleep routine: “Scientific research suggests that seasonal variation has the greatest effect on the timing of our sleep, compared to other factors such as sleep duration or quality.”

This means that you might want to go to bed and wake up later in the winter months, which Dr Meadows says is most likely down to how early the sun rises in the summer compared to the winter, affecting melatonin production. Seasonal changes can also affect the body’s natural temperature, which is important for sleep because a drop in body temperature is a natural signal for the body that it’s time to sleep.

On top of this, the clocks going back in October, signalling the official end of British Summer Time, can impact our sleep schedule too. “Unfortunately, the human body clock, which is responsible for regulating the timing of our sleep, is dependent on the regularity of external timekeepers such as our sleep schedule and when we choose to eat, work, move and expose ourselves to light,” Dr Meadows explains. “When the clock changes, so does the timing of these behaviours, an effect that worsens sleep.”

However, sleep might be more important than any other time of year during the autumn and winter months, as seasonal colds and flus become more common. Research suggests that even a small loss of sleep has been shown to impair your immune function. In one study, involving 160 healthy men and women, those who slept less than seven hours were almost 4.5 times more likely to develop a common cold.

So how can you start preparing for the change in your sleep routine as we approach autumn and winter? We asked Dr Meadows to share his tips…

Experiment with light exposure 

“If you struggle to wake up and get going during winter, getting natural or artificial blue light onto your eyes can help us wake up as it stops the production of melatonin (the sleeping hormone) and activates the release of cortisol (the waking hormone), making us feel energised for the day ahead,” Dr Meadows explains.

This means it might be time to swap your traditional alarm clock for a sunrise lamp, which will gently fill the room with light and help you to wake up naturally. If it takes you a long time to feel wide awake and alert in the morning, Dr Meadows also suggests trying 10 minutes of bright light therapy, using a light box.

“During the winter months aim to get as much light exposure as possible by getting outside for walks, ideally in the morning when the light is brightest and avoid wearing sunglasses,” he adds. “If you work indoors, aim to sit near a window or make a point of standing by one on your break.”

To help you prepare for those cold winter-morning walks, make them a part of your routine now while the weather is still pleasant. You could also take some time at the weekend to rearrange your desk setup to maximise light exposure.

Manage temperature  

It can be tempting to make your room as warm and cosy as possible at night during winter, but Dr Meadows explains that sleeping with the heating on in a very warm room could negatively impact your sleep.

“We sleep better in a cooler environment, with the ideal bedroom temperature reported to be a cool 16-17ºC,” he says. “For best sleep, switch off the central heating and swap your lightweight summer duvet for a higher-tog winter one. Alternatively use a combination of sheets, quilts and blankets, as this allows you to more easily regulate your temperature at night for better sleep.”

When you’re swapping out your summer wardrobe for your winter coats, try and swap out your sleep setup for winter too; maybe invest in a specialist winter duvet.

Adapt to the new time 

Just like jet lag, some people are more sensitive to the clocks changing than others. It’s therefore important to gently ease your body into this time change if you usually struggle with it or have found jet lag difficult to deal with in the past. “Go to bed and get up 10 minutes later each day, six days before the clocks change,” Dr Meadows recommends: “This helps to gradually shift the timing of your body clock to the new time, which means when the clocks go back it will be the same time as you are now.”

Mark the time in your diary one or two weeks before the clocks change now, so the change in time doesn’t creep up on you and you make sure you can start to slowly transition into the new time zone.

Go to bed and get up at the same time 

In the summer, your sleep routine might be all over the place, with nights out and festivals meaning the time you go to bed each night differs significantly. However, trying to find a regular sleep and wake-up time as soon as possible before the colder months settle in could be a very good idea.

“Keeping a regular sleep-wake cycle throughout the entire year strengthens your sleep cycle, which will help you wake up refreshed, reducing the impact of the seasons,” explains Dr Meadows.

Be active outside 

Skipping your lunchtime walk or swapping a run for an at-home workout feels particularly tempting when the temperature drops. And although it’s important to listen to your body and get enough rest, getting outside to exercise is one of the best ways to improve your sleep in winter.

“Being active outside in the daytime for as little as 10 minutes can improve your nighttime sleep quality by boosting natural light exposure and tiredness levels,” Dr Meadows explains, recommending that, for optimum benefit, you should aim to get outside in the morning, when the sun is brightest.

If it isn’t already part of your routine, try to make outdoor exercise a habit so it’s something you’ll stick to in a few months’ time. Maybe there’s an outdoor gym class at your local park or you could even try cold-water swimming, something many (admittedly brave) people do all year round.

Images: Getty

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