Are you feeling extra sleepy now that the days are short and the nights are long? Does a dark, cold afternoon make you want to curl up and snooze? Well, it’s not entirely due to the change in the seasons, according to Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, an associate physician of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He says it’s more likely due to year-round sleep deprivation.
“Humans don’t hibernate — if people feel like sleeping longer in the winter, it’s likely due to sleep problems in general,” says Epstein. “Americans are just not getting enough sleep. Over the past 50 to 75 years, our sleep has been decreasing. This is not good. It causes changes in the body’s physiology. It’s not healthy.”
Inadequate sleep is associated with weight gain, changes in glucose metabolism leading to diabetes, hypertension and an increased risk of heart disease. “People who have poor sleep don’t live as long,” says Epstein. “You don’t feel good. Cognitive function is impaired, reaction time is slower, attention decreases and judgment is impaired.”
If you’re feeling particularly grumpy or depressed — in addition to sleepy — this time of year, Epstein says those symptoms are more in line with seasonal affective disorder (also known by its appropriate acronym, SAD), but notes that “exposure to light usually fixes the problem.”
Indeed, light exposure sets circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock), determining when we sleep. That’s why some people might sleep longer in winter, when there’s less daylight, and that inclination for extra Zzzs can be a good opportunity to establish more restful long-term sleep habits.
“You can absolutely reset your sleeping pattern,” says Epstein. “It can be very individual; not everyone sleeps at the same times and for the same amount of time.” He recommends testing out going to bed when you’re sleepy and waking up when you want (if you’re lucky!) to figure out what sleep schedule works best for you. “Initially, you’re making up for lost sleep, [but] in two weeks, you’re waking up feeling refreshed and you’ve found your natural sleep period.”
Tips to better sleep
“The body craves routine,” says Epstein. To that end, here are some tips to help establish and maintain your personal sleep pattern:
• Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every night
• Set aside enough time for sleep
• Minimize light at night
• Establish a relaxing pre-sleep routine
• Avoid alcohol and caffeine