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Why does my sleep get worse in the winter?

Woman getting morning sunlight

It’s not your imagination — shorter, cloudier days can really mess with your slumber.

Jennifer Thomas

By Jennifer Thomas

It’s officially the coziest time of the year. Sweaters, comfy slippers and hot chocolate on tap. Let’s just say that hibernation mode is in full swing. Then why do so many people struggle to get a good night’s sleep in the winter?

It’s not just because they dread rolling out of their warm, comfy beds in the morning. As it turns out, gray skies and shorter days work against the physical and mental states you need to get your best sleep.

If you find yourself tossing and turning more as winter sets in, we have your back. Here are some of the top reasons your sleep can take a dive this season and how to catch some better z’s.

(Don’t let the cost of your prescription medications keep you up at night. Download our app to see how much we could save you — for free.)

Sleep stealer #1: There’s less sunlight

Your body’s sleep/wake cycle is influenced by sunlight. When it starts getting dark outside, your brain pumps out melatonin, a hormone that helps your body prepare for sleep. Then as the sun starts to rise, your brain suppresses melatonin so that you can feel more alert and ready to take on your day.

But shorter, darker days can interfere with this cycle, says Alex Dimitriu, MD. He’s a psychiatrist and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, California. Less morning light means less melatonin suppression. And that can leave us feeling groggy and sluggish during the day. What’s more, earlier sunsets mean the melatonin surge at bedtime is less dramatic. This can make it harder to get quality, uninterrupted sleep.

And if you spend a lot less time outdoors in the winter, that can make matters worse, says Dr. Dimitriu.

Related reading: How much sunlight do I really need?

What to do: Expose yourself to as much morning sunlight as possible, suggests Dr. Dimitriu. As soon as you wake up, throw open the curtains or blinds. Even better: Bundle up and head outdoors for a quick walk or to sip your tea or coffee outside.

If you can’t get outside, sit in front of a window for a while. For the most impact, get your dose of morning sun within the first hour of waking, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sleep stealer #2: It can be harder to stay active

Chilly weather, brisk winds, slippery sidewalks. Yep, keeping up with your daily walk or run can be tough (or hazardous) in the winter. Even finding the motivation to drive to the gym when it’s dark and gray outside isn’t easy.

The thing is, exercise and good sleep go hand in hand. “Outdoor time and exercise are essential for getting good sleep,” Dr. Dimitriu says. “You need to be vertical during the day so you can be better at being horizontal at night.”

Experts can’t say exactly why physical activity helps people fall asleep faster and boosts sleep quality. But according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, exercise can help stabilize our mood and mute anxious thoughts — 2 things that help us better power down at bedtime.

What to do: The type of exercise that you enjoy doing during the summer may not work for you in the winter. And that’s okay. Your job is to find activities you like and can stick with.

Some outdoor ideas include brisk walking or hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. If you’re stuck indoors, you can still make your time count, says the American Heart Association (AHA). Here are some suggestions:

  • Dance to your favorite music.
  • Follow along with online workout videos (many are free or low-cost).
  • Climb your stairs.
  • Create your own workout circuit by alternating a cardio move (say, marching in place or jumping jacks) with a strength move such as countertop pushups or crunches.
  • Try indoor sports, such as bowling or ice skating.
  • Join an in-person workout class at your local gym or community center.
  • Count active chores, such as vacuuming and sweeping, as activity.

Sleep stealer #3: You get too hot (or cold) during the night

Trying to find the right sleeping temperature during the winter can feel like a Goldilocks dilemma. Being uncomfortably cold can disrupt sleep. But bundling up with wool socks, flannel pajamas, a heavy comforter and a cranked heater can set you up for restless nights, too.

When the temperature is just right, it can help our bodies stay in restorative sleep, rather than working to regulate our core temperature, suggests the Cleveland Clinic.

What to do: Overall we sleep better in cooler temperatures, Dr. Dimitriu says. “Keeping your bedroom and bedsheets cool helps promote deeper and more restful sleep,” he says.

Program your thermostat to keep your bedroom at the ideal sleeping temperature: between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid drinking caffeine or eating sugary foods before bed. (These can raise body temperature, according to the Cleveland Clinic.) And make sure your pajamas and blankets are breathable and appropriate. For example, subzero-rated long johns may not be needed in your heated house.

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Sleep stealer #4: You cozy up with comfort foods

When the temperature dips, you might find yourself craving more comfort foods. (We said it was the season of hibernating, didn’t we?) There’s nothing wrong with satisfying your winter cravings for chili and cornbread now and again, but doing so in moderation may be best for sleep.

Overeating or indulging on heavy meals high in fats and protein can disrupt sleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. (Think of dishes loaded with cheese or butter, or a steak dinner.) Both take a long time to break down. Plus, digestion slows when we sleep, prolonging the process even more.

If spicy or heavy foods give you heartburn, that can put the brakes on the best sleep, too. That’s especially true if you eat close to bedtime. Lying down can make acid reflux worse. (Find the stomach-soothing products you need most, at the best price, at the Optum Store.)

What to do: Try to keep your diet healthy and light if you’re having a hard time sleeping at night. And if you have acid reflux or heartburn, try to eat dinner at least 3 hours before you go to bed, advises the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

(For more healthy eating tips, check our DASH diet guide.)

Certain foods can also help promote sleep, says the Cleveland Clinic. They encourage your brain to release serotonin, a hormone that can improve your mood and make you feel more alert and focused during the day. It also regulates sleep. All of which helps keep your sleep/wake cycle in check.

Along with ample fruits and vegetables, aim to fill your plate with these healthy, sleep-promoting foods:

  • Whole grains. This includes whole-wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice and popcorn.
  • Lean proteins. Choose low-fat dairy, fish, skinless chicken and eggs. Beans and lentils are packed with protein (and a whole host of healthy nutrients), too.
  • Heart-healthy fats. Unsaturated fats are healthy for our heart and can also boost serotonin levels, says the Cleveland Clinic. Opt for nuts, seeds and vegetable oils over packaged snacks such as chips and fried foods.

Most important, if you’re regularly having a tough time getting good sleep, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

“The time to speak to a specialist is when you have tried doing the right thing for a good while  — 3 to 4 weeks — and you still haven’t gotten anywhere,” Dr. Dimitriu says. Your doctor can help you assess if you have the winter blues or something more serious, such as a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder.

No matter what’s causing you to toss and turn this winter, know that you can take action to combat it. And if your solution involves prescription medication, we may be able to help. Simply show this free discount card to your pharmacist — you could save up to 80%.

Additional sources
The effects of sunlight on our circadian rhythms:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How exercise impacts sleep: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Tips for staying active in the winter: American Heart Association
The best temperature for sleep: Cleveland Clinic
Foods that can hinder quality sleep: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Overview on heartburn and GERD: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Foods that can help promote quality sleep: Cleveland Clinic