When it comes to understanding winter, I sometimes wonder if the bears know something we don’t about better sleep. They just give up on all worldly ambitions and hibernate for what many consider the worst of the four seasons. Meanwhile, we’re trekking through low temps and fighting the winter blues, wondering when the sun’s warmth will return and drinking vitamin C like it’s our life force.
This year, winter had a fairly gentle beginning, but it isn’t nearly done with us yet. It should come as no surprise that this winter, like all winters, will make us more lethargic and tired than usual. But why? It turns out that the cause of perpetual winter tiredness doesn’t have just one culprit, such as a lack of sunlight. To fight that urge to settle in for a long winter sleep, here’s what you should know about maximizing your rest until spring comes.
01. Your Indoor Temperatures Are Wacky
OK, so it’s definitely cold outside your home, but what’s likely contributing to your lethargy is the temperature inside your home. According to Michael Decker, Ph.D., an associate professor at Georgia State University and spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, though cranking up your heat sounds like a fantastical dream of cozy fireside joy, setting the temp too high can actually make achieving better sleep more difficult. Warmer temperatures can cause you to toss and turn during the night, and as a consequence, your rest is less satisfying.
Not so fast, though! Before you reach for the thermostat, be sure not to dial it down too much, as being too cold can also cause restless nights, according to Decker. While there’s no exact magic number—75 degrees Fahrenheit is definitely too warm, whereas 54 degrees Fahrenheit is too cold, according to Dr. Rachel Salas, M.D., Johns Hopkins Medicine neurology sleep specialist at Howard County General Hospital—it’s important that all the major decision makers in the household come to a compromise. Sleep experts recommend somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit for a deeper winter sleep.
02. The Air Is Too Dry
ZAP! You know those little electric static shocks you get shuffling blankets, playing with the dog, or kissing loved ones this season? Unfortunately, that's a sign of terrible dry winter air. Harsh air doesn’t just leave our lips, skin, and scalp a little lackluster; it can also really mess with your sinuses. What's more, it provides a nurturing environment for viruses and bacteria to thrive. Gross.
WebMD notes cold and dry air can cause nasal passages and your throat to dry out, which can make you more vulnerable to prevalent winter sickies: colds, the flu, and even sinus infections. Dry air allows bacteria and viruses to linger longer, which increases your chances of picking up a cold. Dr. Palese, professor and chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says flu viruses are more stable in cold air; the low humidity allows for them to remain suspended. In more humid air, moisture droplets "pick up" microbes in the air and fall to the ground before they reach an unsuspecting human.
You know that magical thermostat we talked about? Turns out that when it’s on, it can also circulate bacteria and allergens such as dust and pollen, adding insult to injury—especially for those who have trouble breathing. And if you're tempted to warm up with a long, hot shower, think again. If done too often or prolonged, steamy water can actually worsen itchy skin as it strips it of its natural, protective oils.
So what’s the remedy? Try using a humidifier. I saw a world of difference in my sleep quality and health once I installed one. While it was no cure-all, my skin felt less than half as dry as it did before, and I woke up significantly less miserable—and as a result, a little less sluggish. It’s also important to stay hydrated both inside and out. So keep on drinking that elixir of life—water—and make sure you moisturize before bed and after your shower.
03. Cooped Up with Little Exercise
Yes, exercise. Improved sleep is yet another benefit of it. If you’re exhausted this season, you might be wondering how exactly you’ll squeeze something like, say, moving your body into your already packed schedule. But consider that lack of exercise could actually be making you more tired. Talk about an unfair, vicious cycle.
Don't let winter be your excuse for a sedentary lifestyle. You can actually brave the real outdoors. Besides the many benefits of exercise, getting in the habit of going outside has psychological benefits. A recent Stanford study shows that “nature improves your mood and reduces stress and rumination...known to contribute to mental illness.”
If that’s not a viable option—or at least not enough to incorporate into a routine (I’m looking at you, big city dwellers)—there’s always the gym. While it’s not my personal favorite, for some, it’s the best place to get in the mood to move. As Emily Mitchell shares, “Exercise actually increases your motivation to work out,” just like sitting on the couch and eating Cheetos actually increases your desire to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos.
If you’re not a gym person consider these exercises, specially crafted for staying fit while staying home during the winter months. Or, if you’re like me and need someone to tell you the next body part you need to move, check out these free online exercise videos that almost make me obsessed with working out (almost).
There are all kinds of reasons the winter could be making you wish you were a hibernating bear. Your location, your genetics, your overall health—both mental and physical. Even your last meal is a contributing factor that greatly influences your sleep pattern. But implementing these small changes could be a game-changer for sweet winter sleep; enough to maybe stay awake during some portion of it.
Photo Credit: Belathee Photography