February 6, 2024

Less light, less sleep? How shorter days can contribute to insomnia

As the skies get darker earlier, and stay that way for longer, surely the one advantage that would come from this is improved sleep? In fact, the opposite is true.

It is well understood that seasonal changes can significantly impact our mental health. This can vary from the ‘Winter Blues’ that affect a considerable number of us, to the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that affects people during a particular time of the year.

What is less talked about, is the effect that the change in seasons can have on our sleep. Despite prolonged levels of darkness, winter can see increased levels of insomnia. SAD and insomnia are very closely linked due to the production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin.

During the day, your body receives vitamin D from the light, which contributes to the production of serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone that positively impacts your mood and studies have suggested that one cause of SAD is a deficiency of vitamin D - due to shorter days.

Melatonin is also produced as a result of light exposure. As natural light fades, the darkness triggers the release of melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Therefore shorter daylight hours increase the level of melatonin we produce, making us feel more tired for longer portions of the day.

However, the important point to be made here is that feeling more tired does not equate to better levels of sleep. The winter season can disrupt your biological clock, leading to undesirable sleeping patterns and poorer sleep in general.

If you’re finding that your sleep is suffering due to the winter period, try these steps to better regulate your sleep-wake cycle:

  • Get up at roughly the same time each day: If you are waking at a similar time each day your melatonin will be released at regular times as well. This is not just beneficial for better sleep but health in general.
  • When you wake up, draw the curtains/turn the lights on: It may well be that due to the time of year, when you wake up it is still dark. If that’s the case, turn the lights on and open the curtains to get as much natural light as you can. This, again, will help your melatonin to be more regulated. Don’t lie in bed awake in the dark.
  • Get outside: If you find yourself indoors a lot, get outside during the day as much as you can. The more you are exposed to natural light, the better it will be for your sleep.
  • Exercise: Exercise has a big impact on your sleep-wake rhythm, it is a really useful way to help regulate your biological clock. However, avoid exercising too close to your bedtime, as it activates your system and can make it more difficult to drift off.
  • Food: Foods rich in vitamin D will also help you get the nutrients that you’re not receiving from the sun and contribute to improved sleep.

If you are struggling with your sleep you may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional. However, difficulty sleeping during the winter is not uncommon and the above tips have been proven to be effective in many cases. Give them a try, and if they don’t work, we can help you find a therapist.

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