Try This 4-Step Guide to Improve Your Restless Winter Sleep

updated Feb 3, 2020
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Winter is the season of cuddles and curling up inside on the couch, hiding from the cold with date nights full of baking and binge-watching. You’d think with all that nesting you’d be sleeping like a baby during the winter season. But in actuality, cold weather comes with its own sleep challenges for lots of people — including a disrupted sleep schedule, feelings of lethargy, and plenty of tossing and turning.

1. Take Control of the Light

Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, sleep specialist, and author of The Sleep Solution, says one of the best things you can do to ensure quality winter sleep is to manipulate the light in your home. Light plays a big role in timing our daily lives — meals, exercise, work, and sleep — as well as our circadian rhythms. The problem is, during the winter there’s less light overall, and the little light that is present is of a poorer quality, he explains. This can lead to increased tiredness, since less light equals more melatonin (the hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle).

People often feel sleepy earlier during those cold winter nights — but hitting the hay too early can mess with your overall sleep schedule and leave you wide awake at 4 AM. Dr. Winter says, “Instead of going to bed earlier, use artificial lighting to prolong the day a bit.” He recommends Soraa bulbs, which mimic the full light spectrum of the sun and expose your brain to rays that’s more like full daytime light (rather than the artificial ones you’re getting from your lamps and devices).

If you have to rise before the sun to get to work on time, an alarm clock that uses light rather than sound can help you wake gradually. It’s also better for your brain, as the light helps your full body realize that it’s daytime (rather than jolting you awake with a repetitive phone sound, ahem).

Light therapy boxes or lamps are also useful for those in very dark areas of the country (we see you, Seattle!) and for people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

2. Pay Special Attention to Temperature

When it’s cold outside, people tend to reach for heavy pajamas and even heavier blankets. But Dr. Winter says those well-loved flannel PJs and cozy down comforter may actually be hurting your sleep patterns.

Most people, he says, have a drop in their core body temperature as they get sleepy, but their temperature goes up a few hours into dreamtime, making the sleep environment way too hot if they’re wearing lots of warm clothes. Overheating during the night can cause you to sweat and snooze more fitfully.

Rather than thick pajamas, he says, use bedding to keep warm in the winter: “You want to dress lightly but regulate your temperature with your bedding.” Use layers of bedding, including sheets, a lighter blanket, and a heavier comforter or duvet. That way, you can un-layer during the night to make sure you’re not overheating.

Dr. Winter says the ideal temperature for human sleep is about 65 degrees. So that’s reason to pay attention to your thermostat, too — keep it as low as it feels comfortable at night.

Adding a humidifier to your bedroom can also help you sleep more soundly during the winter months, as artificial heating can dry out your mouth and nose. Dr. Winter says a humidifier can help you snore less, breathe better, and have healthier sinuses.

(Image credit: Hippo Wong/AT Video)

3. Don’t Stop Exercising

Find yourself binge-watching Netflix instead of hitting the gym come this time of year? You’re not alone. Dr. Winter explains that “People have a tendency to abandon exercise when it’s cold. But to continue sleeping well, it’s very important to have a plan for maintaining exercise during the winter months.”

Research continues to show that people who get regular exercise sleep significantly better. A 2011 study in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that people who were more active fell asleep sooner and reported a better quality of sleep.

Dr. Winter says exercise trackers like Fitbit can help you see how much you’re actually moving during the winter, which can be motivating. Flexible gym memberships can help too, so you can hit the weight room at any time of day or night—not just when the sun is shining. You can also commit to changing up your routine and working out at home. There are plenty of YouTube or other virtual workouts you can try if you want to avoid the cold.

4. Consider Supplements

While sleeping pills and supplements aren’t for everyone, they can have a place in helping you get your ZZZs. Just be sure you’re not relying on pills that are habit-forming.

Magnesium, in particular, is a great option to help you sleep better, says Dr. Winter: “Magnesium is part of the pathway that converts into the amino acids which convert into melatonin. In general, our brains like magnesium — it can really help people who have migraine and restless legs. As long as your doctor is ok with you taking it, it’s worth a try.” Look for a supplement that’s easily absorbed, like a powder or oil.

Melatonin itself can also help, as taking it can jumpstart your body’s own melatonin production at night, but Dr. Winter cautions that it should only be used occasionally, like when you’re jet-lagged or especially tired. It’s not appropriate to use every night.