This Is Why You Have Trouble Sleeping in the Winter

updated Jul 30, 2020
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Winter, the season of cozy hygge, seems like it would be the best time of year to catch up on all those ZZZs we miss out on during the more active months. But it turns out that—whether or not you’re one of the 10 million Americans who suffer from seasonal affective disorder each year—the long and dark days actually wreak havoc on our sleep schedules, both in the quality of our sleep and the number of hours of rest we’re getting each night.

While February is the worst month of the year for good sleep, there are also some easy ways we can improve our sleep habits without counting the minutes (and sheep) until the clocks “spring forward” again on March 10. And—shocker!—they start with healthy home and bedroom design and bedtime habits.

According to health experts, sunlight equals melatonin and melatonin equals good sleep, so long dark days can equal terrible sleep. Easy math, right? Not so fast. Ironically, a recent study from the Sleep Cycle Institute found that residents of Vermont—where it’s cold, dark, and buried in snow most of the winter—get the most sleep and the best quality of sleep, while residents of Hawaii—a.k.a. sunshine central—get the least sleep and the worst quality of sleep. And that’s because sunlight and the length of the days during the year aren’t the only contributing factors to getting your best ZZZs.

Making sure you get a consistent, solid night’s sleep is more important than just maintaining good overall health, weight, and relationships (and a manageable caffeine intake), too: New research from the University of Hong Kong shows that sleep ­­deprivation can actually cause substantial damage to your DNA—including the genes of otherwise healthy young adults—and can also be linked to higher risks of cancer and other serious diseases.

Time to invest in our sleeping patterns. Here are seven easy ways to get started:

Let the morning light in

The quality of sunlight during the winter months is different than other times of year, and that has an impact on your production of melatonin. One of the best ways to increase your ability to fall asleep at night is to make sure you get outside and get sun exposure during the day—and experts say morning light is the best.

If the weather is so gross that you can’t even fathom bundling up to take the dog for a walk before work, take a few minutes by an East-facing window to drink your coffee or tea first thing every AM.

Keep houseplants in the bedroom

In addition to being a reason to draw those curtains or shades open first thing in the morning, houseplants purify the air at night and provide several other sleep-inducing benefits. Treehugger has a helpful list of the eight best bedroom plants to improve your sleep—including trendy succulents, aromatics like lavender and gardenia, and hard-to-kill varieties like the (NASA-favorite!) Mother-in-Law’s Tongue or Snake Plant. Follow our Instagram account @IPlantEven for more inspiration.

Make the bed and keep your bedroom clean

In the cold winter months, the magnetic pull urging you back into bed is its strongest of the year. Resist the urge to sleep in or nap throughout the day in the winter and you’ll actually increase the quality of your sleep at night. A study by Psychology Today found that participants who made their bed every morning, washed their sheets regularly, kept their bedrooms dark and cool at night, and maintained a strong level of tidiness were the ones who reported the best sleep.

Create indoor space for exercise

Even just 30 minutes of fitness each day can make a drastic impact on the quality of your sleep. Whether it’s creating room for a collapsible trampoline or clearing floor space for a yoga mat, putting an indoor exercise routine within reach when the weather outside is frightful can immediately start improving your sleep cycle. And your overall health! Contrary to popular advice, the National Sleep Foundation says that exercise any time of day is good for sleep—even close to bedtime.

Keep distractions out of the bedroom

We’ve all heard it before: no televisions or iPads or smartphones in the bedroom if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Blue light associated with digital technology has long been proven to suppress melatonin and disrupt our sleep patterns. But even a stimulating paperback can be prohibitive to falling asleep.

“The only two things allowed in bed are sleep and sex,” Dr. Neomi Shah, associate professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, recently told Health magazine. “You don’t want to associate your bedroom with anything wakefulness-promoting.”

Set the Nest to Eco mode before bed

Not only is turning down the thermostat at night better for the environment and for your electric bill, a colder setting at night will improve the quality of your sleep. experts say that bedroom temperatures should be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit year-round for optimal sleep.

Invest in a humidifier

Not only is it colder in the winter, but the air typically drier—which can lead to not only difficulty sleeping but colds, sinus infections, and flus. Experts suggest running a humidifier in the bedroom at night year-round, and cleaning it regularly, to improve your quality of sleep—especially if you add sleep-promoting aromatherapy from lavender, eucalyptus, and other soothing essential oils.