On the surface, it seems like the seasonal transition from summer to fall provides all the best ingredients for a great sleep environment. For example, darkness comes quicker and lasts longer, making the need for blackout blinds and sleeping masks pretty much obsolete, and the cooler temps make slipping under a fluffy duvet all that more inviting. But according to sleep doctors, the change in seasons can affect sleep by posing challenges that make drifting off and staying asleep more difficult.
That said, there are steps everyone can take to set themselves up for snoozy success. Keep reading to learn the different ways the change in seasons can affect sleep and how to adjust your routine so that they work in your favor, not against you.
Shorter days, longer nights
Ever wonder why you have less energy during fall and winter even though you’re less active than during the warmer months? One reason, according to Shelby Harris, PsyD, behavioral sleep-medicine specialist and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, is the change in light exposure. “Light is energizing and keeps melatonin [a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle] down. So when it starts getting darker earlier, our brain starts thinking it’s time to get sleepy earlier,” she says. “Light is one of the biggest reasons sleep changes between the seasons,” adds Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep doctor and co-author of Sleep For Success.
“Light is one of the biggest reasons sleep changes between the seasons.” —Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep doctor
While that can be beneficial when you’re actually ready to head to bed, chances are you don’t want to be nodding off on your keyboard while you’re ticking through your WFH to-do list. To prevent getting sleepy earlier than you want (and thus compromising the productivity of your daily plans), Dr. Harris encourages people to keep their space as bright as possible until two hours before bedtime. This, she says, will help keep the brain alert until it’s actually time to start winding down.
“Something else that tends to happen in the fall is that people have trouble getting up in the morning since it’s still dark,” Dr. Harris says. To make getting out of bed easier, she recommends investing in a dawn simulator, which mimics light from the sun rising in the morning and can help keep your sleep on a schedule of your choosing.
Changes in temperature
According to Dr. Robbins, the ideal temperature for sleep is 65°F, so the change in temperature during autumn is one that works in most people’s favor. But, says Dr. Harris, there’s a major caveat: “In a lot of apartment buildings, people have no control over their heat, so a lot of clients actually complain to me that their room is way too warm in the fall and winter,” she says. Her best advice for dealing with a furnace you have no control over is to crack a window or sleep with a fan on.
But, being too comfortable can make rising in the morning even more difficult—especially if you haven’t addressed the issue of light. “Being warm and cozy in bed when it’s cool outside is another reason why people tend to have trouble getting up in the morning,” Dr. Robbins says, highlighting another reason why having a dawn simulator may help.
Changes in mood
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a form of depression marked by a recurring seasonal pattern—meaning that the depressive episodes typically happen during a certain time of year, commonly in late fall and winter. In addition to mood, SAD can also affect sleep. “One of the hallmark symptoms of SAD is sleepiness and fatigue,” Dr. Harris says, noting that these symptoms can make getting out of bed or having the energy to get through the day difficult.
A primary treatment for SAD is light therapy, which involves more than using a dawn simulator. “People with SAD are often given a light box and it’s not the same benefit as being exposed to the sun, but it’s pretty close,” Dr. Robbins says. Unlike dawn simulators, she says, light from light boxes is very bright. “It would jolt you awake, not wake you up gently,” Dr. Harris adds.
If you believe you may be struggling with SAD, meet with a sleep doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
A compromised immune system can impact sleep
Finally, the immune system tends to be more vulnerable this time of year in light of cold and flu season—and sleep definitely plays a part. “The connection between immunity and sleep is really interesting,” Dr. Robbins says. “One study found that college students who got less than six hours of sleep a night were four times more likely to get sick than students who got more than six hours a night.”
It’s a vicious cycle of a conundrum that can also compromise sleep quality. According to the experts, not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system, and a weakened immune system requires more sleep since the body needs extra energy to fight off sickness.
So, what can you do if your runny nose or scratchy throat is what’s keeping you from getting the quality REM you want and need? “If someone has a night of bad sleep [due to a cold or otherwise], I recommend they take a 20 minute power nap the next day,” Dr. Harris says, adding that prioritizing vitamin C can help the immune system, too, and, in turn, lead to better sleep.
Some people don’t experience any sleep probs at all as the seasons change, but if you find yourself suddenly snoozing less or more than you want, all the tips highlighted here can help keep your sleep schedule on track. So many things have gotten thrown off over the course of 2020, but your sleep doesn’t have to be one of them.