Winter means shorter days, more time indoors and . . . sleeping problems? It’s true: Sunshine signals our brains to be alert and awake while darkness sends the message that it’s bedtime. With so little sunshine in the winter months, we tend to feel sleepy throughout the day so there’s no distinctive darkness to bring on slumber in the evening hours.
According to Kuljeet Gill, M.D., Medical Director at Central DuPage Hospital’s Sleep Center, the short and overcast days of winter trigger three situations to hamper your sleep. First, since we acquire Vitamin D from sunshine, our levels of this important vitamin may drop so significantly that we feel fatigued. Secondly, the lack of natural light can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. One of the main elements of this disorder is depression, which itself can cause either excessive sleepiness or insomnia, said Dr. Gill. Third, people tend to become less active in the winter months when it’s cold and dark outside. But physical exercise is crucial to sufficient sleep.
When suffering from any of these winter woes, it’s important to take action because getting enough rest is critical to our mental and physical health. According to Rick Munoz, sleep center director at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, getting adequate sleep (seven to nine hours for adults) each night:
• Ensures our ability to stay awake and alert at school, work and on the road.
• Increases our ability to learn and retain new information.
• Promotes a healthy metabolism.
• Prevents disease and supports our immune system function.
• Lowers stress.
• Conversely, a lack of adequate sleep can cause:
• Accidents, since our judgment can be impaired.
• Memory problems that hinder performance at school or work.
• Aging skin.
• Weight gain and morbid obesity.
• Serious health problems, including heart disease, heart attack, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes.
To foster healthy sleeping habits, Gill suggests maintaining a regular bed and wake time schedule, even on the weekends.
“By doing so, you train your biological or “circadian” clock,” Gill says. “You shouldn’t vary your bed and wake times more than 15 minutes each day.”
Additionally, adopting a relaxing bedtime routine, especially for people with insomnia, can be key. The routine should last 30 to 60 minutes and can include a hot bath or shower.
“The warm water lowers your body temperature which is a signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep,” says Gill. Watching TV or reading are okay but for those people struggling with sleep problems, they should not do these activities in bed. Deep breathing, light stretching and drinking herbal teas or warm milk are other ways you can “unwind your mind,” Gill adds.
Bedtime best practices
When children can’t sleep, parents may need advice from a physician who is a sleep specialist. Anna Ivanenko, M.D. PhD, is the medical director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Cadence Health at Central DuPage Hospital and she has the following tips to help parent and child
• Develop bedtime rituals. A bedtime ritual is a powerful cue that it is time to sleep. It needs to be simple so the child can “re-create” the ritual even if the parent is not present. Try writing out the ritual like a script to make it consistent and to share with other caregivers.
• Pay attention to the sleep environment. Background noises, location, bedding, favorite toys and lighting can all affect a child’s ability to fall asleep. A cool, dark, quiet room is best. Letting children cry themselves to sleep is not recommended. Instead, teach your child to soothe him or herself. Avoid rocking, holding or other activities that depend on a parent’s presence.
• Establish consistent waking times. Bed times and waking times should be the same day after day, seven days a week. Waking times are more potent than bed times in establishing sleep rhythms. “Sleeping in” can be a sign of sleep deprivation.
• Avoid caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a potent stimulant so it can interfere with your child’s ability to rest.
• Avoid medications to help your child sleep. Medications become ineffective over time and may affect daytime alertness. They may also wear off during the night and cause your child to awaken.
• Discourage excessive evening fluids. Restricting fluids, however, is not an effective approach for children who wet their bed. You should allow them to satisfy their thirst and focus on teaching then to awaken to relieve a full bladder.
• Establish daytime routines. Regular meal and activity times help to anchor sleep times. Routines make it easier for children to wind down before sleep.
• Make the bedroom a “sleep-only” zone. Remove most toys, games, televisions, computers and radios if your child is having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. These items can be powerful cues for wakefulness. One or two stuffed animals are acceptable. Adolescents may need a home office outside the bedroom to do homework.