Hey sleep enthusiast, how has it been to go through the festive celebrations and deeper into winter? Have you been leaning into the season of long nights and getting cosy, making the most of staying indoors? Or has the season brought more of a sense of dread? Especially with thoughts about insomnia creeping in even more during the winter months? You may decide that winter is a time to give up and slob out - or go goblin mode, as it’s been called. As a sleep coach, I'm here to offer some reassurance that it’s possible to find restful ways to rejuvenate - even in winter!
How the winter season brings a shift in energy
As winter descends across the northern hemisphere, it brings colder temperatures and more hours of darkness. So we have less access to sunlight and the natural source of vitamin D that it provides - all of which takes some adjusting to.
The changes in the natural environment impact the circadian rhythms in our bodies. These are the natural processes that run according to various cycles in nature and affect our sleep, digestion and other functions. It is the circadian rhythms in some bears that guide and enable them to be able to hibernate for 100 days at a time. Many people also suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression experienced during particular times of the year.
Winter - the most restful season of the year
Whilst we can't opt out of winter altogether and hibernate, the slower pace of the season invites us to embrace tranquillity and conserve energy. So let's explore how lifestyle adjustments and rest during the winter months can help with improved sleep quality, increased daytime energy and taking care of mental well-being.
Are humans meant to sleep more in winter?
The thought of longer hours in bed can be daunting if your bed is associated with frustrating night times spent grappling with insomnia. Which can also turn into a habit of sleeping on the couch (if that’s you, check out this blog article).
It’s not interrupted sleep, it’s ‘the watch’
Whilst you may have some resistance to spending longer hours in bed during winter if you suffer with insomnia, consider how only a few generations ago, our ancestors faced long nights without electricity. They had no choice but to adapt to the seasons, and so the medieval night-time experience of 'the watch' was what people did at night. This consisted of a few waking hours between a ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’. The watch would take place when people woke in the night, generally around the time when roosters would start their morning call in the darkness (which was also guided by, you guessed it, their circadian rhythms!). This article from the BBC describes the watch times as:
‘Under the weak glow of the Moon, stars, and oil lamps or "rush lights" – a kind of candle for ordinary households, made from the waxed stems of rushes – people would tend to ordinary tasks, such as adding wood to the fire, taking remedies, or going to urinate (often into the fire itself).’
How two sleeps, or bi-phasic sleeping, is natural
There’s also modern-day research into how human sleep cycles naturally form by examining people who were left in a dark room without stimulation and influence from the external world. Initially, their sleep cycles followed the usual singular sleep pattern, but eventually, their circadian rhythms shifted to a first sleep and a second sleep with some hours in between. So rather than waking in the night being something to panic about or get annoyed by, can you see it as an ancient ritual and natural human response to winter? You could take some quiet moments to look at the stars, journal, listen to a relaxing podcast or do another calm activity. If you get into a routine of sleeping fairly reliably before waking in the night, you could even use the time to explore the psychedelic realm of lucid dreaming. Other tips for looking after your well-being and rest in winter months include:
Getting winter sunshine when you can
Even during winter, exposure to light is still important for your body to regulate your circadian rhythms and for getting the ‘sunshine vitamin’, vitamin D. It is most beneficial to get exposure to natural daylight as close to when the sun comes up as is possible for you. This could be braving the cold for a morning walk before work, or switching 10 minutes of phone scrolling for some moments outside with your coffee instead. For more about the physiological benefits of exposure to sunlight, see this guide from the Huberman Lab.
Embracing cosy social time in winter
When the big celebrations of the festive season have passed you may have a reduced budget and a more sparse calendar, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up on socialising altogether. Instead, can you get creative about finding more restful ways to enjoy social connection?
The idea is to go for more relaxed, lower-energy ways to connect with others. That way you can enjoy the nourishment of social connection in a way that is restful for your system. Instead of big group meals or dancing late at night, this could look like wrapping up warm and going for a winter walk with friends, or chats over hot chocolate at home. Check out the blog article on restful socialising for more about this.
Food for winter
You may feel drawn to comfort foods during the colder months and whilst takeaways can be tempting, fast food and highly processed food can impact sleep quality. So the alternative is to make meals that can warm you up, have nutrient-rich ingredients and support your sleep. Yes, all of that is possible! When selecting recipes, start with core ingredients from foods that can help with sleep.
Winter as a time for reflection
I like to embrace the winter as a time to reflect on the year gone by and what’s ahead. I take inspiration from nature and plant bulbs for my spring season ahead, when there will be more light and I will have more energy. Even though the new calendar year has started, the natural world in winter offers a perfect time for introspection.
When working with clients as a sleep coach, I often share the concept of the seasons of life. Because life has its cycles and changes, so we won’t be in our most productive states all of the time. So with Restful Sleep, I encourage respecting the slower tempos that come with different phases of life - bringing permission and acceptance to slowing down for some time. It can seem radical at first, yet often brings relief.
So will you join me in taking the winter as an opportunity to reflect on your well-being and how your lifestyle may nourish you? It’s something I encourage everyone to do and sleep coaching is a great way to get support with the process. If you'd like to explore how to make the most of your restful winter, and all that’s ahead, you’d be welcome to book a free discovery call with me.