Something as simple as the clocks going forward can throw sleep patterns off, leaving you feeling tired, irritable and groggy for days, while you may also notice that you snooze better in certain seasons. And scientists are now one step closer to understanding how our sleep varies from season to season, after a new study found we may well need more sleep in the winter.
“Our internal 24-hour clocks, known as our circadian rhythms, are closely regulated by the sunrise and sunset,” says Max Kirsten, clinical hypnotherapist and founder of The Sleep Coach. “This rhythm is susceptible to change, which is why we get jet lag when we travel through time zones, when the clocks change twice a year or we simply don’t get enough sleep, which can have a profound effect on every part of the body and the brain’s ability to function properly.”
With everything from daylight saving to heat waves interfering with our slumber, here’s some expert-approved advice for getting the most sleep in every season.
After a dark, cold winter, spring feels positive – that birdsong waking us up in the morning brings with it a sense of relief and hope for brighter days ahead. However, the clocks going forward (which happens on 26 March) can also wreak havoc with your sleep. One study found people get on average 40 minutes less sleep than on other days.
Some people will barely register the change, while others may feel the effects for up to two weeks. If you fall into the latter category, he suggests going to bed 20 minutes earlier each night for the three days prior to the clocks going forward and avoiding alcohol before bed during these days. “This will help reduce grogginess and a feeling of jet lag over the coming days,” he says.
Get as much direct natural daylight as possible during the first half an hour to an hour of waking. “This can have the same effect as caffeine,” Kirsten adds. “Avoid sunglasses as this will lessen the effect on the brain’s internal body clock.” He also recommends snacking more regularly, to “fight fatigue and boost alertness” and exercising earlier in the day to release endorphins “to help combat your sluggishness”.
Try not to take too much on too fast, advises sleep coach Beatrix Schmidt. “In spring, we start doing a lot very quickly because it’s suddenly sunny outside, we’re getting up earlier to exercise or staying out later. But our immune systems and bodies are still naturally deprived from winter.
“People tend to push through their tiredness in the spring, but tiredness is not always good for sleep – if you’re too exhausted it can negatively impact sleep because your body is in survival mode, so tension levels go up and relaxation goes down.” Try to factor in some downtime as your social life springs back into life, “and don’t overcommit.”
If you suffer with spring-induced allergies which can also affect sleep, Kirsten recommends a good Hepa air filter in the bedroom “to reduce the severity on the worst pollen days”. “Keep windows closed during the day and even the night, or at least have air filters switched on – ionising devices push any floating particles in the air towards the bedroom walls.”
Long hot summers can ruin slumber. “In order to fall asleep, we need a lowering of our core body temperature of 1-2 degrees,” Dr Maja Schaedel, clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Good Sleep Clinic, explains. “This can be harder in summer, making it harder to fall asleep but also stay asleep.” Try taking a hot shower before bed, “this can reduce core body temperature due to the initial raising of body temperature, followed by rapid cooling upon getting out.”
Light is “the enemy of sleep”, Dr Neil Stanley, author and sleep expert adds, so while many of us now use eye masks or blackout blinds year-round, they are even more important in the summer.
Good air circulation is key, so a fan is a good idea, and “putting a packet of frozen peas in front of the fan will make it even more effective.” Leave blinds or curtains drawn during the day, advises Kirsten, and consider naturally cooling gel pillows, gel mattress toppers and bamboo sheets to keep your bedding comfortable.
It’s worth also keeping an eye on mealtimes in the summer, Schmidt says. “We eat later and drink later which can have a negative impact on our sleep.” Even drinking water too close to bedtime can keep you up with trips to the loo, while alcohol dehydrates the body which can also keep you awake.
Eating too close to going to bed can mean your body is “still focused on digestion rather than relaxation, which can interfere with sleep, and also mean you’re not hungry in the morning and so you skip breakfast.” This, she argues, can become a vicious cycle that has a knock-on effect the next day by causing midday energy slumps. “If you find yourself feeling tired and low energy, try tracking back your last few meals.”
The clocks going back (on October 29 this year) offers us an extra hour in bed, which can feel like a “gift”, says Dr Schaedel. But autumn brings with it a “natural mood change,” adds Schmidt. “We can feel a bit low emotionally as we’re not looking forward to winter and are [lamenting] summer being over. Her advice is to find small joys in the new season – take a crisp autumnal walk, that will also expose you to more natural light.
As the days start getting shorter, SAD (seasonal affective disorder) symptoms can begin to kick in for some people. “Light therapy for SAD is effective,” says Stanley, who recommends using a 10,000 Lux blue light device, also known as a SAD lamp, for about 30 minutes when you wake up in the morning.
Many of us naturally adopt a Netflix and chill-style hibernation mode in the winter, and you may well find yourself sleeping more. A recently published study appears to back this up, finding people get more deep REM sleep in the winter than in summer.
“From an evolutionary point of view, we sleep more in the winter because sleep is what we do when there isn’t anything else to do. It saves on resources, we sleep because we’re safe and secure, and we don’t have to worry about being hunted,” Stanley explains. Whereas in the summer we were meant to be busy sowing, harvesting and getting the food in for winter in the longer daylight hours, “so we naturally sleep less.”
Depth of sleep and dreaming appear to increase in the winter, “whether this is because it is darker at night for longer, which increases the sleep hormone melatonin, and/or colder at night which causes better-quality, deeper sleep as long as we are warm and cosy in bed,” says Kirsten.
“REM dream sleep is increased by approximately 30 minutes in winter compared with summer. This may be due to the improvements caused by a cool bedroom between 16 and 18 degrees compared to the challenges to deep sleep of a much warmer bedroom in the summer.”
In order to fall asleep you still need the bedroom temperature to lower by around 2 degrees, “ideally to between 16 and 18 degrees,” he adds. “Also fresh air is key, so keeping the window open helps with oxygen quality and reduces grogginess due to a room full of carbon dioxide in the morning.”
Avoid leaving the central heating on: “It’s not about the room, it’s about the temperature under the covers where your body is,” says Stanley. The cheapest and greenest way to keep toasty under the covers? “A nightcap, bed socks and gloves.” Or simply heat the bed up with a hot water bottle before you get in. Meanwhile, if you’re struggling to get going in the mornings, have a hearty breakfast: by feeding the body, you’re sending a signal that it’s time to wake up.
The one thing not to change throughout the seasonal changes? Keep a regular rising time, Stanley advises. “Because your body and brain start waking up about 90 minutes before you wake up. If you have a regular wake-up time, seven days a week, 365 days a year, it becomes a habit and means you can hit the ground running. As hard as it may feel, he says, “don’t press snooze ever! Snoozing just means you’re missing the opportunity of waking up your best.”