Written by: Mallorie Stallings
Updated March 4, 2021
If you feel like you’re more tired during the wintertime, you’re not alone. Nearly half (1) of adults report sleeping up to 2 hours longer each night during the winter. Students are also tardy and absent more often (2) during winter months and receive worse grades in school.
Many people feel more tired in the winter, and there are a number of potential factors behind this.
Less Sunlight Confuses The Circadian Rhythm
Light (3) plays a key role in the regulation of the circadian rhythm. The brain relies on sunlight (4) to determine when to be asleep and when to be awake. When it’s dark, the brain responds by releasing melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep. When it’s light, the brain inhibits melatonin production (5) in order to stay awake and alert.
During the winter, it becomes darker earlier as the nights grow longer (6). At the same time, the sunlight you receive during the day is less intense than it is during the summer, so your brain has a harder time distinguishing between day and night. This difference in light exposure can also affect your melatonin levels, causing you to feel sleepier during the day.
Also, your brain may naturally prepare for bed later in winter than it would during the summertime, simply due to losing these light cues. On average, people go to bed 1.5 hours later (7) in the winter than they do during the summer. They wake up later, too, especially on weekends when they don’t have to use an alarm clock and can rely on natural light and temperature to wake them up.
Tip: Increase your exposure to natural sunlight throughout the day during the wintertime, even if it’s cloudy out. It may help to open your blinds and go for a walk in the morning.
More Sleep Can Make You Sluggish
It’s harder to get out of bed in the morning when you’re warm and cozy, and the weather outside is cold and dreary. Unfortunately, the more time you spend in bed, the groggier you may feel during the day, particularly if you’re already getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
It sounds counterintuitive, but increased sleepiness can make it harder for you to fall asleep at night, especially if you spend too much time napping during the day. A 30-minute nap (8) can restore your energy, but anything longer can deplete it, while also disrupting your sleep later that night.
Tip: Resist taking long naps during the day, as this may be making you sleepier. Do your best to maintain a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day — including weekends.
Heavier Meals Increase Drowsiness
If you’re wondering why you sleep so much in the winter, the culprit could be your diet. The average person gains about 1 pound (9) during the winter. It can be tempting to indulge in comfort foods during the holidays. But sugary and fatty foods (10) aren’t only bad for your health; they disrupt sleep (11), too. A poor diet can lower energy levels and increase sleepiness.
Holiday celebrations can lead to increased alcohol consumption as well. Alcohol is a sedative that can make you want to go to sleep. However, it doesn’t keep you asleep. Alcohol notoriously disrupts sleep (12), causing those who imbibe to wake up earlier than they’d like and increasing their sense of tiredness during the day.
Tip: Boost your energy levels by introducing healthier foods into your diet, and watching your alcohol intake. Have a fruit salad for lunch, and make vegetable stews and soups for dinner.
Less Motivation to Exercise Equals More Tiredness
The winter can wreak havoc on an exercise routine, especially if you prefer to exercise outdoors. Rain, snow, and sleet all make running and hiking less appealing. And if you’re spending more time sleeping, you may feel less motivated to work out, which can have the negative effect of making you feel even more tired.
Regular exercise (13) can go a long way toward helping you maintain healthy sleep. Exercise helps tire out your body, which makes it easier to fall asleep and keep a consistent sleep schedule.
Tip: Try exercising in the morning to increase your energy levels (14). Studies show morning exercise can be more effective for losing weight and controlling your appetite. If it’s too cold outside, find a spot where you can work out near a window with the blinds open.
Holiday Stress Wears You Out
Festive as they are, the holidays can be a source of major stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed during the holidays, your stress may explain why you feel so sleepy.
Stress can disrupt the restfulness of your sleep, which can lead to feelings of sleep deprivation (15) during the day. During a normal night of sleep, melatonin levels rise while cortisol (the stress hormone) lowers, enabling us to rest. However, people with chronic stress can be more likely to have elevated cortisol levels while they sleep, leading to insomnia, tiredness, and fatigue.
Tip: Explore stress management techniques. Meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation exercises before bed may help relieve your stress (16) and make it easier to relax into sleep.
The Bedroom May Be Too Warm
When it’s cold outside, people tend to compensate by making their living environments warmer. You may crank up the heat and add more blankets to the bed. The problem is, all these warming mechanisms may actually contribute to less restful sleep.
The circadian rhythm regulates body temperature throughout the day. Before bed, your body temperature lowers (17) to facilitate better sleep, and stays low during the night. By heating your bedroom and heaping heavier blankets on the bed, your body has to work harder to stay cool. Even if you don’t become warm enough to wake up, the increased temperature can disrupt your sleep and cause you to feel more tired during the day.
Tip: Keep your bedroom temperature cool at night, between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll save on electricity costs and may enjoy more restful sleep. Adding a humidifier to your bedroom in the winter may also improve your sleep.
Sleep Helps You Recover From Illness
Illnesses like the flu and the common cold are more prevalent during the winter. People tend to spend more time congregating indoors, making it easier for viruses to spread (18). And when you get sick, your body sleeps more to help you recuperate and restore your immune system (19).
If you tend to get sick during the winter, recognize that your need for more sleep may be a completely normal response helping your body get better. The good news is, better sleep can reduce your susceptibility (20) to the common cold.
Tip: Avoid spending time with people who are sick, and wash your hands thoroughly and often. If you get sick, allow yourself to rest.
Seasonal Affective Disorder May Cause Increased Sleepiness
Up to 6% of people (21) have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of major depression that occurs during 4 to 5 months of the year (22), typically in the winter. Symptoms may include increased sleepiness, lower energy levels, weight gain, and loss of interest or enthusiasm for work and social activities.
Another 14% of Americans suffer from the “winter blues,” a milder form of seasonal depression. While someone with SAD may sleep up to 2.5 hours more during the winter, individuals with the winter blues will sleep around 1.7 hours more. The average adult, by comparison, may only sleep 0.7 hours more in the winter.
Although more rare, some people suffer from a reverse form of SAD, known as summer-pattern SAD, in which they sleep less in the summer and may experience anxiety and insomnia as opposed to depression and hypersomnia. SAD can be more or less common depending on how far away you live from the equator, with those who live farther away being more likely to experience SAD, due to larger changes in sunlight.
Tip: If you feel like your tiredness is a symptom of something more serious, such as seasonal affective disorder or insomnia, consult your doctor. They can help you determine what’s causing your winter sleepiness and provide recommendations for treatment, including light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s normal to feel like you need to sleep more during the winter, but there’s plenty you can do to feel more alert and seize the day — even if it’s just a snow day.
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