How can I support my sleep in the winter?
As we head deeper into the colder seasons with shorter days and colder temperatures, some of us may find our sleep is impacted. Our internal body clock relies on light coming from the eyes to the brain, cleverly determining when to release hormones that keep us alert and when to release hormones that support sleep. If our exposure to daylight is reduced during the day and we rely on bright artificial light in the evenings, our internal body clock can become confused. This low-quality sleep can reduce our willpower, causing us to be more likely to procrastinate. One thing we may procrastinate on is our sleep, where our sleep cycle is disrupted further and can start a spiral of poor sleep.
The amount of light you are exposed to during the day can help regulate this internal body clock. If you have an early morning commute in the dark and spend a lot of time indoors, it may be beneficial to have a short walk or have a break outside to gain some exposure to natural daylight. It’s been shown that having exposure to daylight in the morning, allows the hormones that keep us alert to be released earlier. If you have exposure to daylight in the afternoon, this sets the hormones to be released later in the day, having a knock-on effect on your sleep.
It is recommended to avoid stressful situations before you fall asleep as this may lead to the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, keeping you alert. Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, as this can take up to 10 hours to clear from your bloodstream.
Sleeping in a cool and dark environment can support a restful night. Following a routine that helps you wind-down can provide psychological cues to make you feel sleepy; this could include a hot bath or shower, reading or journaling, or even meditation.
Our diets can have an influence on our sleep. When we are sleep deprived, it can mean we are more likely to snack on foods that provide a quick release of energy and potentially over-eat, due to the influence on our appetite hormones. The dietary habits we follow can influence our sleep quality such as skipping breakfast and eating irregularly means we may not be getting the nutrients we need to support sleep and can increase our risk of diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes and can influence poor mood.
A Mediterranean diet is suggested as a useful diet to follow for overall health, including a better sleep pattern. The diet is high in plant-based protein (e.g., soya-based products, and chickpeas, lentils, peas, and beans), fruits and vegetables (particularly dark-leafy greens) and unsaturated fats (e.g., nuts, seeds, oily fish, and olive oil). A theory for this diet being beneficial on our sleep quality is due to increased consumption of the protein tryptophan (which has a use in helping our bodies make melatonin, a natural sleep hormone). Another thought is that as the diet is rich in fibre, it has beneficial effects on our gut bacteria by encouraging diversity in the bacteria, supporting our gut health and immune system.
Overall, our lifestyle habits and dietary patterns can have a significant influence on our quality of sleep. Please speak to your GP or registered dietitian or nutritionist if you would like dietary support or have concerns over your sleep.
Francesca Vuolo is a registered associate nutritionist with a BSc (Hons) Nutrition and MSc in Nutrition and Behaviour. Her interests range from nutritional psychiatry, physical activity, nature, public health, and farming, which complement her work. You can find out more on Instagram @flourishwithfran.
Follow Fran on Twitter @FV_Nutrition.
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