How to get through those darker months of the year without sleep or fatigue complaints.

It sounds like a cliché, but it’s also a reality for many people. During the darker months of the year, we can feel more tired and experience a disruption in our sleep. The main reason for this is the lack of stimulation of our circadian clock, which is essential for it's daily reset. The decrease in exposure to sunlight is one of the biggest culprits. All the more reason to pay attention to our sleep habits and to make sure we are exposed to light during the day. Here are some tips to improve waking up in the morning and feeling more refreshed during the day:

    • Get up every morning around the same time. Your nervous system prefers consistency and stability. This will stabilize your hormone production and will positively influence your alertness, attention and concentration during the day. During the weekends, avoid shifting your wake up time later than one hour compared to your regular wake up time.

    • Avoid snoozing in the morning. It is better to sleep an extra half an hour, then to wake up every 5 to 10 minutes.

    • Do not stay inside during the darker and colder days of the year. Going outside exposes your internal clock to daylight, which will result in increased alertness, as well as more quality sleep.

    • Physical activity during the day can compensate a little bit for the lack of sunshine. It also signals to your brain that you should be active and alert. Walking, running or cycling every day is recommended.

    • Avoid screens, such as your smartphone, tablet or laptop, the last 2 hours before going to bed. Light, and more specifically blue light ( a certain frequency within white light) will suppress the production of your sleep hormone, melatonin. This means that you are actually ‘not allowed’ to feel your real sleep need. As such, you will feel less sleepy when going to bed, because of the decreased concentration of melatonin in your body.

    • During the evening, make sure that you take enough time to wind down and decrease the activation of your stress system. As long as your stress system is in a high gear, your sleep system will not get permission to fully activate, resulting in sleep onset problems, shallow sleep or fragmented sleep.

    • Do you feel fatigued the entire day, don’t hesitate to evaluate your Vit D levels through a blood test. Low levels of vitamin D are a common problem during winter times. Most people confuse this fatigue with ‘needing more sleep’. As such they change their sleep habits, like for example go to bed earlier, or try to catch up on sleep by doing naps. However, these strategies are actually known to create a sleep problem. Keep in mind that being tired is not the same as needing sleep or being sleepy!

    • Some people can also develop a seasonal affective disorder during the darker times of the year. In this case, light therapy is known to be very beneficial.

Sunshine every day, keeps the doctor away!

Aisha Cortoos, PhD
Clinical Psychologist - Psychotherapist - PhD in Psychology
Sleep/stress expert