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Don’t let shorter days cause sleepless nights

Christopher Heron
Christopher Heron

Humans don’t hibernate during cold-weather months, but as daylight hours get fewer and nighttime hours increase, sleep patterns can still be disrupted. Taking a few simple steps can help ensure the proper amount of restful sleep for both adults and children.

Circadian rhythms are the body’s natural daily rhythms, affecting sleep and wake cycles. These rhythms can be impacted by factors, such as flying across several time zones, working a night shift or moving the clock back an hour as daylight saving time ends each fall.

During fall and winter, fewer hours of daylight can interrupt circadian rhythms, especially for people whose work schedules keep them indoors from dawn to dusk. Less sunlight causes less of the brain chemical serotonin, which can trigger seasonal affective disorder or depression, and make it more difficult to sleep well on a regular basis.

Make sleep easier

Healthy daily habits can make it easier to fall asleep each night, especially during fall and winter:

▪ Follow a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends. Healthy adults who get seven to eight hours of sleep every night shouldn’t feel the need to “catch-up” on sleep when they don’t have to get up early for work.

▪ Eat well, in balance. A heavy evening meal or carb-loaded snack can make it difficult to fall asleep. If needed, stave off bedtime hunger with a snack of protein and a fruit or vegetable, such as a small piece of cheese and handful of grapes.

▪ Avoid caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime. Although a glass of wine or two can bring on drowsiness at first, it disrupts the quality of sleep throughout the night.

▪ Set up a relaxing bedroom. A comfortable temperature, quiet environment and dark setting all make sleep easier. Resist the temptation to watch TV, work or study in bed. If using a cellphone as an alarm clock, set the alarm and then put away the phone until morning.

▪ Don’t hit the snooze button. It feels good to get five more minutes of “sleep,” but true rest is impossible when the alarm keeps blaring every five minutes.

▪ Nap briefly, or not at all. Someone who gets enough quality sleep at night shouldn’t need to nap during the day. However, if the sofa beckons, limit a nap to 45 minutes or less. Longer naps make it more difficult to sleep well at night.

▪ Exercise regularly. Being physically active during the day strengthens circadian rhythms so that the body is ready to sleep at night.

▪ Get some sunshine. This can take planning during fall and winter months, when daylight hours are fewer. Even a 15-minute walk outdoors at lunchtime on a cloudy day can help maintain the body’s natural rhythms.

▪ Bring the outdoors in. In no-window offices, add natural plants to the work environment, and consider a desktop light-therapy lamp.

When sleep is elusive

Sometimes, despite best efforts, falling asleep is challenging. Anyone who has been trying unsuccessfully for at least 20 minutes to fall asleep should get out of bed. Go to another area of the house and enjoy a relaxing activity for half an hour in dim light — consider reading, meditating, listening to music or stretching. Stay away from the TV and other electronic devices.

If insomnia seems to be an ongoing problem, the first step is to keep track of sleep habits. A simple sleep log — showing hours slept and times of daytime drowsiness — can point out whether a long-term problem exists and if professional help is needed.

Discuss ongoing sleep difficulties with a family physician to investigate whether an underlying health problem might be causing insomnia or whether specific treatment, such as light therapy, might be helpful. In most cases, however, simple changes in exercise, nutrition and sleep habits can lead to a good night’s sleep, every night.

Christopher Heron, MD, and Zenovia Tarmohamed, MD, are family medicine physicians with Penn State Medical Group, and are both part of the Penn State Health Family and Community Medicine Residency Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center.