Stay Sleeping: Why Keeping Your Sleep Schedule is Important Across Seasons
December 1, 2017
When winter comes, it can take it’s toll on us in many ways. Many people are quick to blame the snow and cold weather for their troubles. The winter air is bitter at best, and it’s reasonable to not want to go out. We can fight this easily, by occupying ourselves within our own home. However, winter can bring on a host of issues that are harder to diagnose.
As the sun starts to go down earlier, our bodies take in less and less sunlight. A lack of sunlight can lead to many health problems. For example, you need to supplement sunlight with orange juice and other vitamin rich drinks and foods, or you may develop a vitamin D deficiency. This is easy to miss the warning signs of, but can lead to many unwanted symptoms such as muscle and joint pain, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Lack of sunlight can also lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder. This acute form of depression can be triggered by a lack of exposure to white light, and is the most likely cause behind “cabin fever.”
The most common of all of these, however, is a disruption of your sleep schedule. In this article, we’ll discuss why that is and what it does to you.
Why does winter affect your sleep schedule?
AccuWeather published an article in December of 2013 that breaks down what winter does to your sleep schedule. A big part of the winter problem, and the most avoidable, is diet. The foods we consume the most during the winter months are fatty, sugary, and loaded with carbs. We crave these things for good reason: our bodies need these to stay warm and healthy. However, these types of foods can create excess amounts of the hormone leptin, which tells our body that we need to sleep. So, when we eat too much of this, it can lead to feelings of exhaustion at abnormal times of the day, disrupting our sleep schedule. This shouldn’t affect anyone who is wary of the issue, though. As long as you consume moderate amounts of winter food, this should have no effect.
What we can’t control, however, is the cold weather and amount of sunlight that we get during a day. Our biological clock ticks along under the control of melatonin. Sunlight, or other bright white light, tells our body to stop producing melatonin. This causes us to wake up, and begin our biological processes. Melatonin naturally builds up over the day, but production is often triggered by darkness. When there is no white light, our body produces too much melatonin making us desire sleep earlier than normal.
Cold weather can also create melatonin. A behavior carried over from before we knew how to build houses or heat them, when our body is cold it wants to fall asleep. This can lead to further feelings of exhaustion, and heavily disrupt our sleep schedule. Attempts to combat this with heating can lead to drier air around the house, making us more susceptible to cold and flu symptoms. Coincidentally, this also makes us want to sleep.
The human body may not be designed for hibernation, but it isn’t designed for schedule maintenance during the weather, either.
How does your sleep schedule affect you?
Do you find yourself sleeping in more in early December? Going to bed right after dinner? These are the easiest-to-see symptoms of a disrupted sleep schedule. However, a disrupted sleep schedule means irregularity in almost everything controlled by our biological clock. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute collected information from several studies to create a wonderful resource about this.
The NHLBI tells us that sleep is important to our brain functioning properly. A good night’s rest will prepare our brain for the following day, while irregular or disrupted sleep can cause brain fatigue. This fatigue can lead to “trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change.” A deficient and irregular sleep schedule is also linked to depression, including thoughts of suicide and risk-taking behavior.
Physically, a lack of sleep can lead to many more issues such as an increased risk for heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. Leptin, the hormone overeating can produce, and it’s counterpart, ghrelin, are also regulated in your sleep. They control your appetite, and a lack of sleep can cause imbalances that lead to further overeating.
Finally, the two combine to affect your performance in day-to-day tasks. Oversleeping can lead to feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, while sleep deficiency increases periods of “microsleep.” Microsleep is a phenomenon that causes your brain to rest while you’re awake, leading to forgetfulness. If you’ve ever sat through a lecture then forgotten large parts of it later, you were likely microsleeping.