Why do I feel so tired in winter?
Winter has officially arrived and the clocks have gone back, shortening our days and lengthening our nights. With Bonfire Night over and done with, the chances are most of you will be looking ahead to December, anticipating a manic festive season and a smaller bank balance but you may have noticed that the past few weeks, you don’t quite feel like your normal self.
You may find it difficult to rouse yourself in the mornings and feel perpetually foggy headed during the day. Rather than keeping active after work, your bi-weekly trips to the gym might be replaced with more time on couch at home, wrapped up in a cocoon of blankets and hot water bottles. But why are your energy levels suddenly plummeting?
Most people blame ‘winter fatigue’ without really understanding what this term actually means, so I’m going to delve a bit deeper into the phenomenon, why your sleep patterns could be suffering this winter and what you can do about it!
1 - When the light goes out…
With shorter days and colder weather, it’s no surprise that sunlight can be in short supply which can have a number of repercussions for your sleep patterns. Let’s start with melatonin, the sleep hormone. This particular chemical is normally released in the early evening when the sun has started to set and this is no coincidence.
Your photoreceptor cells in your retina help to detect light and, when light is scarce, they will send a signal to the SCN (Suprachiasmatic nucleus) which will then encourage the pineal gland to start producing melatonin. This system works well in summer but in winter, when we can spend days on end in darkness, it can confuse your SCN and your body may start to produce melatonin earlier than normal, making you feel sluggish and more tired during the day.
You also have to consider as well, that if there’s less sunlight, your body may have difficultly synthesising vitamin D. Not only is this nutrient crucial for your immune function, low levels of vitamin D have been associated with low mood, irritability and fatigue, as well as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
What you can do…
None of us have any power over the weather but what you do have control over is yourself. It might not seem like an appealing option, but spending some time outdoors during winter is absolutely crucial. Not only will keeping active help to tire your body, it can also boost your mood and increase your exposure to vitamin D. Even spending 10 minutes outside during your lunch break can make a difference and help to regulate your production of melatonin, improving your energy levels!
If all else fails though, it might be worth considering a vitamin D supplement. Our friends over at Jan de Vries offer a range of vitamin D supplements, such as BetterYou’s Vitamin D Oral Spray, which bypasses your digestive system and is absorbed straight into your bloodstream. Just make sure you’re not getting too much – for more information, check out our nutritionist’s Emma’s blog, ‘Are you getting too much vitamin D?’
2 – Cold, dry air
When you think winter, the chances are the first thing you picture is an idyllic snowy scene complete with snowmen and reindeer. This type of winter experience might be more common in Scandinavian countries but if you live in the UK, the odds are your flurries of snow will be replaced with a shower of icy rain and roaring winds.
With temperatures that toe the line between freezing, it’s not really that surprising that your sleep gets interrupted, either by the sound of the wind battering your windows, or the increased temperature in your bedroom – after all, isn’t your natural reaction to turn on the heating when you see the bad weather outside?
Yet increasing the temperature in your home can have a number of unhappy repercussions. The increase in hot, dry air in your home can dry out your mucous membranes, irritate your skin and make your immune system more susceptible to pathogens and viruses.
Most experts also agree that the ideal bedroom temperature should hover somewhere between 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit1 – any hotter or colder can interrupt your sleep patterns. Unfortunately, in winter, it’s more common to experience temperatures that exceed these recommendations or even dip too far below them!
What you can do…
I’m not about to tell you to part completely with your central heating system, but it might be worth investing in a humidifier. This should help to pump more moisture back into the air, preventing your mucous membranes and skin from becoming too dry or dehydrated. Try to switch your heating off before bedtime and resist the urge to pile more blankets on top of your bed, remember, a bedroom that is too hot can be just as bad as one that’s too cold!
3 – Impaired immune function
It’s not exactly a secret that your immune system can take a beating during the winter months. Cold and flu viruses do seem particularly rampant at this time of year, perhaps due to a combination of cold weather and dry air. As I mentioned earlier, low levels of vitamin D, an essential nutrient for your immune system, may also play a role here too.
When your start to feel a cold coming on, the chances are you may experience symptoms such as a blocked nose, congestion, a cough or even a sore head. All of these nasty side-effects can impact your sleep patterns as you may find it difficult to nod off with a thumping headache, or find yourself waking up in the middle of the night due to a coughing fit.
What doesn’t help is that sleep is vital for your immune system. While you sleep, your immune system rebuilds and repairs and, if you aren’t getting enough good quality sleep, your immune system will become more and more vulnerable to cold and flu systems, creating a vicious cycle!
What you can do…
When winter comes around it’s vital you take steps to support your immune system. Incorporate more antioxidant-rich nutrients into your diet, such as leafy greens and seasonal fruit, and make sure you’re drinking plenty of plain water. You could also try our natural remedy Echinaforce, which is excellent for soothing the symptoms of the cold or flu, helping to increase your resistance. Prepared using organically harvested Echinacea, a herb traditionally used to strengthen the immune system, Echinaforce comes in a variety of forms, from tablets, to tincture to hot drinks.
4 – Eating stodgier food
There are a number of reasons why we may crave sweeter, heavier food during the winter season – we feel we need more energy or celebrations like Christmas or Thanksgiving can all encourage us to eat a bit more than usual as we’re perpetually bombarded with seasonal hot chocolates, speciality biscuits and encouraged to eat big meals.
Nevertheless, these new eating habits can have a not so jolly impact on your sleep patterns. As I cover in my blog, ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat’ sugary foods can interrupt your sleep, which then has a knock-on effect on hormones such as leptin, which can stimulate food cravings during the next day.
You also have to consider your poor digestive system during this time, which may be struggling to breakdown all the excess food, particularly if it’s fatty or processed, leading to symptoms such as heartburn or constipation, which may affect your sleep. Digesting these foods also requires quite a lot of energy so you may even feel more exhausted the next day!
It’s also worth mentioning that drinking alcohol and caffeinated beverages, will also affect your digestion and not for the better! Caffeine can linger in your system for hours so that 4pm cuppa can come back to haunt you in the middle of night. Alcohol is also a natural stimulant so it’s definitely worth watching how much you drink.
What you can do…
Moderation is very important when it comes to what you eat – a couple of sweet treats here and there is unlikely to affect you, but piling extra carbohydrates on your plate every day definitely will. That’s why I’d recommend focusing on nutrient-rich winter warmers – stews and soups can be a great source of essential vitamins and minerals, providing you with several good portions of your 5 a day.
Try to watch your intake of alcohol and caffeine – the odd glass of wine is fine but three or four cups of coffee or tea a day definitely isn’t! Make sure you’re drinking plenty of plain water and, if you do feel a bit bloated after a big meal, you could try one of our digestive bitters, such as Digestisan, which can help you to breakdown food in the digestive tract, preventing a number of unpleasant symptoms.
5 – Stress, stress, stress
Winter can definitely be an expensive time of year and all of these extra costs can leave you feeling a bit anxious about your bank balance. This, in addition to spending time around your family, can naturally leave you awake in the middle of the night, contemplating your problems.
However, nothing will kill your sleep cycle quite like stress and its impact is well documented. One survey published in the American Psychological Society, revealed that 43% of participants felt that stress had interrupted their sleep and that 37% feel tired because of stress.2 As a result, most aren’t getting the amount of sleep that they need to function, which in turn can affect their stress levels and have serious repercussions for their cognitive function and memory.
What you can do…
Take a step back from your problems and try to prioritise. When it comes to celebrations like New Year or other festivities, preparation really is key so don’t be afraid to start planning for these earlier in the year. It’s also important that you don’t forget about yourself and set aside some ‘me-time’ everyday so you can focus on yourself.
You may find practicing mindfulness useful – this should enable you to calm your mind and prevent any niggling thoughts from interrupting your sleep; for more information, check out my blog ‘Steps to put a stop to negative thinking.’ You could even try a gentle, low-impact form of exercise such as yoga or tai chi, which can teach you deep breathing techniques to help you cope with stress better.
However, if you still find yourself waking up in a cold sweat, worrying about bills or presents, you could try a gentle herbal stress remedy, such as our AvenaCalm, which is licensed for mild symptoms of stress and anxiety.
“This works great for me, keeps me relaxed.”