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8 Ways Winter Affects Our Sleep

First Posted: 01/19/12 02:03 PM ET Updated: 01/19/12 02:52 PM ET

While winter kicked off around the country with an unusually mild start, the cold weather is officially in full gear now. But for a season linked to hibernating, these next months can actually have a unique way of keeping us awake. Read on for eight ways those shorter days can translate into sleepless nights -- and expert-proven tips to increase your shuteye.

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  • Keeping The House Too Hot

    Cranking up the heat may seem like a cozy way to spend an evening, but it can also really wreak havoc on your sleep, says Michael Decker, Ph.D., an associate professor at Georgia State University and spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "As we sleep, our body acclimates to the room temperature," he says. "If we lower our body temperature a little bit in a cooler room, we tend to sleep better." While the exact thermostat is a matter of personal comfort, optimal temperatures tend to range between 68 and 72 degrees says Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., FAAP, pediatrician at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead of having one big comforter, she suggests piling on light layers on your bed so that you can remove them if it becomes too warm.

  • Keeping The House Too Cold

    Not to sound like Goldilocks, but it's important to keep the temperature just right -- similar to how a too-warm bedroom can keep you up at night, being too cold isn't conducive to sleep either. While you may be saving on the heating bill, shivering and teeth chattering is uncomfortable, and can keep you awake at night, Decker says. So find a comfortable temperature and maintain it, at least while you're falling asleep.

  • Lack Of Light Throughout The Day

    We need bright sunshine to help us be alert and vigilant, Decker explains -- and a lack of light in the wintertime can become a problem. When we don't get enough brightness, we tend to feel a bit sleepy all day -- and that means there's no darkness signaling to the body at the end of the day that it's time to sleep. "The body doesn't feel like it's time to go to bed because you've been half asleep during the day," Decker explains. He suggests getting out into the sunlight as much as possible first thing in the morning -- if you absolutely can't, spend some time in front of a blue light machine. And at nighttime, be sure to minimize over-illumination (that means turning off the TV or shutting down that laptop at least an hour before you hit the pillow and keep artificial lights to a minimum).

  • Heavy Winter Meals

    A hardy meal may have a way of warming you from the inside out during those cold winter months, but it can also keep you up at night. When you eat a heavy meal in the evening, the body has to work harder to digest that food, Decker explains, which can actually keep you awake. He tells patients to aim to finish up mealtime four or five hours before bedtime to allow full digestion of food.

  • Lack Of Exercise

    "There's been some nice studies that demonstrate that exercise can increase deep sleep," Decker says. But, unfortunately, during the winter months we tend to feel sluggish and stop using up all our energy. For increased movement, and better rest, Decker suggests a simple brisk walk or opting for the stairs instead of the elevator to improve step count during the day.

  • Oversleeping On The Weekends

    While this is a year-round struggle, the cold dreary days of wintertime have their own special way of making us want to stay in bed all day on the weekends. Unfortunately, though, altering sleep too much on Saturday and Sunday can set you up for bad patterns during the weekdays, Decker says. While recapturing a little bit of sleep is great, try to avoid altering your bedtime and wake time by more than an hour or so.

  • Dry Air

    That dry, cold winter air in your bedroom can really zap the moisture out of the nose, Decker explains. And when our nose dries out, we tend to open our mouths and start snoring, which can be the start of bad sleeping patterns. He recommends a humidifier or even a little waterfall, which is what he uses in his own home, to keep air moist -- and the comforting white noise of both is an added bonus that can help to lull you to sleep.

  • Cold And Flu Season

    "Sleep helps us heal," Decker says. But the irony of that is that when we're suffering from a cold or flu, we're often too stuffed up to get a good night's rest. "When we sleep, nature intends for us to breathe mostly through our nose," he explains. But when our noses are stuffed up, we naturally compensate by opening our mouths, which can lead to snoring and, generally speaking, a pretty bad night's sleep. Decker suggests trying anything that can help to open the nasal passages before sleep, whether that's breathing in warm, moist air, trying a nose passage-opening product, or keeping the head elevated. Trachtenberg also suggests using a humidifier to ease sore throats (some newer models even have germ-killing technology) and taking a bit of honey before bedtime (some studies show it's just as effective as a cough or cold suppressant).