Sleep patterns may easily be thrown off course during the winter as the increased darkness impacts on our circadian rhythms. The result is that it may make it more difficult to wake up and leave us feeling sluggish or lacking in energy. These effects may also impact on the food choices we make and vice versa our diet may impact on sleep.
How can the winter months impact on sleep?
Darker evenings and mornings can impact on sleep in several ways. Some of these may be associated with the fact that our basic diet and lifestyle behaviours could become challenged during the winter.
How can mood impact on sleep?
How we feel can affect our food choices and pattern of eating. In some cases, skipping meals may affect overall nutrient intake, some of which are linked to poor sleep such as magnesium. Erratic eating patterns can also encourage snacking on foods high in sugar that may also affect sleep.
Low mood can also lead to overeating and weight gain, which may impact on mental health. Any form of anxiety linked to our lifestyle can play on the mind and affect our ability to sleep well.
How does diet play a role?
Comfort eating and alcohol consumption may increase during the winter as we get cosy indoors. This is even more so during the festive season which can also play havoc with our sleep patterns. The tendency to choose richer foods may also trigger indigestion in some people which will negatively impact on sleep quality.
So, what can you do to help achieve a good night’s sleep in the Winter months?
Stick to your regular sleep/wake pattern
Establishing a set routine is bedrock to sleeping well. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning is key to keep your circadian rhythms in sync.
It’s often tempting to hit the hay earlier than normal and stay in bed longer, but this is not going to help with how energised you feel during the day.
Avoid the stodge
It’s tempting to seek out stodgy foods during the winter months but this may impact on your sleep quality. Overly rich foods can cause indigestion, especially if you’re not used to eating them.
Heartburn is a symptom of indigestion and something many people experience during the festive season, especially when partnered with more alcohol than usual.
If you’re going to eat more stodgy food then try to eat smaller portions and team them with plenty of veggies on the plate to try and balance out your meal.
Invest in a vitamin D3 supplement
We all rely on sunlight to provide us with adequate amounts of vitamin D but during the winter months it has been shown that many of us are lacking in this nutrient (1). This essential vitamin helps to maintain healthy bones and supports immunity but inadequate levels are associated with fatigue, muscle weakness and low mood.
Research published in the journal Nutrients has suggested that vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher risk of sleep disorders (2).
Food sources of vitamin D are limited to fortified foods, oily fish, liver, mushrooms and eggs but will not provide you with everything your body needs.
During the Winter months you should take a supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D3.
Try and stick to making healthy food choices
The colder months can have an impact on our eating habits and food choices.
The longer evenings can also lead to snacking late at night which will do little for your ability to sleep as eating and digestion can prevent the body from shifting into sleep mode.
Foods rich in carbohydrates are craved more in the winter which may be linked to their connection with serotonin (the feel good hormone) and could be the body’s way of attempting to improve mood. Always choose wholegrain varieties of carbohydrates as these have less impact on blood sugar levels.
Simple carbohydrates such as sugar are digested much more quickly and may impact on sleep quality (3) as well as doing little for your waistline if eaten in excess. Obesity has been linked to poor sleep by way of its impact on hormones associated with satiety (4).
Eat a nourishing diet that will provide your body with the essential nutrients required for good health, some of which may be connected to sleep such as magnesium. It is widely understood that magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia. Research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition has also shown how adequate levels of magnesium are positively associated with sleep duration (5).
Don’t eat too close to bedtime and keep evening meals light including lean proteins (poultry, fish, tofu) and wholegrain carbohydrates (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa) as this combination can help with the uptake of tryptophan into the brain which assists with the production of melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle).
Try and avoid the classic ‘pick-me-ups’
If you’re feeling sluggish during the day then it can be tempting to reach for a food or drink containing caffeine or sugar to help boost your energy levels. Both caffeine and sugar have been shown to disrupt sleep. The effect is usually short-lived and often followed by a craving for more of the same creating a vicious cycle of highs and lows.
The first morning coffee is like nectar and a perfect way to get you ready for the day ahead. After this it may be worth avoiding, especially if you have trouble sleeping. Try alternatives such as herbal teas including ingredients such as ginger and lemon which have an invigorating and refreshing effect without the caffeine hit.
It’s worth remembering that tea, chocolate, energy drinks and even decaf coffee all contain a source of caffeine.
Pay attention to the health of your gut
Early research has suggested that the microbes in our gut (microbiome) may be linked to sleep. It is thought that while a lack of sleep may negatively impact on our microbiome the diversity of microbes in our gut may also lead to disrupted sleep (6).
The connection is not fully understood but it may be worth taking a probiotic supplement to promote a good diversity of bacteria in your gut.
Try to also include plenty of prebiotic foods in your diet which help gut bacteria to flourish. Prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, beans, pulses and lentils as well as cooked and cooled potatoes, pasta and rice.
The winter months can pose challenges to many areas of your health. If you are struggling with your sleep then consider the approaches above while also paying attention to the basic sleep hygiene practices addressed in my new book which focus on behaviour, environment and diet (BED).