Suddenly Feeling Really Sleepy? This Might Be Why
The Debrief: It’s cold, it’s dark, and I can barely keep my eyes open. Anyone else?
Are you tired? I’m tired. It’s cold, it’s dark and I can barely keep my eyes open. Truth be told, I’m tired most days but it feels like I’m overwhelmed with lethargy a little more frequently than usual, and I have a hunch it’s got something to do with the weather.
A quick Google tells me that I’m not alone, the NHS website has a whole page dedicated to wiping out winter tiredness for those dark, gloomy days when it’s that much harder to separate head from pillow. But what is it about this time of year that makes us all feel that little bit more sluggish? Is it as much of a psychological thing as it is seasonal?
‘There are large personal variations between different people and within any one person’, clinical psychologist Dr Roderick Orner tells me. ‘Some are affected by the seasons much more than others and, for instance, if you go to places where there are extreme variations in the seasons, where there are limited hours of daylight in summer, people will say that because of the light they find there is a release of energy and they feel that they don’t need much sleep at all, but in the winter when its dark all the time, they feel that their energy levels are reduced.’
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Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Those of us who have ever looked into the most effective ways to get a good night’s sleep are already pretty familiar with the role that light and dark play in how awake we are and how easy our bodies find it to disengage and drift off. We’re repeatedly told to consider blackout blinds, soft dim lighting in the hours before bed and to avoid the blue glare of smartphone screens if we want to sleep soundly. So, it’d make sense for our bodies to have a similar response when similar conditions are mimicked by the weather in winter.
However, while connecting these speculative dots might make sense, Dr Roderick says that when it comes down to it it’s probably not always that straightforward. ‘It’s not clear whether these variations [in tiredness and sleep quality] are simply down to the numbers of daylight or darkness because, of course, what happens is that in summer time there tend to be more interesting things to do’. Hands up who’s longing for those long warm nights sipping gin and having no idea what time of day it was? ‘There’s a lot more that goes on in the spring and summer than there tends to be in the late autumn and winter, so it may also be that.’
Beyond the novelty of Christmas markets and bonfire night, it’s no secret that the majority of our winter activities tend to revolve around being indoors, but the other component that complicates our understanding of how much the seasons specifically affect our energy levels is the significance of mental health. ‘When we have things that worry us, then for many of us that’s when we lie awake at night and lie there thinking about those things that we’re able to push away in the daytime when we’re active,’ Dr Roderick adds. And then, of course, there are diagnosable conditions such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a form of depression in which mood, energy and motivation are negatively affected by the winter weather.
Professor Colin Espie, world sleep expert from the University of Oxford and co-founder of Big Health, however, attributes the more general feeling of lethargy that we’ve all probably encountered at one point to simply biology. ‘Sudden shifts in clock time force our internal biological clock to re-synchronise, which can take several days. This can affect the quality of our sleep and leave us feeling more tired throughout the day’, he explains.
So, if you’ve been feeling less ‘up and at ‘em’ and more ‘do not disturb’ since the clocks went back a few weeks ago, it’s not just you. Your body’s probably just trying to rejig a bit. If it’s really bothering you though, there are a few things you can do. It’s a bit late in the day to prepare by re-setting your body clock and altering your sleep pattern before British Summer Time ends as Professor Espie suggests, but our old friends rest and exercise might be the simple solution you didn’t really consider. And when we say rest, we don’t mean human hibernation. We mean getting good quality sleep as opposed to trying to fix your tiredness with entire days in bed.
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