Sleep Soundly All Season Long

The winter might seem like the perfect season for sleep—fewer daylight hours combined with the cooler temperatures make it all too tempting to turn off the alarm clock, roll over and snuggle up with a warm blanket. But cold and flu symptoms, the lack of humidity and other seasonal sleep saboteurs can interfere with your slumber. We asked 20 Years Younger sleep expert, Ronald Kotler, M.D., for tips on snoozing soundly all season long. Read ‘em and sleep!

Q: Is our sleep affected by the season? For instance, do we sleep longer in the winter because there are fewer daylight hours?

A: There is no evidence that we need more sleep in the winter, but many people find that they do sleep more this time of year, and it’s for a reason you might not suspect: The effect of light on mood. The decrease in sunlight in the winter, particularly in the Northern latitudes, can impact a person’s serotonin levels. In some cases, this can lead to a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. In addition to sleeping more, you might find that you feel blue. Another common symptom of SAD is an increase in appetite, for carbohydrates, in particular. This often leads to extra pounds during those cold winter months.

If this sounds familiar, ask yourself a few questions: Are you sleeping more than you usually do? Do you have feelings of sadness? Hopelessness? Or guilt? Are you not enjoying things you once did? If you answered yes to any of these questions, check in with your doctor. Seasonal affective disorder can trigger depression or worsen underlying depression.

When you talk to your doctor about treatment options, you may want to ask about a light box. Using a light box for about 30 minutes every morning can diminish SAD symptoms. Look for a 10,000 Lux units light box that doesn’t give off ultra violet rays.

Q: It always seems easier to fall asleep when it’s cooler. Is there an ideal temperature for sleeping?

A: As a rule, you’ll sleep better if it’s on the cooler side. The optimal temperature for sleep in the winter is somewhere between 65 to 68 degrees. (A bonus: When you turn down the thermostat, you’ll also save energy.) It’s easier to get comfortable when you’re cooler (simply add some blankets); it’s a lot harder to get comfortable when you’re too hot. But of course, it depends on the individual. If you find you like it warmer, then set your thermostat to whatever makes you most comfortable.

One important tip: It’s not just about sleeping soundly—you also want to sleep safely. Many people die from carbon monoxide exposure from faulty heaters each year, so make sure to have your heater serviced by a reputable company and install carbon monoxide detectors in your home.

sleepQ: Can the lack of humidity affect sleep?

A: If the air in your bedroom is very dry, it can cause things like nosebleeds and sore throats, which can obviously disturb sleep. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you may want to consider using a humidifier. (Just be careful; humidifiers that aren’t cleaned or maintained properly can blow mold, bacteria and dust into the environment, which can be a big problem, especially for people with asthma.) Another option if you’re suffering from nosebleeds in the winter: An over-the-counter saline nasal spray. You can squirt it in your nose right before bedtime to keep your nose from drying out. (One note about nosebleeds: They can be a sign of a serious underlying problem, and excessive bleeding can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor if you’re having consistent nosebleeds.)

Q: Is there an ideal “dress code” for sleep?

A: I think everyone in the field would agree that the answer is whatever makes you most comfortable. Some people like cozy PJs, some people like to wear their birthday suit. Wear whatever makes you comfortable.

Q: What can you do to get a good night’s sleep when you have a cold or the flu?

A: The most important thing is to recognize when you need to seek medical attention. If you have a fever, shortness of breath, significant mucus production and/or a cough, touch base with your doctor. The flu and other infections may need to be treated with medication.

Most colds (or upper respiratory infections), however, are viral, and will get better on their own. Still, that doesn’t mean that they’re not disruptive—aches, pains and coughs can keep you up all night long. You can turn to over-the-counter options for symptom relief. For instance, you can take Tylenol for aches and pains or a cough suppressant for a cough. (Check in with your doctor before taking any medications.) Treating these symptoms can help make you more comfortable, which can lead to a better night’s sleep.