Do winter’s plummeting temperatures and dark mornings send you into hibernation mode? If you find yourself spending more time in bed — and struggling to get out of bed on chilly mornings — you’re not alone. New research from SleepScore Labs has found that winter really does have an effect on sleep. Their data shows that over winter, people tend to sleep longer, go to bed later, and take a little longer to get out of bed this time of year. Indeed, winter might be prime time for sleep health.
“Despite the shorter and colder days, these big-data analyses suggest that sleep health remains relatively stable during the winter period,” said Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., lead applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs.
Of course, the season of colder, shorter days comes with a few unique challenges that could make it harder for some folks to get a good night’s rest. Here’s a closer look at how winter affects our sleep and things you can do to get quality shut-eye all season long.
Why winter can be the best season for sleep
It turns out that hibernating bears might be onto something when it comes to getting a great snooze in the winter months. SleepScore Labs crunched sleep data on more than 1.2 million nights of sleep, from 21,066 participants ages 17 to 90, to understand how sleep changes in the coldest months of the year.
The results showed that people tend to sleep longer in the winter than in any other season, with an average of 6 hours per night in the winter. The total sleep duration in winter is an average of 2 minutes longer than in fall, 4 minutes longer than in spring, and 7 minutes longer than in summer, the season when sleep suffers the most. Participants tend to experience the longest sleep duration in November and December, snoozing an average of 6 hours and 3 minutes every night in those months.
In addition to getting more rest in the winter, our sleep schedules also shift this time of year. People usually hit the hay at 11:17 p.m. in the winter, 3 minutes later than in the fall months, although slightly earlier than our average spring and summer bedtimes.
Anyone who struggles to get out of bed on cold, dark mornings won’t find it surprising that our wake-times get later once winter begins, as well. December (the darkest month of the year with the shortest days) brings about our latest average wake-up time of the year, at 7:16 a.m. The good news is that getting up early seems to get easier as the season goes on. The average wake-up time drops to 7:07 a.m. in January and 7:02 a.m. in February — the earliest average wake-time of the year.
“This analysis showed that wake-up times and bedtimes are later in both summer and winter, yet the magnitude of these changes is greatest during winter’s holiday season in December,” says Gottlieb. He adds that this may be the result of having extra time off from work during the holidays, giving many people an opportunity to squeeze in a few extra zzz’s between all the parties and gift shopping.
Overall, the data showed that the quality of winter sleep is relatively high. Our sleep efficiency (or the ratio of total sleep time compared with time in bed) climbs to its highest level of the year in winter, peaking at 77.5%, just a smidge higher than in autumn and spring (77.3%). People’s average SleepScore (the app’s assessment of a night of sleep) hits an average of 78.5 in the fall and winter, compared with 78.2 in the spring and 77.7 in the summer.
So even though those cold, dark days can be downright dreary, they do come with the upside of overall better sleep for most of us.
Why it can be hard to sleep in winter
The most recent SleepScore study builds upon earlier research that has shown winter can have a positive effect on our sleep driven, at least in part, by changes in sunlight that occur throughout the year. Sunlight drops to its lowest point in winter, which can be bad for morale but great for sleep.
“Light is arguably the single most powerful external cue that influences our sleep-wake cycle, and winter’s shorter days and reduced daylight can have profound effects on mood, energy, metabolic function, and sleep,” said Gottlieb.
That lack of sunlight is also linked with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that typically occurs in the fall and winter. People with the condition often experience insomnia, sleep disturbances, and other problems that can hinder the ability to get a good night’s rest, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleep challenges also can also worsen the risk of depression and exacerbate the condition, leading to a downward spiral.
The darkness and cold weather also lead to shifts in our exercise habits (after all, who actually wants to go for a jog in the snow?). This uptick in sedentary behavior and drop in physical activity in the winter can result in an increase in insomnia and sleep disturbances.
Another potential sleep disrupter in winter is the lack of humidity. Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, and heating our homes also dries out the air, making for arid conditions. This can irritate the nasal passages and cause nose bleeds and congestion, all of which can make it more difficult to sleep soundly, said Dr. Pakkay Ngai, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center.
How to sleep better in the winter
By and large, winter seems to be a time when most people experience their best sleep of the year. But if you find that it’s not exactly your best season for slumber, there are some things you can do to try to improve the situation:
- Invest in a humidifier: “The relative humidity in your bedroom should be 30 to 50%,” said Ngai. If winter leads to dry air in your home, a humidifier could help moisten the environment and lead to better sleep.
- Stay active: As tempting as it can be to become a couch potato in the winter, try to squeeze in some physical activity most days to promote better sleep at night. “Ideally you should exercise between 20 and 60 minutes per day, but no later than 3 to 4 hours before bedtime,” advised Ngai.
- Look out for SAD: If you’re experiencing signs of SAD, such as feeling listless, having low energy, experiencing sleep trouble, or having difficulty concentrating, talk with a doctor or mental health professional. “[Individuals with SAD] should obtain sufficient bright light within the first hour upon awakening either directly through sunlight exposure for at least 15 to 30 minutes, or light therapy glasses,” said Gottlieb.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule: “Despite the shorter days and later sunrise, try not to be coaxed into oversleeping. Pay attention to your internal clock and keep a consistent wake-up time and bedtime,” said Gottlieb.