How Seasons Affect Sleeping Patterns
We all go through periods of great sleep, and periods where we seem to wake up every morning feeling as though we are wading through treacle. Usually, this is put down to having been busy, working a lot, a new term at school, emotional stress, late nights and lack of rest, but could there be more going on? Is it possible that it’s not your actions making your sleep less restful, but the influence of your environment? In short, yes! Every part of our bodies constantly engages with and reacts to changes in the world around us - sweating when it’s hot, releasing adrenaline when a threat is nearby and relaxing our muscles when we’re finally sat home for the evening, in a comfortable and safe place with our families.
One of the biggest factors that constantly affects our environment is the seasons. We see it in the changing colour of the leaves, fruits ripening, flowers growing and fading away and the weather growing warmer, cooler and wetter. As mammals, we are as in tune with this constant pattern of change as all of the animals around us. We might not actively notice it, as we have built up a world of houses, offices, air-conditioned cars, umbrellas and a million other things that help to protect us from seasonal variations, but none the less they continue to happen. Whether we acknowledge the seasons or not our bodies are tuned in and reacting to them, which can affect everything from our eating habits to our sleep.
Our quality of sleep fluctuates throughout the year. Although humans don’t hibernate like many other mammals, it is certainly tempting in the depths of winter! This is because an area of our brains called the pineal gland produces the natural hormone melatonin. Melatonin is what kicks off our nightly shutdown, making us feel sleepy, and keeping us asleep until it’s time to wake up. Melatonin production begins in the body as the environment gets dark, starting to make us feel drowsy and begin winding down. Melatonin levels continue to increase throughout the night, keeping us in a restful slumber, until they peak just before the dawn and then ease off, gently bringing us back around to wakefulness.
As it gets dark so much earlier in the winter our bodies produce melatonin earlier in the evening, meaning that although we might have stayed up later in the summer, suddenly staying up until 11pm to binge that box set doesn’t seem as appealing as getting tucked into bed.
Vitamin D and Seratonin
The short days of winter, combined with less exposure to sunlight, means depleted vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is boosted by sunlight, and is vital for the production of serotonin, the happy hormone. Serotonin also helps to maintain the sleep / wake cycle so with less of it swimming around in our bodies that cycle can get disrupted. Chronic Vitamin D deficiency can lead to SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that lasts throughout the darker months affecting both mood and sleep. Vitamin D deficiency is very common, with a survey showing that one in five UK children have low vitamin D levels as we don’t get much sunlight here for large parts of the year. If your child is showing signs of poor sleep in Winter it may be worth getting advice from a health professional on whether a vitamin D supplement could help their sleep pattern.
In the summer, when the light levels change, the opposite can happen and it can be difficult to get off to sleep when it is still light outside, especially in midsummer when we have the longest days of the year. One way to fool your body into kickstarting that melatonin production earlier is to make sure you get out and about for lots of sunlight and activities throughout the day, and then when you’re ready to wind down use blackout curtains to stop all natural light. If you do this around the same time every night you can lead your body into a sleep routine that better suits your lifestyle, or allows you or your child to get all the hours of sleep needed to make the next day easier.
The sleep centre in our brains is extremely temperature-sensitive - which is why we find it impossible to sleep on hot nights when we’ve kicked off all the covers and still feel too hot. Ideally, our brain would be one degree cooler than the rest of our body to initiate the processes of falling asleep. A cool room and a warm quilt is the best environment to facilitate deep and comfortable sleep, but of course, this status is unbalanced by the external temperatures in summer.
The changing seasons also bring with them changing allergens. Tree and grass pollen rises in the air throughout the day, and then falls and settles as the air naturally cools in the evening, so in spring when levels of these are high, those who are allergic might be kept awake by a stuffy nose or tickly throat. In the summer hay fever is triggered by the abundance of flowers, which release pollen in the evening to lure in insects. And talking of insects, winter can see an increase in dust mites which live in mattresses and pillows and which can be highly irritating to humans.
So in conclusion, yes, the seasons can absolutely affect your family’s sleep patterns. If you notice that you or your child are going through a rough patch, think back to the same time last year - how was their sleep then? If it’s an annual pattern it may be a seasonal environmental change that is causing the disruption, and once you know what’s causing it you are better equipped to deal with it and get everyone sleeping peacefully once again.