Eight ways you can protect your sleep quality and wellbeing during the winter
1) Bring me sunshine
We all need sunshine to help our mind and body to fully wake up, to get into gear and to trigger normal bodily function. Thanks to our circadian rhythm, a lack of sunlight can make us feel sluggish and tired but sunlight can be hard to come by during the winter months, particularly if you work long hours inside during the day.
If this sounds like you, take advantage of your breaks and get some sunlight whenever possible. If you work in an office, consider positioning your workspace closer to a window if you can. Some people, particularly those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), find using a light box or SAD lamp helps boost their mood during the dark winter months.
2) Get outside
Aim to spend a few minutes outside each day, even if it’s cloudy and dingy, your body and mind will thank you for it. There really is no substitute for fresh air and natural light, particularly if you work in a sedentary job and your workplace is air conditioned. Use your lunch break to get outside for a short walk whenever possible, and rope in colleagues to join you if you can.
The NHS says during winter we should aim to regularly eat vitamin D-rich foods such as eggs, meat and oily fish as the lack of sunlight between October and March means many of us develop a shortage of this essential nutrient, normally produced via exposure to sunlight.
3) Get some exercise
The combined effect of darker evenings when the last thing you feel like doing is going back out after getting home from work, seasonal planning and the looming prospect of a Christmas food binge, many people find their motivation to stick to their usual exercise routine disappears almost entirely in the run up to Christmas.
In addition, cold and wet weather can keep you from getting outside at the weekend and carrying out activities that would usually qualify as exercise, such as gardening or taking the dog for a long walk. Try to keep up such activities whatever the weather or replace them with indoor forms of exercise if you can. For many employees whose work involves being outside or being physically active, maintaining fitness levels over the winter is often less of a problem.
Thanks to technological advancements, an ever-increasing number of UK employees now work a wholly sedentary or largely sedentary job, which can contribute to poor physical and mental health.
An overall sedentary lifestyle – largely seated employment coupled with TV or computer-based leisure activities - has been found to contribute significantly to a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.
The NHS recommends that adults should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise – such as cycling, fast walking, having a kick around at the park with the kids and intensive housework - each week. Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is activity which makes the body work hard enough to raise your heart rate and cause you to begin sweating.
Sedentary work – how to keep moving even when sitting down:
- Use the stairs in your building as opposed to the lift wherever possible
- Employ some at-desk stretches a few times a day to keep muscles from becoming stiff while ignoring the snorts of laughter from adjacent colleagues
- Take regular screen breaks to stretch your legs and maintain good circulation. For example, while it may make sense time-wise to combine a walk to the printer with a trip to the loo and popping into the kitchen area to fetch a drink on the way back, try to space these activities throughout the day to keep your body moving and to give your eyes and mind a short break
- Whether you commute to work by bus, train or car – try parking further away or getting off the bus a stop early to squeeze in a few extra minutes of much-needed exercise, sunlight and fresh air.
4) Try not to hibernate
Dark, cold and wet weather can make the prospect of staying in bed under the duvet at the weekend even more appealing than usual. However, just as too little sleep can make you tired and sluggish, the same can be said for too much sleep. Sleeping in for prolonged periods over the weekend not only leaves you with less time to socialise and enjoy your free time, it can also have a knock on effect on your sleep patterns during the week.
In addition, new research suggests that having a longer lie-in at the weekend could raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease, as a result of a rise on blood lipids or fats and lowered blood sugar levels during a lie-in. To avoid this, treat yourself to a maximum of an extra hour or two and then aim to get out and about.
5) Sleep - quality AND quantity
While we’ve all heard about the ideal eight-hour sleep, actual requirements can vary significantly from person to person. The Sleep Council recommends somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep is optimal and the NHS advises finding out how many hours sleep you require as an individual, and then aim to achieve that each night.
In addition, take steps to create the right environment to promote quality sleep by switching off your bleeping smart phone or iPad and avoiding caffeine after 6pm. Whacking the heating up when you get home may be comforting on a chilly evening, but if you leave it cranked up it will make it harder for you to sleep. Experts suggest keeping your bedroom temperature at around 18c – not too hot and not too cold.
6) Comfort eating
We all get the urge to hibernate in the winter. During the colder months most of us prefer to eat warming, carb-heavy comfort foods that aren’t always good for us, while avoiding the salad that we craved in June. Many sleep experts agree that there’s a biological reason for this. During the winter, due to the darker days, production of the sleep hormone melatonin increases. In humans, melatonin also stimulates appetite, which helps explain that nightly desire to dive for the digestives.
Eating a big, stodgy meal in the evening means your body has to work harder to digest it, and going to bed on a full stomach can keep you awake for longer and disrupt your sleep cycle, which has a knock on effect on your wellbeing the following day. Hearty winter meals can still be enjoyed, just try to eat your biggest meal as early in the day as possible and keep your portion size under control. A small serving of Shepherd’s Pie, for example, can be enjoyed with a large side of fresh vegetables, try to fill a third of your plate. The British Dietetics Association (BDA) recommends we aim to eat five 80g portions of fruit and vegetables each day so try to complement your winter casseroles and stews with extra vegetables.
7) Stay hydrated
Water makes up more than two-thirds of the human body, and what comes out must go in. Water aids digestion, maintains organ function and flushes out toxins but many people find colder weather has an impact on their thirst, and you may cut down on your water and other cold drinks in favour of hot drinks such as tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
This preference can lead to dehydration, lethargy and poor concentration and any extra sugar consumed can result in blood sugar fluctuations, weight gain and decreased energy levels. Aim to drink eight glasses of clear liquids each day, try having a glass of water at the same time as every hot drink.
8) Avoid winter bugs
Winter usually means colds and flu and being ill interferes with our appetite, energy levels, sleep and mood. Some people swear by vitamin supplements to give them a boost but there really is no substitute for eating well when it comes to getting the right nutrients. Practicing good hand hygiene also goes a long way towards preventing catching and spreading viruses, so stock up on those antibacterial hand gels and tissues.
Despite our best efforts, most of us still catch some sort of cold or illness over the winter. To minimise your chances of becoming seriously ill, the NHS has launched a campaign Stay Well this Winter which urges people to consider vaccination against the most prevalent strain of flu. It also promotes offering a helping hand to older or vulnerable friends, neighbours and family who may need help, such as help collecting prescriptions and groceries, to stay well.
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