Why is it harder to get out of bed during the winter months?
Perhaps you’re finding a substantial decrease in energy in the afternoon? Like an intense need to sleep between three and four PM. Or, perhaps getting out of bed in the morning involves hitting the snooze button 10+ times. If so, you’re not alone. 2–3% of Canadians experience something called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder is a kind of depression that appears at certain times of the year. It usually begins in the fall when the days get shorter and lasts through the winter. (1)
Seasonal affective disorder is the most well-known cause of fatigue in the winter months. But did you know that the decrease in sunshine commonly found in winter can also aggravate adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue conditions? The decrease in daylight hours is likely to have a profound effect on your energy levels. This occurs due to changes to something called our circadian rhythm. And its really a separate (though, related) issue to seasonal affective disorder.
What you put off as general fatigue or low-energy levels could be an interruption of your body’s circadian rhythm. Some simple changes could lead to profound increases in energy levels. Read on to learn how the Earth’s light-dark cycle affects your energy levels.
The circadian rhythm and fatigue
The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It’s also known as your sleep/wake cycle. You have the circadian rhythm to thank for why you feel tired and night and (hopefully) alert during the day.
To be called circadian, a biological rhythm must meet these three general criteria: (2)
- The rhythm must be an internal cycle that lasts approximately 24 hours.
- The rhythm must persist in constant conditions. If you were in 24-hour darkness, the cycle still would have to occur.
- The rhythms are entrainable.
- The rhythm can be reset by exposure to external stimuli (such as light and heat).
- When you travel across time zones, you’re asking your circadian rhythm to adjust/reset to a new light-dark cycle.
- The rhythms exhibit temperature compensation.
- This implies that the rhythm stays in effect over a range of physiological temperatures. Our circadian clock wouldn’t be very reliable if it thought it was time to sleep every time we got cold.
If you’re finding it nearly impossible to get out of bed. Or, if you’re experiencing intense fatigue in the afternoon, your circadian rhythm may be to blame. In fact, circadian rhythm abnormalities are common contributors to both chronic fatigue syndrome and adrenal fatigue.
In the Paleolithic era, humans were hunters/gatherers. There was no electricity or artificial light. Therefore, humans lived in alignment with the light-dark cycle of their environment. Sleeping when it was dark and awake while the sun was out. It is thought that the circadian rhythm is an adaptation to the light-dark cycle found here on earth. Ideally, this rhythm keeps us awake during daylight hours and asleep during nighttime hours.
Humans are thought to have existed on Earth for approximately 200,000 years. (3) Of that time, only 300 years or .015% of human existence have included the use of artificial lighting. That is a lot of genetic pressure encouraging us to align our sleep-wake cycle with the light-dark cycle of the seasons. Yet today, we alter the light in our environment daily. You can have your environment (inside your home) look like daytime at 3 am. This is done with the simple flick of your light switch.
Unfortunately, our body cannot tell the difference between sunlight and artificial light. This is why you’re seeing so much information about avoiding the use of computers and phones before bed. The light emitted from these devices tricks our brain into thinking its daytime. This suppresses melatonin secretion and makes it hard for us to fall asleep. It is the interruption to the circadian rhythm that is a leading cause of fatigue in the winter. Next, we’ll discuss how to alter this.
Our brain & fatigue
Now that you’re familiar with what the circadian rhythm is, it’s time to learn how it can be controlled and altered. In mammals, the circadian rhythm is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN is a distinct group of cells found within the hypothalamus.
The rods and cones within the eyes relay information to the SCN. The SCN then takes this information to the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a tiny structure inside the brain responsible for secreting melatonin. When the eyes perceive light, melatonin production is suppressed. This helps to keep us conscious and active during the day. At night, melatonin production peaks; causing us to feel tired and (hopefully) go to sleep. However, melatonin production can be suppressed by artificial light; be it interior household lights or the light emitted from our electronic devices. (4, 5)
When we alter melatonin production, we begin altering the circadian rhythm. Altered circadian rhythms can be a positive or a negative event. It is incredibly beneficial when we are traveling. The feeling of jet lag is what you experience while your circadian rhythm resets to a new time zone. This can, however, become a chronic issue that causes fatigue and a decrease in energy. The circadian rhythm also affects cortisol levels. If you’re familiar with adrenal fatigue, you’ll know how important cortisol rhythm and levels are.
How to improve energy levels during the winter months
To thoroughly address winter-time fatigue, we need to approach treatment from two different aspects:
- Circadian Rhythm
- Cortisol levels
It would be great if our sleep-wake cycle could align with the winter’s light-dark cycle. But I don’t think many of us could keep our jobs if we slept from 5 pm to 9 am each day. Being complete aligned with the natural rhythms is no longer possible. With that said, we can certainly take steps to better our alignment with the winter season. Below are some of the best actions to help alleviate winter fatigue:
- Schedule 8–9 hours of sleep each night.
- Most of us have morning commitments; therefore, waking up later is not an option. The solution involves moving your bedtime to an earlier hour.
- If you need to get up at 6 am, ensure lights out occurs no later than 10 pm.
- Make your bedroom a sanctuary.
- If ever there’s a place to indulge yourself, it’s on your mattress and pillow. A third of your life will be spent here. Investing in quality bedding will make sleep so much more enjoyable.
- Your bedroom is for sleeping and love. Nothing more.
- Remove televisions and other electronic devices that interrupt sleep and connection with your partner.
- Adjust the temperature of your house.
- your body prefers to be slightly cool before bed. (6)
- Decreasing the temperature of your house 1–2 degrees overnight will likely improve your sleep quality.
- Avoid bright lights in the evening.
- Try using accent lighting in your home in place of overhead lights.
- If you’re using electronic devices, install apps like f.lux.
- Try using amber glasses to block out melatonin-suppressing wavelengths of light.
- Practice relaxation techniques before bed.
- reading, hot baths, meditation, and/or a cup of tea is the perfect way to unwind in the evening.
Much like melatonin, the cortisol hormone follows what is called a diurnal rhythm. In a perfect scenario, cortisol levels peak shortly after waking. This is called the cortisol awakening response. After waking, there is a gradual decline in cortisol levels. Cortisol should reach its lowest point of the day shortly before bed. As we sleep, cortisol levels should increase and the cycle starts again the next day.
Adrenal fatigue or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction describes a condition of lowered levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol and/or altered cortisol rhythm can cause the same fatigue symptoms as adrenal fatigue.
Did you catch that last part?
You don’t have to have low cortisol levels (adrenal fatigue) in order to experience fatigue. In fact, high levels of cortisol and altered cortisol rhythms also cause fatigue. I go into much more detail on the different types of adrenal fatigue conditions in this post.
To ensure healthy cortisol levels and rhythms (thus, increasing energy levels), I recommend the following practices:
- Utilize morning light therapy.
- The large surge of morning cortisol (cortisol awakening response) is triggered by exposure to sunlight. During the winter months, exposure to morning sunlight may not be an option. Utilizing a light therapy device for 10 minutes immediately after waking can ensure you have the energy needed to get out of bed.
- This therapy is a great alternative to pushing snooze dozens of times.
- Get outside.
- Exposure to sunlight keeps melatonin production at bay.
- Ensure you get outside at least once every day.
- Ideally, when the sun is at its peak. Even five minutes of outdoor sun exposure can improve energy levels.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Blood sugar imbalances like diabetes are a common cause of cortisol imbalances.
- I go into great detail about insulin’s effect on cortisol in this post.
- Manage your stress
- While work/relationship/financial stress all play a roll in cortisol levels, there are 3 hidden causes of stress that influence cortisol to a greater degree.
- I go into detail about these stressors in this post.
In addition to the above recommendations, I recommend vitamin D supplementation if you live at a latitude that doesn’t allow for much sun exposure. Recent research suggests 25–50% of the population is deficient in vitamin D. (7) Unless you are consuming cod livers and other organ meats on a regular basis, you’re likely not getting enough vitamin D from your diet. Sun exposure is the best way to increase vitamin D levels. For those living in climates where sun exposure is not an option, supplementation of D3 (cholecalciferol) is recommended.
Before starting megadoses of vitamin D, I recommend obtaining a laboratory test. This way, you have an objective means of determining exactly how much vitamin D you should be supplementing. High levels of vitamin D can cause a symptom profile that is very similar to low levels of vitamin D. Symptoms of high levels of vitamin D include dehydration, vomiting, decreased appetite, irritability, constipation, fatigue, muscle weakness. A safe supplementation dose of vitamin D is somewhere between 200–600 iu/day. One teaspoon of cod liver oil per day will provide the perfect dose.
Ok, now you know the best DIY strategies to beat winter fatigue.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What helps you overcome fatigue during the winter months?
Originally published at Flourish Clinic.