Winter tiredness: is it real?

Many of us report feeling less energised and more sluggish during the winter months, so what can you do to boost your energy and motivation?

Whether your call it the ‘January blues’ or a ‘winter slump’, we all know that this time of year can leave us feeling less than energised.

The weather is cold, the mornings and nights are dark, and the arrival of spring still feels like a very long way away. Together, these factors can cause us to suffer from what’s been dubbed ‘winter tiredness’.

But is winter tiredness real, or just something we tell ourselves to justify an extra five minutes in bed when the thought of getting up is so unappealing?

We’re going to take a closer look at what exactly makes winter tiredness a threat, and what you can do to increase your energy levels at this time of year.

What is winter tiredness?

The main thing that separates winter from the rest of the year – aside from the fact that it’s so cold – is the increased darkness and the shorter days. In peak winter, the day can see as little as half the sunlight we get during the height of summer, with the sun rising after 8am and swiftly setting again before 4pm.

This can have a direct impact on your energy levels. Many of the hormones our bodies release are dictated by light levels, the two most prominent of which are serotonin and melatonin.

Serotonin is also known as the body’s natural ‘happy hormone’. Triggered by natural light, it releases energy, positivity and productivity. By contrast, melatonin levels increase in darker surroundings. Melatonin helps us unwind and relax in the evenings, reducing energy levels to prepare us for bedtime.

However, when light levels are so low for so much of the day, our serotonin/melatonin balance can suffer. Increased levels of melatonin throughout the day can mean less energy, justifying your winter tiredness.

And for some people, these symptoms can go further. Conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) cause sufferers to experience depression, irritability and lethargy during the winter. This is thought to be related to the body’s serotonin/melatonin balance, just like winter tiredness.

How can you feel more energised during the winter?

Getting a good night’s sleep is key to tackling winter tiredness, and there are several simple ways to increase your sleep quality.

Firstly, you should set yourself a strict sleep schedule and aim to stick to it every day, including at the weekend. By going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, you’ll essentially be training your body to know when to wind down and when to perk up, providing energy when you need it.

You should also keep your bedroom cool and dark, and avoid bright screens before bed as this can inhibit your nightly melatonin release. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the run up to bedtime, and engage in an activity before bed which helps you relax, like reading or meditation.

Another important part of tackling winter tiredness is getting as much sunlight as possible during the day. Try to make the most of the limited daylight hours in order to encourage daytime serotonin release. This might mean taking a short walk at lunchtime, or even remembering to open your curtains and sitting near a window.

Sometimes, winter tiredness can be a sign of a wider health concern, such as stress and anxiety. If you think your lethargy might be the result of stress, it’s vital that you take the steps to tackle it. This can mean something different for everyone, whether it’s engaging in relaxing activities, dealing with a stressful situation head-on or seeking out the support of family members or a healthcare professional.

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