Here’s how to sleep well as the season shifts
Sure, there are a few more weeks of summer, according to the calendar. But this week after Labor Day is when we all mentally make the move into fall mode.
The kids are back to school—or soon to be. Summer Fridays at work are over. We’re thinking less about trips to the beach or the mountains, and more about getting the full bounty out of our vegetable gardens while they last.
The air is cooling (at least a little, for most of us) and the days are getting noticeably shorter. Even if it’s been decades since you entered a classroom, most of us experience at least a hint of that “back to school” excitement (or dread) when fall arrives. It’s a beautiful, interesting time of year—and with a few strategies in your pocket, fall can be one of the most restful and refreshing times of year for sleep.
Get your family on the right sleep schedules
Summer tends to affect everyone’s sleep routine. Kids don’t have to get up for school. You’re probably traveling more, heading out for vacations and visits with extended family. The days are at their longest, with sun stretching well into the evening hours. Summer, for all its relaxing pleasures, can be challenging for sleep!
Now is the time to hit the reset button on sleep schedules for everyone in your household, to ensure everyone gets the sleep they need. I just wrote about how to guide your school-age kids back to a school-friendly sleep schedule. I also talked about the best sleep tips to share with your college-age children.
But it’s not just kids in the house who are likely to need an adjustment to their sleep schedule. Many of us loosen up the rules and routines of sleep during the summer. Fall is the time to pull those routines back into focus, to ensure we’re getting enough high-quality sleep to feel and function at our best. The patterns of daylight are changing, with sunrise happening later in the morning. Depending on your sleep needs and individual schedule, you may welcome this additional darkness to get the daily sleep amounts right for you. Just make sure changes to your bed times and wake times are intentional, and in keeping with a sleep routine that
Just-released research delivers a potent reminder that making ample time for sleep isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for long-term health and well being. Swedish scientists have found middle-aged men who sleep no more than 5 hours a night have double the risk of developing cardiovascular disease as men in middle age who sleep 7-8 hours.
If you’re an adult who carries a sleep debt from one season to the next, take a moment to learn about my How To Sleep Better course, here.
If you need to reacquaint yourself with your ideal bedtime, use my Bedtime Calculator, here.
Re-connect with your chronotype
Summer often brings with it a sense of freedom that affects how we live and sleep. But at the end of the day (and I mean that both literally and figuratively) we’re all biologically hard-wired to sleep and be awake according to our individual circadian timing.
Summer can see typically early-to-bed Lions staying up past 9:30, and middle-of-the road Bears popping out of bed earlier in the morning, and with more gusto. Late-night-preferring Wolves may enjoy the company of having more people to hang out with the evening hours, but that’s only likely to keep them up and active even later into the night than is already typical for them.
You’re going to sleep better, feel more yourself, be healthier and perform at your best when you’re living more closely in sync with your individual chronotype. Everything from digestion to metabolism, mood and sex drive, decision making and creativity, are influenced the daily bio rhythms that determine our chronotype. (Chronotypes are so important, I wrote a book about them, and the best times to do everything from eat lunch to ask for a raise: The Power of When.)
The first step in aligning your sleep schedule with your chronotype is to identify what your chronotype is. You can get that information quickly by taking my quiz at www.chronoquiz.com.
Re-commit to your exercise routine
You’ve heard me talk about the benefits that exercise delivers to sleep. Exercising regularly improves sleep quality and sleep quantity, enables us to spend more time in deep sleep, and lowers stress. It can improve symptoms of insomnia and reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea.
If summer has you off your regular exercise routine, now is the time to get back on. You’ll feel better throughout your waking day, and you’ll sleep better at night.
I try to exercise regularly, so I know firsthand it can be a struggle sometimes to stick with it. But I do my best. I run, I take spin classes, I work out regularly with a trainer. My favorite exercise—and the one I recommend to even my most exercise-adverse patients—is yoga. It’s great for your outlook at mood, as well as for your sleep.
We’re learning more all the time about the powerful benefits of mind-body exercise for sleep. Recent research found that mind-body exercises including yoga and tai chi have the ability to change how our genes function, in ways that reduce stress and depression. Those improvements, in turn, can make a huge difference for sleep.
Be pro-active with your diet
Did burgers make a regular appearance on your dinnerplate this summer? Did you take evening walks to get ice cream? Chow down on a few lobster rolls? Say yes every time someone brought pie to the table for dessert? My summer indulgences included all of the above. It was great. And now it’s time to get back to basics with my diet.
You also might have fallen into a habit of eating later. Now is a good time to dial the clock back on dinnertime. This is especially important for Wolves. New research suggests their tendency to eat late and stay up late is linked to higher body mass index, or BMI, in people with prediabetes.
How we eat affects how we sleep. And in turn, how we sleep affects what, when, and how much we eat. A 2016 study found that after one night of short sleep, people ate an average 385 additional calories the next day. That’s practically an additional meal! Short on sleep, people at more fat, and less protein, than their better-sleeping counterparts.
As winter approaches, with the days getting shorter and nights getting longer, many of us lean toward a winter diet, and crave more calorie-dense, carbohydrate-rich “comfort” foods. Use this fall to set some sleep-friendly eating habits so they’ll be ingrained by the time those winter cravings roll around.
Load up on sunlight
Early fall is a great time to give your mind and body the benefits of plentiful exposure to natural sunlight. The oppressive temperatures of summer are receding, but we’re not yet in the very short days of winter. Soaking up natural sunlight has a host of benefits for sleep and health. Sunlight exposure early in the day strengthens biological sleep-wake rhythms, help you fall asleep more easily and wake more alert and refreshed. Sunlight also boosts the body’s production of serotonin, which elevates and protects mood, and contributes to feelings of calm. Serotonin is also an essential precursor for the sleep hormone melatonin. And sunlight is an important source of Vitamin D. Vitamin D can affect both how much sleep we get, and how well we sleep.
Natural light exposure is helpful for most people. It can be especially important for people who experience seasonal affective disorder in the winter months. (More on seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, soon…)
Prepare for daylight savings to end
On November 4, we’ll turn the clocks back. Most people look forward to this “extra” hour of sleep that comes with the end of Daylight Savings Time. It’s true that the onset of Daylight Savings is associated with more significant disruptions to sleep, and a spike in health and safety issues, including heart attacks, stroke, workplace and driving accidents and injuries.
But it’s worth remembering that a change of an hour in any direction is a significant adjustment for our highly sensitive bio clocks. Many of us can expect to feel a little off when the clocks go back, even if we relish an extra bit of time on Sunday morning. The suggestions I’ve made above—watching your diet, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sunlight—can help you minimize the disruption to how you feel, and to your sleep-wake routine.
You can also take the additional step of making small, incremental adjustments to your bedtime ahead of the time change. If you push your bedtime and wake time later by 5-10 minutes a day over a few days before the change, you’ll lessen its impact. Just make sure not to lose out on any sleep when you’re tinkering with your sleep schedule.
Watch for new stress
Fall is a real get-down-to-business time of year. We revisit goals and deadlines ahead of the end of the calendar year. Schedules—both our own and our children’s—suddenly feel pressed for time again. And the holidays are upon us. There are plenty of seasonal stress triggers lurking in this lovely time of year. Be attentive to your mood and stress levels. Be aware that un-checked stress can have a significant negative impact on your sleep. And know that in turn, when you sleep poorly or don’t get enough sleep, you’re much more vulnerable to stress and anxiety.
We’re entering a season that’s full of transition and change in the natural world, and in our social patterns. All these changes affect how we sleep, and how we feel and function. Stay attentive to how you respond to the season’s changes, and you can sleep well as we head toward winter.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™