How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep

Strategies to prevent shorter days, increased allergens, and a time change from standing in the way of a good night's rest.

A woman sleeping on green sheets
A woman sleeping on green sheets

If you’re waking up groggy and exhausted, you’re not alone. An estimated 50 million to 70 million Americans have a sleep or wakefulness disorder.

For many, a good night’s sleep is especially elusive during the change from summer to fall. That’s because, in addition to crisper air and changing leaves, fall also brings shorter days, a time change, and other factors that can negatively impact your sleep patterns, which in turn affect your reaction time, work, and overall health.

And while you may think that “falling back” and gaining an hour Nov. 6 will give you that extra sleep you’ve been craving, it’s not a cure-all. A study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews concluded there was “little evidence” of people getting extra sleep when clocks are adjusted for daylight saving time.

Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine, says that even if we do get a little extra shut-eye that night, it likely won’t be enough to erase our overall “sleep debt.”

“We as a society sleep one hour less than we did 100 years ago,” says Dr. Barone, author of the book Let’s Talk About Sleep: A Guide to Understanding and Improving Your Slumber.  “So we are still ‘behind the clock’ so to speak when it comes to being sleep deprived.”

There Goes the Sun

Autumn and winter mean fewer daylight hours as the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. This affects the body since sunlight provides it with vital vitamin D, which helps in a variety of body functions, including sleep. A small pilot study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine compared the sleep quality of 27 day workers in offices without windows to that of 22 who were in workplaces with windows. The workers in windowless environments, who received less daily sunlight, reported worse overall sleep quality than those with windows and regular sunlight.

A lack of vitamin D is also associated with a serious condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“It’s a very real thing,” Dr. Barone says. “When you’re not getting as much sunlight, it has an effect on your mood.” This can push someone on the edge of clinical depression into a more serious mental condition. He encourages people to be aware if they or others begin to avoid social activities or generally find it increasingly difficult to find joy in things, as these could be signs of SAD.

To stay healthy, Dr. Barone suggests getting sunlight whenever you can as the seasons change. This may mean waking up a little earlier to take a morning walk in the sunshine. (Even though the sun may not feel as warm on your skin as in summer, it’s always advisable to wear sunscreen to protect yourself from UV rays.)

Switching out current lightbulbs for new LED lightbulbs is another idea. These lights are made to simulate sunlight and may help keep your circadian rhythm, which is your sleep/wake cycle, steady as the seasons change.

Fighting Allergies and Their Impact on Sleep

Runny noses, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats, often associated with grass pollen and weed pollen, especially ragweed, are common not only in spring and summer but also fall, affecting about 50 million people in the United States, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. But allergies can also affect one’s rest. A study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy found a strong connection between hay fever (allergic rhinitis), especially severe cases, and impaired sleep.

“Nasal congestion can certainly make it difficult to breathe well throughout the night,” Dr. Barone says. He stresses this isn’t the same as sleep apnea, a condition in which someone’s breathing temporarily stops or pauses while sleeping.

Many people take an antihistamine before bed to ease allergy symptoms. While an antihistamine can make you drowsy, Dr. Barone says, it typically “doesn’t make much of a difference” in how much you sleep and may leave you “feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck the next day.” Repeated use of antihistamines can also lead to escalating doses to achieve the same results, which can be bad for your body.

Instead of overmedicating, try running a dehumidifier, changing air filters often to keep air as clean as possible, and showering at night to help clear sinuses.

“In this 24-hour society, a lot of times the amount of sleep we get suffers. We should focus on getting good quality sleep and dealing with any problems that exist.”

— Dr. Daniel Barone

How to Fall and Stay Asleep

Dr. Barone says there are several other habits one can adopt to ensure a better night’s rest as the seasons change as well as year-round.

  • No evening naps: If you’re tired after a long day of work, it’s easy to zonk out in front of the TV for a catnap before or after dinner. But Dr. Barone says this can send false signals to your brain about your sleep pattern and make it challenging to go back to sleep for the night a few hours later. Instead, try taking a short walk around the block or engaging in another purposeful activity to stave off sleep until you’re ready for bed.
  • Try mindful meditation: If you’re worrying about something in your life and having trouble sleeping as a result, Dr. Barone suggests meditating. “It helps your brain relax so you’re in a more peaceful, relaxed state,” he says.
  • Shut down the electronics: Items with a backlight display, such as a cellphone or tablet, can keep you awake if you use them right before bed. Dr. Barone suggests shutting them down an hour before bedtime. And if you wake up in the middle of the night, avoid grabbing your phone to check your email or the news.
  • Seek the dark: While exposure to light may prevent SAD, having too much light in your bedroom can make it more difficult to sleep. After you adjust for daylight saving time, it’s lighter an hour earlier in the morning, so you may need to make sure curtains are drawn and blinds are shut.

The bottom line, says Dr. Barone, is that while seasonality can cause some changes in your sleep patterns, you should be alert to when trouble sleeping is a sign of a serious medical issue.

“If you’re continually waking up in the night or you’re constantly waking up tired, a sleep test is definitely warranted,” he says. While there’s an abundance of wearable technology that you can use to track your sleep, Dr. Barone cautions that he wouldn’t rely on such information to make a diagnosis.

“We should view sleep as something that’s sacred,” he says. “Our bodies are designed to get seven to nine hours. In this 24-hour society, a lot of times the amount of sleep we get suffers. We should focus on getting good quality sleep and dealing with any problems that exist.”

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