An aerial view of residential buildings and homes covered in snow in winter in darknessShare on Pinterest
Humans may have different sleep needs depending on the season, research indicates. Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images
  • Sleep is a critical component of well-being, and proper sleep promotes healthy body function and healing.
  • A​ recent study found that people experience more REM sleep during winter, which is a vital component of the natural sleep cycle.
  • However, m​ore data is needed to confirm the findings of this study in the general population.
  • Still, people can take steps to promote good sleep during the winter months, a time when this may be most critical.

Everyone needs sleep, but specific needs can vary. Researchers are still working to understand what factors influence sleep needs and the best way to respond.

A recent study looked at how sleep patterns change throughout the seasons. The researchers found that people have higher levels of REM sleep during the winter months.

To get an appropriate amount of REM sleep, some people may need to be more conscious of their sleep practices during the winter months.

The study was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Sleep affects multiple aspects of life, including physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Sleep duration and sleep quality impact components like metabolism, heart health, memory formation, and immune function.

People experience different stages of sleep, all of which are essential components of a good night’s sleep.

One part of sleep is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep, the brain is more active, and people dream. REM sleep helps with mood regulation. It also helps with memory formation, concentration, and immune function.

As data from this recent study suggests, people may experience more REM sleep during certain times of the year.

T​his particular study looked at seasonal sleep changes. Researchers analyzed the sleep of participants throughout the year. The participants included were already experiencing certain sleep disturbances like insomnia and breathing disorders related to sleep.

Researchers included 188 participants in their analysis. Researchers used a technique called polysomnography to observe participants during sleep.

Researchers encouraged participants to follow typical sleep preferences of when they went to bed. Participants were not allowed to use alarm clocks.

Researchers excluded participants based on a few key criteria, including the use of medications that interfere with sleep.

Study author Dieter Kunz explained the key study findings to Medical News Today:

“In our study we show that human sleep architecture varies substantially across seasons in an adult population living in an urban environment. We used polysomnography to record sleep stages over a whole year in a large population with neuropsychiatric sleep disturbances.”

Kunz said that they came across three interesting findings:

  • People, on average, slept for 1 hour longer in winter than summer,
  • Experienced some 30 minutes more REM-sleep in winter than spring,
  • Had 40 minutes less deep sleep in autumn than rest of the year.

Researchers noted that the one-hour sleep difference between the winter and summer months was not significant. Rather, one of their main focuses was the differences in REM sleep based on the season.

Participants experienced a greater duration of REM sleep during the winter months. The study results indicate that people have an increased need for sleep in the winter.

The study did have several limitations. The research was in a specific subpopulation that was already experiencing sleep disturbances. Participants had different conditions and were on various medications that may have impacted results.

Future studies may need to include participants from the general population. Studies may also include larger and more diverse sample sizes.

“A generalization of results in this patient cohort to healthy subjects is tempting but premature. This study needs to be replicated in a large cohort of healthy subjects,” Kunz noted.

Further research is also needed for there to be true shifts in clinical recommendations. Dr. Philip Lindeman, a sleep expert who was not involved in the study, also noted that “the study is descriptive, not prescriptive.”

“[The study] does not tell us anything about the optimum number of hours people should sleep throughout the year; it only tells us how many hours people do sleep throughout the year,” he pointed out.

Further research can also examine how the observed changes relate to seasonal changes like temperature and sunshine. Should further data support these findings, it may warrant societal changes.

“In general, societies need to adjust sleep habits, including length and timing to season, or adjust school and working schedules to seasonal sleep need,” Kunz added.

Regardless of current sleep disorders or the time of year, people can take steps to improve their sleep habits and sleep quality. People struggling to maintain positive sleep habits can work with their doctors and other specialists to identify lifestyle changes and diagnose any underlying conditions.

Isabella Gordon, certified sleep science coach, and co-founder of Sleep Society, who was also not involved in the study, offered the following suggestions to improve sleep.

“For people, especially those with insomnia, it is important to make lifestyle adjustments to address seasonal changes,” she said.

“To improve sleep during the winter months, I suggest trying to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, [a]voiding caffeine later in the day (especially after 2 p.m.) and limiting alcohol and nicotine intake. Exercising regularly can help improve your sleep quality, so it is important to make time for physical activity during the day. Try to keep your bedroom dark, cool, and pleasant; this will help you get a better night’s rest.”
— Isabella Gordon, sleep science coach

D​r. Lindeman also offered the following advice:

“Regardless of the season, go to bed at the same hour every night, avoid caffeine and excessive alcohol. And never ever look at a screen (hand-held or otherwise) after bedtime.”