Q&A: The Why’s of Winter Insomnia, and What to Do

If there’s a seasonal pattern to your insomnia, reduced light exposure could be the culprit. People in northerly latitudes are exposed to little daylight in the winter, and this can have a negative effect on circadian rhythms and worsen sleep.

lightboxWhy is it, an insomnia sufferer recently wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac, that my insomnia always seems to get worse in the winter? “Erratic” describes my sleep right now. Some mornings I wake up like a bear coming out of hibernation! It’s all I can do to haul myself out of bed. Then when I do get up I’m low on energy and my mind’s in a fog. Some nights I fall asleep early (and wake up as early as 3!), and other nights I can’t fall asleep till 1 or 2.

If there’s a seasonal pattern to your insomnia, reduced light exposure could be the culprit. People in northerly latitudes are exposed to little daylight in the winter, and this can have a negative effect on circadian rhythms and worsen sleep.

Absence of daylight can interfere with the normal rhythm of your body’s secretion of melatonin, a hormone under circadian control. Melatonin secretion typically begins about two hours before you fall asleep and ends at wake-up time. But melatonin is light sensitive. Without the benefit of early morning light, melatonin secretion may be prolonged, making you feel sleepy and less alert.

Absence of light in the evening, on the other hand, can cue melatonin secretion to start soon after dinner. You nod off early and then awaken too early in the morning.

Bright Light Therapy: What and How

The recommended treatment for seasonal sleep disorders involves a light box—bright fluorescent bulbs encased in a box with a diffusing screen. The box is designed to deliver light at the intensity of sunlight—10,000 lux—in a way that’s safe for the eyes, with a minimal amount of ultraviolet (UV) light.

When using a light box, set it on a table or a desktop so the light is aimed at you but you’re not looking directly into it. Use it while doing any stationary activity: reading, eating meals, working at the computer, watching TV.

Timing Is Important to Success

If your main complaint is oversleeping and feeling groggy in the morning, schedule sessions with the light box early in the morning when it’s still dark outside—say, at 6:30 a.m. Thirty minutes a day is sufficient for many users (and is generally sufficient for a majority of people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD). But people vary greatly in their sensitivity to light. Some may need more exposure to bright light; others, less. Also, the lower the light intensity (some light boxes emit light at 2,500 lux), the longer your daily therapy sessions will need to be. The goal is to enable more efficient sleep and increase your daytime alertness.

If your main complaint is falling asleep too early, schedule your light therapy in the evening between 7 and 9 p.m. Use the light box on a daily basis to keep your circadian rhythms regular and put off sleep until a reasonable hour.

Do you find that your insomnia varies with the season? If so, when is your insomnia worse?

How to Choose a Light Box

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

5 thoughts on “Q&A: The Why’s of Winter Insomnia, and What to Do”

  1. Can you comment specifically on how to use the light box if you have trouble falling asleep? Thank you. I very much appreciate your information.


    1. Hi Deborah,

      Trouble falling asleep at night can be caused by different things. You’ll want to adjust your exposure to bright light accordingly, so this is a really good question.

      Some people by nature are night owls. They prefer to go to bed late–at 2 or 3 a.m., for example–and get up late in the morning. If they have to follow a more “normal” schedule–say, be in bed at 11 and up at 6–they have a REALLY hard time. They have a lot of trouble falling asleep (and lots of trouble getting up so early in the morning).

      If this is the case for you, you’ll want to use the light box for 2 hours immediately after getting up in the morning. Exposure to bright light early in the day will help shift your sleep to an earlier hour. You’ll feel inclined to drop off sooner and more easily than you would without the light box.

      But you may have a different problem. If the timing of your sleep is normal but you notice that your insomnia tends to get worse in the winter, then the problem may have to do with the lack of light that occurs later in the day. The solution will be to boost your light exposure late in the afternoon and in the evening.

      I’ll use myself as an example here. Whenever I experience insomnia, it usually takes the form of trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night. But I’m not a night owl. Far from it, in fact. I normally head to bed around 11:30 and get up early.

      But in the wintertime, I’m liable to find myself nodding off early over a book. If I try to go to bed at 9:30 or 10, invariably I have trouble falling asleep.

      What’s happening, I’ve discovered, is that I’m very sensitive to the lack of sunlight that occurs in the wintertime. (Or any other time, as a matter of fact. I’m the only non-gray-haired person I know who nods off during mid-afternoon concerts in darkened concert halls!)

      I’ve learned to manage this sensitivity by making sure to keep my house lights on full blast when the sun goes down. If I’m doing something sedentary in the evening, I use a light box from 7 to 9. This keeps my sleep regular and helps me avoid insomnia at the beginning of the night.

      I hope this helps! If it doesn’t, feel free to write again.


  2. Hi Lois,

    Thank you for this incredible information. I was reading your response to Deborah and I have a question about your response… In winter time I experience insomnia, I normally find myself falling sleep so late like around 3am or 4am and wake up at 10am. While in summer, I normally have no problem falling sleep at 11:30pm. My question is, how do I need to use the box light therapy appropriately if I have a 10,000 lux box? Should I be exposed 30mins first thing in the morning after I wake up and then from 7pm to 9pm at night again? If, so, what should be the light intensity at night time? Or should I just use it in the morning? I have been reading that using the light box at night might make the problem worst, because it increases alertness but I believe that the lack of light during the day on winter time is affecting my sleep patterns, what is your advice about it?




    1. Hi Cintia,

      It sounds like you, too, are sensitive to the lack of sunlight that occurs during the winter, especially in northern latitudes. I’ve written quite a few blogs about this problem, in part because so many people write in with questions about it and in part because I have it myself.

      You may be able to solve it by increasing your exposure to sunlight during the day, using your light box (a 10,000 lux box is ideal), and—possibly—taking a vitamin D supplement.

      Since your problem in the winter is that you don’t feel sleepy until 3 or 4 a.m., you’ll want to avoid exposure to bright light (including light from devices with screens) in the evening. Bright light exposure in the evening will tend to delay your circadian rhythms and could be one reason you’re not feeling sleepy until 3 or 4 a.m.

      Exposure to bright light will be most helpful to you in the morning when you first get up. The dosage needed varies from person to person. A doctor who specializes in treating circadian rhythm disorders would be able to be more specific here. Some people find that a 30-minute exposure is sufficient; others use the light box for up to 2 hours.

      The other thing to work toward is getting more exposure to sunlight throughout the day. Some people commute to work in the dark and work in windowless offices—and practically never see the sun! That can really throw your circadian rhythms out of whack.

      As I mentioned before, I’ve written other blogs about wintertime insomnia, and they contain more suggestions about measures you can take to manage the problem. If you haven’t already read these posts, you may find them useful:




      Good luck, Cintia, and thanks for writing in.


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