Getting a good night’s sleep during the Christmas holidays

Advice from Rut Ruiz, scientific editor at AdSalutem Instituto del sueño, a BBHI partner in the field of sleep.

Sleeping during the Christmas holidays is not as easy as you might expect from a festive period. Excesses, change of routine and increased social commitments can affect the quality and quantity of our sleep. In fact, according to a 2019 survey, 88% of people find the Christmas holidays the most stressful time of the year. What’s more, in the workplace, December is the most stressful month for 42% of respondents.

We know that stress is one of the main causes of sleep problems – whether occasional or chronic insomnia – making it difficult to fall asleep and increasing the number of night-time awakenings, which in any case prevents us from getting enough restful sleep. In turn, poor rest makes us even less tolerant of stress, reducing our vitality and enthusiasm for enjoying family time.

Excess and changes in routines
In addition to the stress that can be caused by shopping and preparing for family gatherings, binge eating and other excesses such as alcohol consumption interfere with sleep architecture and its restorative functions.

Heavy menus with a lot of food, especially at night, prevent us from falling asleep because the body focuses on the digestion process. The type of food also plays a role, for example, saturated fats are associated with a decrease in the NREM stage of sleep. While high sugar intake can lead to more night-time awakenings and more fragmented sleep.

In this sense, it is advisable to follow a balanced and healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet, among other things, because of the antioxidant compounds and other substances such as tryptophan – a common substance in the Mediterranean diet – which indirectly participates in the well-being and regulation of sleep because it is a precursor of serotonin and melatonin.

The consumption of stimulants such as caffeine is not recommended after 3 p.m. because the substance could still remain in the bloodstream and keep us awake at bedtime. This molecule interferes with the homeostatic sleep process, which makes us feel sleepy when we have gone enough hours without sleep, desguising tiredness, which will lead us to accumulate a long-term sleep debt.

Similarly, drinking alcoholic beverages in the evening is also associated with fragmented and unrefreshing sleep.


Meetings and interpersonal relationships
Social events are necessary and healthy, but too much of them can lead to stress and sleep disturbance. Like the rest of our daily routines (exercise, food, leisure), our social activities have an impact on our biological rhythm and the circadian clock that regulates them, so that extending our after-dinner meals can alter our schedules and sleep patterns, causing what we call social jet lag. Each of us has a chronotype (an optimal schedule for carrying out daily physiological and behavioural activities). So early risers may experience mild symptoms such as lack of concentration and drowsiness if they go to bed and get up later than usual.


Factors associated with travel
If the place where you will be spending the Christmas period is far from home, you are likely to experience some minor discomforts.

    1. Travel fatigue: Stress can also manifest itself in the form of fatigue. Preparing for a trip and travelling can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, which can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. This is a form of stress that can occur with any journey, regardless of the destination or the number of time zones we cross to get there. A study to assess travel-related stress responses found that participants experienced an increase in blood pressure the day before and after travel, as well as a decrease in sleep quality the first night in the new location.
    2. First night effect: In fact, the so-called “first-night effect” is a common occurrence in people who are not sleep-disordered. Falling asleep or staying asleep in an unfamiliar place can be a little more difficult than at home. The phenomenon – which varies in degree from person to person – is explained, among other things, by the fact that our brains remain alert throughout the night to be on the lookout for potential dangers. Interestingly, some people with chronic insomnia may experience the opposite effect, because they have difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep on a daily basis. Proof that sleep anxiety is linked to our habits and beliefs about sleep.
    3. Jet lag: If our journey to visit loved ones takes us across a distant time zone, we are bound to experience jet lag. Jet lag occurs when the internal biological clock is out of sync with the time at the destination. The symptoms of jet lag are due to the fact that our body’s time does not coincide with the environmental time. As a result, the physiological processes of wakefulness are shifted to night and vice versa. As a result, it is very likely to feel difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal discomfort, fatigue and drowsiness during the day, as well as a decrease in concentration and physical and intellectual performance.


Tips for better sleep at Christmas
Even so, it is possible to protect or improve sleep in these circumstances. Firstly, it is essential to address the causes of sleep problems and be aware of potential stressors, to help us take steps to minimise them and protect sleep. For example, it is possible to reduce the stress and fatigue associated with good travel planning. A to-do list and anticipating a plan can help us to relax and sleep better, both the day before departure and on arrival at the destination.

We encourage you to check out other important sleep hygiene measures to protect our rest and quality of life.


Find out more:
Why nearly 80% of Americans find it hard to relax during the holiday season

Work stress peaks in run up to Christmas

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Agnew HW Jr, Webb WB, Williams RL. The first night effect: an EEG study of sleep. Psychophysiology. 1966 Jan;2(3):263-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1966.tb02650.x. PMID: 5903579.

St-Onge MP, Roberts A, Shechter A, Choudhury AR. Fiber and saturated fat are associated with sleep arousals and slow wave sleep. J Clin Sleep Med. 2016;12(1):19-24. doi:10.5664/jcsm.5384.

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