Avoid Holiday Sleep Deprivation

Sleep problems caused by factors such as travel, stress, and excess alcohol can play havoc with your mental state.

If you want to maximize your enjoyment of the holiday season, don’t let your celebrations interfere with your sleep. That’s the message of recent research that has linked sleep loss with a number of negative cognitive and emotional consequences.

The studies suggest that changes in routines and behavior that go along with holiday activities are linked to an increase in disturbed or insufficient sleep that may have unwanted mental effects. Factors such as unfamiliar sleep environments, the stress of deadlines and family obligations, time changes and jet lag, late-night parties, and overindulgence in food and alcohol are known to interfere with sleep.


The following symptoms may indicate that you are suffering from sleep deprivation:

  • Frequent fatigue.
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Feeling tired after a night’s sleep

“There are many types of sleep deprivation,” says psychiatrist Albert S. Yeung, MD, Director of Primary Care Research at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “For example, you may not sleep soundly, or fail to experience all the stages of sleep necessary for a good night’s rest; your sleep timing may be off because your body’s natural clock is out of sync; or a physiological factor such as too much alcohol, a medication, or a sleep disorder may impair sleep quality. Even in the short term, sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for the brain that range from memory and cognitive impairment to adverse effects on mood and an increased vulnerability to physical problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, and a weakened immune system.”

“In normal times, as many as 20 percent of American adults report that they don’t get enough sleep on a daily basis,” Dr. Yeung points out, “and the sleep deprivation associated with the holidays just makes the problem worse. It can take days to recover after several nights of insufficient sleep, and meanwhile, an individual’s mental functioning may be compromised. Getting at least seven hours of good-quality sleep each night can help maximize your chances of enjoying a healthy, happy holi-day.”

Effects on Mood, Cognition

Sleep loss takes a toll on the brain. For example, a study published in the June 26, 2013 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience links sleep loss with heightened anxiety. The researchers found that when study participants were deprived of adequate sleep, their anxiety levels—usually within normal ranges—increased to levels characteristic of individuals with anxiety disorders. The researchers theorized that ensuring good-quality sleep would likely help many people who are feeling anxious reduce excessive worry and fearful expectations.

In addition to heightened anxiety, research has linked a number of cognitive and emotional problems with periods of sleep deprivation, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating and paying attention
  • Impaired memory
  • Difficulty learning
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Slowed reactions
  • Impaired coordination
  • Increased depression, irritability
  • Reduced feelings of gratitude and appreciation for others
  • Difficulty controlling emotions and behavior
  • Increased stress and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Reduced optimism, sociability
  • Greater pain sensitivity.

Avoiding Problems

“Although some changes in sleep patterns may be unavoidable during the holidays, keeping a few basic rules in mind may help you improve your sleep,” Dr. Yeung says. His advice:

Drink and eat moderately. Too much alcohol (more than a drink or two a day) can interfere with normal sleep patterns and increase the risk for heart attack or a brain-damaging stroke—a phenomenon so common it has been dubbed the “holiday heart syndrome.” The initial depressant effects of alcohol associated with feelings of drowsiness tend to wear off after a few hours of sleep, causing wakefulness. Eating a large meal, especially within a few hours of bedtime, can lead to a surge in blood sugar that increases energy and wakefulness.

Reduce stress. Get plenty of exercise, and use relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation to unwind as much as possible. Avoid stressful situations, if you can. Find time to get away from the holiday hubbub. A relaxing hour or so spent enjoying quiet activities such as reading or listening to music before you go to bed can make falling asleep easier.

Anticipate changes affecting your biological clock. Before traveling to another time zone, prepare ahead by gradually adjusting to the sleep schedule of your destination. If your doctor approves, try using melatonin (0.3 to 0.5 mgs) before bed to induce sleep while you’re away from home.

Practice good sleep hygiene. Stick to a regular sleep schedule if you can. Avoid caffeine and exercise late in the day. Make sure your bedroom is as comfortable, cool, dark and quiet as possible.


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