If visions of dancing sugarplums are keeping you awake nights, you're not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation some 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders that can affect their physical and mental health. Add the stress of the holidays and the lists of things you have to do, and you can count on at least a few sleepless nights during this otherwise joyous time of year. The big question is why.
"The holidays throw off sleep patterns," says Jose Loredo, M.D., Director of the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Sleep Medicine Center. "Because of parties, gift shopping, eating more and drinking more, people tend to go to bed later this time of year, but still get up early. That can lead to sleep deprivation."
Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D. Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says that it may take several nights of good sleep to make up for one sleep-deprived night. "The more nights you skimp on sleep, the longer it will take you to catch up," she says. "Remember that sleep is just as important as food and water. You need all three of them to be healthy."
Loredo states that people often seek help for sleeping problems after the holidays when they realize that what they thought was a short-term problem is still with them. He has noticed that the higher an individual's stress load during the holidays, the more likely a person is going to have trouble getting a good night's rest. The trouble begins, he says, when people can't turn off their thoughts because they have a lot on their minds. This can lead to temporary insomnia. If the insomnia goes beyond a couple of weeks, he advises seeing a sleep specialist for medical or behavioral intervention.
But before taking that step try these tips for getting a good night's sleep:
If you're experiencing insomnia, don't dwell on it. It will likely pass when you resume your regular schedule. But if you make a big deal out of it, the anxiety caused by thinking you have insomnia can actually lead to permanent insomnia.
Exercise helps promote good sleep. If you like to exercise vigorously, do it in the morning or early afternoon. A relaxing exercise such as yoga can be done right before bed.
Reserve the bed for sleeping. Don't eat, work or watch TV in bed. Teach your body that when you hit the sack, it is because you're ready for some shut-eye.
Stick with a consistent sleeping schedule. If you get thrown off one night because of a party, that's fine. Make sure you resume your normal bedtime the next night.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol close to bedtime. While alcohol often speeds the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the night as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing wakefulness. If you do drink alcohol, allow one hour before bedtime to metabolize each alcoholic drink.
Do not eat a large meal right before going to bed. Allow time for food to digest before bedtime to avoid problems like heartburn or acid reflux. On the other hand, don't go to bed hungry either. If you are hungry eat something easy on your digestion, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a banana.
If you can't seem to turn off your thoughts, forget about counting sheep. Loredo says that's too much work and may actually keep you awake. Instead, count your breaths. As you breathe deeply, consciously relax each muscle, one at a time. Meditation allows your thoughts to float away as you feel your physical body relaxing.
Ancoli-Israel says that if counting breaths does not work, set aside a "worry time" earlier in the day. Find 15 minutes every day when you can turn off your cell phone, sit quietly and worry. That takes the pressure off thinking about issues later when you're in bed.
Stop all activities one hour before going to bed. Turn off the TV or computer - they're stimulants. Take a shower, brush your teeth and get ready for bed. Loredo says reading in bed is okay as long as it is a book you can put down and isn't frightening - otherwise, like TV, a scary book can stimulate your mind and keep you awake.
If you wake up in the middle of the night tossing and turning about all the things you need to do the next day, get out of bed and write a list. Somehow, organizing all your anxieties on a single page seems to allow you to put these worries aside...at least until morning.
Make sure your sleeping environment is relaxing and a pleasant place to rest. If that means buying a set of flannel sheets, a better pillow, a new blanket to keep you warm or black-out curtains, do it. Nothing is more important than getting a good night's sleep.