A report by holistic sleep expert Christine Hansen, commissioned by eve Sleep, uncovering the issues keeping us awake during the festive period
Christmas is around the corner and there is one thing that we are getting less of when we need it most: sleep. It’s the season of joy and goodwill, but busy schedules and the pressure to spend can bring disruptive nights.
In this report, commissioned by eve Sleep, I’ll identify the issues that can be a challenge all year round but are particularly prevalent during the festive season for both adults and children, and suggest some tips and techniques on how to overcome them.
WORRY AND STRESS
What’s the problem?
Stress related to Christmas, especially for women (27% of women in Britain in fact), is one of the biggest causes of lack of sleep at this time of year. Worrying about how to find the time to get everything done before the holidays, what to buy, how to hit your deadlines, and how to finance the most expensive month of the year, all cause stress and worry that can significantly inhibit sleep. The more you neglect to deal with this stress, the worse its impact. Here’s why.
Sleep is basically driven by two hormones: cortisol and melatonin.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that gives us energy. It’s what makes us run faster and fight harder should we get into a dangerous situation. In other words, cortisol kicks in when you’re in a situation when you need to do the opposite to sleep. It also triggers adrenalin; another hormone that is anything but calming. Ideally our cortisol curve will go down throughout the day and into the night, and then rise in the early morning.
The opposite to cortisol, is melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that sets our body off on its journey towards feeling tired, and then drifting into a healthy sleep around an hour or so later. Cortisol and melatonin basically work to counter each other when everything is well balanced in our body and mind.
Our brains will always release cortisol during a stressful situation no matter what the trigger, be it a physically threatening situation, or an emotionally demanding one. Our brains can’t tell the difference. We tend to take our problems to bed with us, so when your head hits the pillow with worrying thoughts around deadlines, paydays and christmas lists, cortisol begins to flood in.
Around Christmas time we are very often more stressed than ever. This can often lead to very disturbed sleep, just when we need it the most to rejuvenate and replenish our energy cells.
Tips and advice
So what can you do? Here are a couple of tips:
- Carry a notebook with you during the day. Whenever something worries you, write it down. This will help you to diffuse stress during the day and lessen the worry before you hit the pillow.
- When you wake up at night and you know that there is no way you’ll be able to go back to sleep: don’t stay in bed. Get up, change rooms and do something that will shift your focus but won’t engross you passionately. Try crossword puzzles, non-fiction books or folding laundry: these are all great activities for quietly occupying the mind. As soon as you notice a yawn or your eyes getting heavy, go back to bed.
FINANCIAL AND PERSONAL PRESSURES
What’s the problem?
Let’s face it. Christmas time can be very daunting when we have to break into our piggy bank for presents and parties. Children will likely compare their presents at school, and even amongst your family and loved ones, there might be an unspoken competition as to who has given the best gift. This is a time where financial worries can feel ruthless and occupy our minds more than at any other time of the year.
We also don’t want to disappoint. Seeing our relatives can be a wonderful treat and a great time to reflect on the year, but when the questions begin to roll in about our careers, love life and plans for the future, it can all get a bit intense. Especially after a week of deadlines, last minute shopping and Christmas parties. Once more, cortisol rises…
Tips and advice
- Imagine the worst that could happen when you gift your present and/or see your family. So often you are worrying about a scenario that will most likely never happen.
- Take out a piece of paper and write down all the accomplishments you have achieved this year. You’ll notice that that list is so much longer that you thought.
It goes without saying that nutrition is important to how your body works, so naturally it can have an impact on how we sleep. Traditional Christmas feasts are anything but healthy. From mince pies to Christmas pudding, we are splurging on sugar, saturated fats, gluten and dairy.
All of those foods are detrimental to our sleep for two main reasons. Firstly, they spike our blood sugar levels due to their sugar content. This triggers insulin, which also produces more cortisol.
Secondly, stress can cause food sensitivities, which trigger inflammation of your gut lining and once again result in a push of cortisol.
Stress and a ‘leaky gut’
Stress can mean that our gut lining (or microvilli, to be exact) can break down and as a result, many of us suffer from something called leaky gut, a condition where your intestinal lining is slowly deteriorating.
The intestinal wall acts as a filter: the good nutrients are identified to be absorbed by our body, and the other not-so-good-stuff gets evacuated. This is crucial because right underneath the intestinal lining is the immune system.
So what’s the connection to sleep? Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory. When your liver and immune system kick in at night this triggers inflammation and cortisol comes rushing in in order to help. If you’re waking between sleep cycles and there is a battle going on in your immune system with cortisol flowing at full speed, the chances of you getting back to sleep are going to be limited. That’s why that late night cheese plate on Christmas eve will likely keep you up.
When we are eating foods that are healthy and easy to digest, then the chances of triggering this inflammation of the gut are much lower.
Tips and advice
- Digesting takes about 80% of our energy so if you can control meal times, try not to eat too late in the evening.
- Try to avoid too much of anything that rises your blood sugar levels. Choose healthy carbohydrates where possible. These can help you sleep by not putting excessive strain on your digestive system.
- If you can, skip sugar or ready-made meals, which are full of saturated fats and sweeteners.
Alcohol can trick you into believing that it will be easier for you to fall asleep. It can make you feel sleepy, but it also has some important side effects on sleep.
Even if you’ve slept for hours, after alcohol you can still feel completely exhausted the next day: an all too familiar scenario, especially around Christmas when we have office Christmas parties and a packed social schedule.
Alcohol interferes with our sleep phases. Most of us know of at least two sleep phases, which are deep sleep and REM sleep, which is when we dream. Alcohol affects this deep sleep, which is the most important phase we have, as that is when most of our physical and cognitive restoration happens. On average, an adult has five to six complete sleep cycles in a night but when under the influence of alcohol, this can be reduced to two, so even if you are clocking up enough sleeping hours, you won’t feel as refreshed when you wake up the next day.
Alcohol also dehydrates you, leaving you craving water and waking you up. The effects of alcohol of course vary from person to person, so it is up to you to observe how alcohol impacts you and your sleep and adjust your routine accordingly.
Tips and advice
- No matter what the season, have a glass of water in between every drink.
- It goes without saying, but remember not to drink on an empty stomach even when dashing off to meet friends after work. Try and have an energy bar, nuts or fruit on hand to help fill your stomach whilst on the move.
- Air out your room before going to bed. This will help your oxygen flow and help evacuate alcohol a little bit faster. On top of that, cooling your body temperature helps you drift into sleep.
CHILDREN AT CHRISTMAS
The joy in a child’s eyes when unwrapping presents and enjoying the holiday spirit is priceless. Having a grouchy toddler who is screaming, crying and throwing tantrums; or a baby waking up every two hours… not so much. Children facing sleep issues is a rising issue in the UK and a lot of parents will have the challenge of catching the right moment to put their little ones down to sleep this Christmas season.
There is a reason for evening tantrums. When children get over-tired they get a kick of cortisol (remember that one?); they get wound up, cantankerous and it is really difficult for them to calm down and sleep. You have to wait an hour to 90 minutes before you can catch the next window of opportunity and even if they then do manage to go to sleep, cortisol levels are elevated and sleep will often not be as smooth.
Tips and advice
- Have your bedtime routine down to perfection. Come the holidays you will be able to get away with it at a different time (usually a bit later) but so long as it’s regular, your child will be so used to it that they will find their way into sleep on autopilot much more easily.
- Don’t let your child become over-tired. This has been by far the most frequent problem I have witnessed during my time as a baby sleep consultant.
- If you’re out and about, as soon as you see a yawn, heavy blinking, eye rubbing or any other sleep signals, pack your stuff and head off home, or if you can, put them down to nap wherever you are staying.
Here are some guidelines as to how much sleep children need at what age and what a daytime schedule could look like:
Awake time between naps:
- Newborn – 3 months: 45 minutes (3 to 4 naps per day)
- 3 – 6 months: 1.5 – 2 hours (3 naps per day)
- 6 – 9 months: 2 – 3 hours (2 naps per day)
- 9 – 12 months: 3 – 4 hours (1 to 2 naps per day)
- 12 – 24 months: 4 – 6 hours (1 nap per day)
ABOUT CHRISTINE HANSEN
Christine Hansen is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and entrepreneur. Starting out after the birth of her first son as a consultant for sleep deprived parents, Christine is a holistic sleep coach, focusing on healing the body so that sleep comes naturally. She is trained in the Holistic Science of Sleep Method and is a certified Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and a Spencer Institute Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is also the author of best-selling book Sleep Like A Boss, and has been featured in press around the world including The Huffington Post, My Domaine and Refinery29.