The holidays can throw your sleeping habits for a loop. The stress of shopping for gifts and the sounds of Santa’s reindeers on the rooftop can keep you up late at night. But on the other hand, time off work should mean a few more blissful hours under the covers in the morning.
So is the festive season a gift or a lump of coal for our sleep routine?
It turns out that people tend to get more sleep and higher-quality sleep on public holidays than weekdays, according to new research from SleepScore Labs. However, the data also showed that people don’t keep a consistent sleep schedule this time of year, which can mess with your internal clock long after the holidays are over.
Here’s a closer look at how the holidays affect our sleep and what you can do to get quality Zzz’s amid the excitement and stress of the season.
How the holidays impact our sleep
To understand the ways in which the holidays can affect our sleep schedule, SleepScore Labs analyzed sleep data obtained from 45,097 people between 17 and 90 years old. The research included data gleaned from a total of more than 2 million nights of sleep.
The researchers found that people tend to get an average of 5 minutes more sleep time on a public holiday than a weekday, but about 9 minutes less sleep than on a non-holiday Saturday or Sunday.
“These findings suggest that public holidays seem to fall somewhere between weekends and weekdays in terms of objectively measured sleep,” said Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., lead applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs.
The data also showed that our sleep schedule shifts later during the holiday season. We tend to go to bed 17 minutes later and wake up 25 minutes later. Yet, we don’t tend to go to bed or wake up quite as late on holidays as we do on a typical weekend.
“The holidays can cause a shift in our sleep-wake patterns simply because of fewer social constraints, namely work. Increased alcohol consumption and stress reported during the holidays can also influence our sleep, as revealed by the small (roughly 2 minute) but statistically significant increase in the amount of time it took users to fall asleep,” said Gottlieb.
It’s worth noting that since some employers don’t observe public holidays, the effects of these occasions on sleep may be underestimated, but more research is needed. And while these trends held true for most users, they weren’t as pronounced among one core group: older adults.
“At around the age of 65 to 70, following suspected retirement, there is a convergence in sleep patterns where weekday, weekend, and public holiday sleep schedules become much more similar,” said Gottlieb.
He explains that this may be due to changes in “social zeitgebers" (external cues, such as mealtimes and exercise schedules, that affect our body’s internal clock) that occur in retirement. In other words, it might just be easier to keep a consistent sleep routine when we’re no longer working, even when the halls are decked and our schedules are filled with holiday parties.
Why the holidays can feel exhausting
Overall, the holidays seem to sprinkle some Christmas magic on our slumber. We usually get a little more sleep, our SleepScores increase slightly from their weekday levels, and we don’t wake up quite as early as usual. So why can this time of year still feel so exhausting?
“You can’t overstate how stressful the holidays can be for a lot of people,” said Dr. Pakkay Ngai, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Having relatives come over or worrying about finances will definitely add to stress, and that translates to our sleep patterns through insomnia or sleep deprivation as we struggle to try to get everything done before the big day.”
While going to bed and waking up later during the holidays might be giving us some more sleep time, irregular sleep schedules can leave us feeling less than our best. Research shows that keeping an inconsistent bedtime schedule may lead to lower quality sleep, which could harm our brain performance, mood, and overall health.
“I tell my patients that I don’t want their sleep schedules to vary by more than one hour between weekday nights and weekend nights (or holidays). Otherwise, you’re constantly switching time zones,” said Ngai.
Indulging in spiked eggnog, holiday cookies, and other treats late into the night can also wreak havoc on how well you sleep. Research shows that eating or drinking anything within the hour leading up to your bedtime may lead to inefficient sleep and longer sleep times to compensate for the poorer-quality slumber. And alcohol presents unique problems when it comes to sleep.
“There’s a myth that alcohol will help you sleep. While it’s a sedative and relaxant that will help you get to sleep, it stays in your system for hours and decreases the amount of REM sleep you get,” said Ngai. “It can make you more restless, as opposed to giving you a night of good sleep.”
Tips for better sleep during the holidays
While the holidays can be a mixed bag for getting rest, there are some things you can do to boost your chances of getting great sleep.
Keep a consistent schedule. “If possible, keep your bedtime and wake-up time as close to your usual weekday pattern as possible, or no more than 30 to 45 minutes later,” said Gottlieb.
Get morning sunshine. Opening the curtains or going for a walk outside shortly after waking up can expose you to light that supports your circadian rhythm.
Soothe holiday stress. Finding ways to reduce the stress you feel this time of year can help you rest easy once bedtime rolls around. Ngai recommends offloading your worries into a journal before drifting off.
Avoid late-night meals. Eating a big meal too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. Try not to eat less than three hours before bedtime.
Ease kids’ excitement. The anticipation of opening presents can make it especially hard for kids to get to sleep. Ngai recommends giving children one present the night before the big day to calm some of their excitement. No promises those thumps on the rooftop from Santa’s sleigh won’t wake them up late at night, though!