Besides the obvious fact that this is the season to throw diets out the window, there could be another reason why we tend to gain weight over the holidays. This time or year we tend to trade sleep for all the activities that require our wakefulness.
The connection between inadequate sleep and weight gain goes back to research that shows a consistent link between a low amount of sleep and a high amount of body weight. And get this, my fellow Americans who sleep less than any other industrialized country: Less than eight hours a day of sleep increases your likelihood to be overweight.
Endocrinologists (those who specialize in the study and treatment of hormone-related conditions such as diabetes) say that sleep plays a major role in the function of body hormones that control our physical health, including hunger and the regulation of blood sugars. Studies show that just one night of staying awake when you should be sleeping can simultaneously slow down metabolism (burning of calories for energy) and increase hunger and blood sugar levels — not exactly the formula for a fit and trim new year.
So what is adequate sleep? Many experts define adequate sleep as seven to nine hours a night. One study in adults older than 75 found that people who got an average of 7.5 hours of sleep per night had fewer health problems than those who got less sleep.
Fine and good. But how do we actually accomplish more and better shut-eye?
Here is what experts suggest:
Feed your sleepiness. Say "no thanks" to caffeinated beverages (including energy drinks) as bedtime draws near, especially if you know you are sensitive to the stimulating effects of these products.
Entice your sleep-inducing hormones. Dim the Christmas lights, and record the late-night running of "It's a Wonderful Life" to watch another time. Less exposure to light as the night closes in stimulates the production of melatonin, the sleepy-time hormone.
As bedtime approaches, forgo the spiked eggnog for a nice cup of chamomile tea. Less fat and alcohol are more inviting to a sound night's sleep. And although research is lacking on chamomile's effectiveness to induce sleep, at least one study has shown it may be helpful to reduce anxiety symptoms in some people, according to the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Relax your brain. Get some exercise. Take some deep breaths as you pray and meditate on the season before you. Then put any anxious thoughts on the shelf and — in the words of Scarlett O'Hara — "think about that tomorrow."
Sometimes we do all these things and we still can't get restful sleep. That, my friends, calls for a consult to your local sleep-expert doctor for evaluation. It's worth it.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.