With the holidays approaching and the start of the New Year within arm’s reach, keeping your normal routines can be tough. To prevent burnout that can be caused by holiday travel and the resulting disruption of your healthy sleep-wake cycle, it is key to hone in on tips to manage jet lag, diet and exercise to maintain or restore a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
During the holidays our normal healthy sleep-wake cycle, also known as our circadian rhythm, can be disrupted by several factors. Many individuals spread themselves too thin in an effort to finish holiday decorating or shopping, spend quality time with friends and family members and stay on task with their typical everyday responsibilities. As a result, sleep is frequently compromised. Often, it’s not until the holidays are over that the full effect hits us and we feel more tired than ever.
The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that regulates many physiological processes and signals our bodies when it’s time for certain processes such as sleeping, cell regeneration and even muscle strength. This cycle is regulated by cues such as the rise and fall of body temperature, certain hormone levels and exposure to sunlight. When the circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, an individual’s normal patterns for sleeping and eating are off kilter.
Travel and a Healthy Sleep-Wake Cycle
Jet lag is a common sleep disorder that is the result of a desynchronization of our circadian rhythm caused by travel to different time zones. When we are affected by jet lag, our body tells us it’s time to sleep when it may be mid-afternoon, or makes us want to stay awake during late night hours. As the holidays are prime time for travel, understanding how to overcome jet lag is essential for your optimal functioning and to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
Many studies have been conducted related to the circadian rhythm and researchers have determined that eating habits and exercise also affect the regulation of our circadian rhythms. The following tips can help you manage jet lag, diet and exercise during the holidays to prevent the disruption of your normal sleep-wake cycle.
Overcoming Jet Lag
Simple behavioral adjustments that you can make before, during and after your arrival at your holiday (or any) destination can help you manage feelings of jet lag and include the following:
- Prepare for time zone differences by going to bed and awakening earlier for several days before an eastward trip and later for a westward trip.
- Adjust your watch to your holiday destination time zone upon boarding the plane.
- Incorporate your at-home sleep routine while staying away. This could include bringing your favorite pillow, pajamas or nighttime tea.
- Plan for more sleep-friendly travel schedules by avoiding red eye flights. Plan to leave earlier in the day if you are traveling east, and later in the day if traveling west.
- Enforce a healthy bedtime and make it routine during your holiday travel.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption as this can affect your sleep quality. Also, avoid caffeine and alcohol for at least three to four hours prior to bedtime as they can prevent sleep by acting as stimulants.
- If you’re feeling tired, it’s ok to take a nap. The best time for a nap is during the afternoon slump around 12 to 2 p.m. The length of your naps should be between 20 and 30 minutes on the short end, and 90 minutes on the long end. Napping durations between these times can leave you feeling groggy when you awaken.
Stick to Healthy Eating Habits
Research conducted on the circadian rhythm has found that additional factors, such as food consumption help to adjust the daily rhythmic functions of our organs. It is thought that our body’s metabolic functions, such as energy use and storage, are controlled by the circadian rhythm. This means we are more adapted to eat during daytime hours rather than nighttime hours and by opposing these rhythms we risk altering our sleep-wake cycle. A study conducted by Harvard University revealed that we could alter our circadian rhythm by changing our eating habits. Therefore, following these tips can help keep your rhythm regulated:
- During travel before or after the holidays, plan your meal times to align with your destination, even if skipping a meal is necessary.
- Avoid eating for at least two hours prior to your bedtime, or midnight snacking, as your metabolic cycles need to be active to receive food.
- Also to manage jet lag, avoid eating heavy meals upon arrival to your destination. Choose a snack instead.
Incorporate Exercise into Your Afternoon Routine
A study published in the Journal of Physiology suggests that exercise does affect our circadian rhythm. The researchers stated our circadian rhythm can be disrupted by factors such as artificial light and age. These disruptions have been shown by previous research to be linked to an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, memory loss, mood disorders and certain types of cancer. To determine whether exercise could help regulate a disrupted circadian rhythm, researchers used mice in this study. The results revealed that after several weeks of exercise (running), the circadian rhythms of these mice became sturdier. It was further noted that mice who ran later in the day produced and pumped more essential proteins throughout their body then mice that ran earlier in the day. Hence, the following tips:
- Incorporate regular exercise into your afternoon, as it may increase your brain’s production of proteins to be distributed to organs such as the heart and liver, which will help you regulate your holiday sleep wake cycle and function optimally.
- Avoid heavy exercises close to your bedtime as this will increase the hormones associated with wakefulness.
In addition to these tips, you can help your circadian rhythm remain regulated by getting exposure to sunlight in the morning. Although, the shorter days and time spent indoors during the holiday season may feel cozy to you, the lack of sunlight can contribute to depression and disrupt your innate 24-hour rhythm. Catching a few rays in the morning can help re-set your holiday sleep-wake cycle, especially when you are affected by jet lag.