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11/21/2012 08:28 am ET | Updated Jan 21, 2013

Sweet (Potato) Dreams: Tips for Sleeping Better This Thanksgiving

While food is often plentiful during the Thanksgiving holiday, quality sleep is harder to come by. Traveling great distances and staying with friends and relatives often creates sleeping situations only slightly better than those on the Mayflower. Fear not -- here are some sleeping tips that are more effective than grabbing onto the wishbone and hoping for the best.

The first step toward a good night's sleep is packing properly. Give some thought to what you are bringing besides the brown sugar pecan sweet potato casserole. Handy items include earplugs to muffle the sounds of snorers, an eye mask (few guest bedrooms have drapes that are designed to be room-darkening), and your own pillow. Not only will your pillow make you instantly more comfortable, pairing it with a lavender pillow spray can actually improve your sleep. Research has shown that lavender can help promote more deep sleep during the night.[1] Having your own pillow will make your back and neck more comfortable, and also help trick your brain into thinking you are at home in your cozy bed. Sleepwear should be considered carefully. Not every family shares your thermostat beliefs. Be prepared for a meat locker or a sauna by sleeping in comfortable layers that can be added or removed as necessary.

Once you've arrived at the feast, someone's going to put a glass of wine or beer in your hand before you can sit down. There's a good chance that in some cases, the flow of that alcohol may not end until it's time to load the dishwasher and package up the leftovers. Be it a Bud Light or a nice red wine, alcohol reduces the quality of your sleep by promoting more nighttime awakenings and reducing total sleep time. People who consume alcohol feel sleepier the following day, as well.[2]

Travel itself also has a way of disrupting sleep. Exercise routines are often particularly vulnerable. For some, being away from your favorite gym or your own equipment encourages an exercise hiatus. Others view the holiday as "a break" that for many does not end until it's time to make an exercise resolution as the New Year's ball is dropping. Try to prioritize your exercise routine, since it promotes falling asleep faster and higher quality sleep at night.[3] Make a plan to join an area Turkey Trot or map out your own. For many, instituting or continuing a holiday Turkey Bowl football game can be a great way for the family to get exercise and have fun at the same time. It also provides a way for Uncle Hal to show everyone the play he ran to win the 1986 Arkansas High School State football consolation game.

And speaking of football, there are no less than three NFL games on slate for Thanksgiving Day. While it has been difficult in years past to stay awake during the Lions game, this year's game features a much improved Detroit team against the Texans, who many favor to win the Super Bowl. With the Redskins versus Cowboys and Jets against the Patriots, the NFL has done their part to make sure you have some exciting games to keep you awake on Turkey Day. Why is this important? Napping, particularly in the evening, can make it difficult for many to fall asleep at night.[4] Think of the naps as little snacks that ruin your appetite for sleep later. Feeling sleepy on the couch? Get up and go help out in the kitchen.

Meal timing can be helpful, as well. The lore of tryptophan in the turkey is well documented as a sleep-promoting agent, but in reality, the massive carbohydrate bomb we ingest is really the cause of sleepiness that follows the Thanksgiving meal. Average individuals can ingest up to 4,500 calories during Thanksgiving dinner versus 2,500 calories during a typical day.[5] Big carbohydrate loads tend to promote sleep via increased insulin release and the resultant rise in sleep-promoting neurotransmitters like serotonin.[6] Try to eat less and skew the meal toward protein earlier in the day, with the carb-laden dinner later. This will help promote a better sleep when the timing for sleep is right.

Planning ahead can prevent a difficult sleeping situation from ruining a great Thanksgiving celebration. And if all else fails, you can always ask Uncle Hal to tell you that football story one more time. That should put you to sleep in no time.

For more by Dr. Christopher Winter, click here.

For more on sleep, click here.

References

[1.] Goel N, Kim H, Lao RP. An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiol Int. 2005;22(5):889-904.

[2.] Arnedt JT, Rohsenow DJ, Almeida AB, Hunt SK, Gokhale M, Gottlieb DJ, Howland J. Sleep following alcohol intoxication in healthy, young adults: effects of sex and family history of alcoholism. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011 May;35(5):870-8.

[3.] Reid KJ, Baron KG, Lu B, Naylor E, Wolfe L, Zee PC. Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Med. 2010 Oct;11(9):934-40. Epub 2010 Sep 1.

[4.] Dhand R, Sohal H. Good sleep, bad sleep! The role of daytime naps in healthy adults. 2006 Nov;12(6):379-82.

[5.] Wright JD, Wang CY, Kennedy-Stephenson J, Ervin RB. Dietary intake of ten key nutrients for public health, United States: 1999-2000. Advance data from vital and health statistics; no. 334. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. 2003.

[6.] Fernstrom JD, Wurtman RJ. Brain serotonin content: increase following ingestion of carbohydrate diet. Science. 1971 Dec 3;174(4013):1023-5.

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