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20 Things You Do Before Bed That Sabotage Your Sleep

These surprising before-bed habits may be keeping you from getting the good night's sleep you've been craving.

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20 Things You Do Before Bed That Sabotage Your SleepMaryAbramkina/Shutterstock

Consuming large, heavy meals

Late-night eating might be a favourite pastime, but guess what? Your digestive tract was meant to be at rest when you sleep—not hard at work. In fact, the process of digestion (peristalsis) is at its lowest ebb during sleep, says Robert S. Rosenberg, MD, board-certified sleep medicine physician and author of The Doctor’s Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety, so, when you just wolfed down a couple of tacos or slices of pizza, it’s not prepared to handle the volume. If you’re hungry before bedtime, a small amount of food may be helpful, suggests Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, but for those dealing with bladder control issues or prostate problems, avoid liquids after dinner time (or for five to six hours before bedtime). Doing so can decrease the need to get up and go to the bathroom, which often significantly disrupts sleep.

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Evening cocktails

Knocking back a few drinks might make you feel sleepy, but later on, as in the early morning, it may trigger your sympathetic (fight or flight) system and make it near-impossible for you stay asleep, says Dr. Rosenberg. “It can also trigger disturbing dreams, as, at first, it suppresses dream sleep, but then you may develop increasingly vivid and disturbing dreams as the alcohol wears off.” This is sometimes referred to as REM rebound. It takes the average human body about one hour to digest one alcoholic beverage, says Dr. Breus, so if you have two glasses of wine with dinner, aim to enjoy your last sip by at least three hours before lights out.

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You probably already know the countless reasons you should quit smoking, but here’s another one to add to the list. Specifically, it’s the nicotine cigarettes contain that significantly impacts your ability to fall asleep. “Nicotine stimulates the production of the wake-promoting neurotransmitter, acetylcholine,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “If you are using a nicotine 24/7 patch and cannot sleep, talk to your health-care provider about removing it before bedtime.”

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Watching exciting movies

Winding down with a movie at the end of a long day might sound like a smart idea, but be wise in your choice of genres. Scary or frightening movies cause the “stress hormone,” cortisol, to rocket, which can keep you alert and awake far past bedtime. “Try not to watch horror, action, or violent movies, or read thrillers, or play video games for at least a few hours before bedtime,” suggests Dr. Buchfuhrer. “Instead, choose calmer, possibly even boring flicks, such as documentaries, and relaxing activities such as reading and practicing meditation.” Another don’t: anything work-related, as it can make you anxious or stressed.

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Use electronic devices

This includes computers, laptops, cell phones, and just about any other electronic device that emits blue light. “Blue light upon striking your retina will shut down your normal production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, not only impairing your ability to fall asleep but also leaving you sleepy in the morning,” says Dr. Rosenberg. Once you are in bed, sleep experts advise not watching TV, but instead reading, stretching, meditating or praying, if that’s your preference. “Keep up this routine for three weeks and most people begin falling asleep without the TV and experience the uninterrupted sleep they deserve,” says Dr. Oexman.

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Having a serious conversation

Whether it’s a solemn phone call with a friend, a late-night tiff with your significant other or a pesky neighbour that’s cranking his music up too loud, fighting or talking about serious subjects before bed is not a good idea. “Confrontations lead to a stress response, with your adrenal glands producing cortisol and adrenaline,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “This is the exact opposite of what you want if you’re trying to fall asleep easily. In fact, once your body starts producing these stress hormones, you cannot wave a magic wand and get them to return to normal levels.”

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Taking certain medications

Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can keep you from falling asleep. “These include stimulating medications such as Ritalin and Adderall, which elevate the levels of wake-promoting neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine,” Dr. Rosenberg. In fact, even some of the popular antidepressants, such as Prozac, Cymbalta, and Zoloft, can cause trouble falling asleep. The same goes for those over-the-counter allergy meds, especially if their name includes the letter D. “Zyrtec D, Allegra D, etc. all contain the decongestant phenylephrine, which can be stimulating and keep you awake,” Dr. Rosenberg explains.

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Late at night might be your only opportunity to sneak in a workout and, by all means, you should try to sneak in a workout whenever possible; however, it’s important to note that revving up your energy and heart rate that late at night may prevent you from falling asleep easily. “The best time to exercise is three to four hours prior to going to sleep,” says Robert Oexman, MD, a chiropractor, and director of The Sleep to Live Institute. “The increase in core body temperature followed by a decrease in core body temperature mimics the natural drop in body temperature needed to fall asleep and maintain sleep.” He suggests taking a hot bath or shower at bedtime instead, as hot water increases blood flow to the skin, which decreases core body temperature when you get out.

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Going to bed way earlier than normal

Bedtimes aren’t just for babies and little kids. Turns out, scheduling “lights out” for the same time each night is one of the best things you can do to ensure you score a full, rested night’s sleep. “Many people alter their bedtime and wake time multiple days of the week, which results in a common behaviour known as ‘social jet lag,'” explains Dr. Oexman. “The result is the body’s natural circadian rhythm has to continually adjust to a new routine.” To avoid this, try your best to set a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends.

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Sipping caffeinated beverages

A cup of joe, in addition to the myriad of energy drinks on the market, might go a long way in helping maintain alertness, but they also lead to restless nights, which then become sleepy, tired days. “Most people do not know it, but caffeine has a half-life of between six to eight hours,” says Michael Breus, M.D, clinical psychologist, and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. This means any caffeinated beverage you consume after 3 or 4 p.m. could cost you serious snooze time and cause you to rely on the stuff the next morning to wake up.

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Going to bed hungry

While you certainly don’t want to go to bed on a full stomach, you also don’t want your stomach to be growling. “In many cases, this can cause a drop in blood sugar which could actually be waking you up at night,” warns Dr. Breus. “When your blood sugar gets low, insulin is produced to help utilize fat stores, but this can be stimulating and keep you awake.” His go-to remedy for this situation is a teaspoon of raw honey, which keeps your blood sugar stable longer. Also, be sure to avoid eating these foods before bed.

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Worrying is something most of us can’t help but do from time to time, but if at all possible, try not to let your mind race before bed. If your thoughts run haywire, they can easily interfere with sleep. Try keeping a worry journal, recommends Mark S. Aloia, MD, sleep expert, Global Lead of Health Behaviour Change at Philips and psychologist at National Jewish Health. “About an hour and a half before bedtime, write down your worries, your lists of things to do or anything that tends to creep up when you’re trying to sleep,” he says. “Getting these things off of your mind and giving them the time they need can help keep them from bothering you later.”

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Hanging out under bright lights

Light can have a dramatic effect on the quality of your sleep. “Light decreases melatonin, a natural sleep hormone that floods your brain when you sleep,” says Dr. Aloia. “Keeping your bedroom free from light is an important way to enable better sleep.” He recommends investing in an eye mask if you have a roommate or a spouse who likes to stay up later than you to eliminate light in an otherwise lit environment.

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Drinking too much water

If you didn’t drink enough H2O during the day, your body might be telling you to load up in the evening. Just be sure you don’t sip too much before bed. Otherwise, the consequence may be two to three nighttime wakings, which interrupts your slumber and impacts sleep quality, warns Rachel Wong, certified Reverie Sleep Coach. She recommends limiting your fluid intake a couple of hours before bedtime so that you can have a night of uninterrupted sleep.

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Watch the thermostat

“The ideal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Wong. “Anything cooler or warmer will likely cause discomfort and restlessness.” She suggests adjusting your temperature to whatever feels cool for you, whether that requires opening up windows or turning on a fan. “You can also try temperature regulating sheets and pillows,” she adds.

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Sleeping on dirty sheets

We all get busy—and maybe don’t change the sheets as often as we’d like. But it’s important that your sheets be clean. “Allergy-prone sleepers should be especially vigilant about sticking to a weekly laundry cycle to prevent the buildup of dust mites, allergens, and bacteria in your linens,” warns Wong. If you’re feeling itchy from dirty sheets, chances are, you won’t get the best night’s sleep.

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Watching the news

Nighttime might seem like the perfect time to catch up on the news, but experts warn that doing so may cost you restful slumber. “No matter the network, most of the information on the news is really a dramatization meant to scare you to death and make you dislike everybody who doesn’t think like you,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, an internist who specializes in sleep, fibromyalgia and pain. “Leave off the news, and do something else that is calming and relaxing.”

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Procrastinating sleep

A sleep-and-wake schedule is important for training your body to recognize when it’s time to turn off and when it’s time to wake up, according to certified sleep science coach Chris Brantner, the founder of the sleep research site SleepZoo. “Procrastinating sleep throws your circadian rhythm out of whack.” Worse, if you get too exhausted, it can make it even more difficult to get to sleep, he warns.

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Napping too close to bedtime

While napping is wonderful and can be healthy, doing it within six hours before you go to bed can sabotage your sleep. “There is data to suggest that the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep is directly related to the last time you were asleep,” warns Dr. Breus. “Napping too close to bedtime will lower your sleep drive, which is what helps you fall asleep.”

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Not having a bedtime routine

You wouldn’t dream of trying to have your child go from running around frantically straight to bed—and the same should go for you, according to Dr. Teitelbaum. “When it comes to falling asleep, adults are really just big children,” he says. “Establish a calm and enjoyable bedtime routine that gives your body the cues that it is time to ease into sleep.”

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest