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Can’t Get A Good Night’s Rest? Watch Out For These 8 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Sleep

Fortune Well July 9, 2024


Can’t Get A Good Night’s Rest? Watch Out For These 8 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Sleep

As a child, you likely had a bedtime routine: take a bath, put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, and get tucked in with your favorite book. Just maybe, on the weekends you got to stay up an extra half hour. Remember not worrying about an alarm clock, when getting enough sleep was your parents’ responsibility? Those were the days.

While adulthood comes with the freedom to go to bed whenever you please, the absence of a regimen that primes your body for adequate rest is among the plethora of poor habits that may be damaging your sleep health.

Proper rest offers myriad short- and long-term benefits for both your physical and mental health, from reducing stress and improving memory to lowering risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Getting sufficient sleep may even save others’ lives, the agency points out, as rested drivers are less likely to cause motor vehicle crashes resulting in injury and death.

Chances are you know what you should be doing to get a good night’s sleep—such as turning down the thermostat to cool your bedroom—even if putting these habits into practice is easier said than done. What’s more, you may be inadvertently engaging in behaviors that sabotage your sleep. Here are eight to be aware of.

1. Treating your body like a machine with an off switch

You can’t shut down your body like you can your laptop. If you’ve experienced rough nights when your body is rife with exhaustion yet sleep is elusive, that may be because you hoped merely climbing into bed would silence your racing mind.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends carving out an hour of “quiet time” before bed. You might spend it reading, meditating, listening to calming music, or taking a hot shower or bath—anything that relaxes you and doesn’t involve bright artificial light. It may be helpful to set a wind-down alarm an hour or so before you plan to fall asleep.

Dr. Eric Sklar, a neurologist and medical director of the Inova Sleep Disorders Program in northern Virginia, previously told Fortune that evening downtime is critical to a healthy circadian rhythm, or body clock. Keeping that clock on schedule may help prevent one of the most common disorders Sklar treats: insomnia.


2. Sleeping and waking at inconsistent times

Let’s say your weekday sleep schedule is 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., perhaps a bit late for an early bird and early for a night owl. If you’re the latter, you may be tempted to stay up late and sleep in on the weekends, maybe sleeping from 2–10 a.m. Early birds may be keen to hit the hay at 8 p.m. and rise at dawn to get a jump on their weekend to-do lists.

However, keeping a consistent sleep-wake schedule, weekends included, is another component of a healthy circadian rhythm and quality rest. Sleep regularity may even strengthen your survival in addition to improving your general health, according to a study of nearly 61,000 people published in the January issue of the journal Sleep. Researchers found that sleep regularity is a stronger predictor of mortality risk than sleep duration, and that people with more irregular sleep patterns have a higher risk of premature death.

If you find yourself in sleep debt, though, the National Sleep Foundation says it’s OK to sleep up to two extra hours on days you aren’t working.

People who work nontraditional hours are at risk of a circadian rhythm disruption called shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). If you think you have SWSD, your primary care physician or a sleep specialist can help.

3. Taking long naps and napping too close to bedtime

In some Asian and European countries with warm climates, afternoon naps—the Spanish siesta may come to mind—provide midday respite from both work and scorching temperatures. Naps aren’t revered the same way in the U.S., yet plenty of Americans reap their restorative power. Even so, napping without a strategy could damage your sleep health.

If you want to nap, do so as far in advance of your desired bedtime as possible, Alaina Tiani, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, previously told Fortune, recommending “smart naps” lasting no longer than 30 minutes.

“This increases the likelihood that your brain will stay in the lighter stages of sleep and that you will wake up refreshed,” she said. “When we nap much longer, we may cycle into deeper stages of sleep, which may be harder to wake from.”

Consult your doctor if you’re unable to stay awake during the day or notice a sudden increased need for naps.

If you want to nap, do so as far in advance of your desired bedtime as possible, recommends Alaina Tiani, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the <a href="https://fortune.com/company/cleveland-clinic/" target="_blank">Cleveland Clinic</a> Sleep Disorders Center.
4. Eating large meals before bed

Cleveland Clinic recommends not eating three hours before bed. Because resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates your blood sugar, increases at night, your body stores late meals as fat while you sleep. Over time, this heightens your risk of obesity and cardiometabolic disease. In addition, eating a big dinner close to bedtime can cause conditions such as heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux. Not to mention, it’s difficult to make sensible food choices when you’re exhausted.

But if you must have a midnight snack, there’s hope; research suggests nutrient-rich snacks containing fewer than 200 calories can be consumed late at night without jeopardizing your health. 

5. Winding down with alcohol

A nightcap may sound appealing, a rich sedative to take the edge off before bed. But although alcohol may initially make you feel sleepy, it can disrupt your sleep hours later. Research has shown large amounts of alcohol before bed to cause poor-quality sleep. 

Chronic sleep disturbances are a hallmark of alcohol abuse and dependence. If you’re struggling with alcohol use, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Alcohol Treatment Navigator can provide support.

6. Consuming caffeine and nicotine too late

You don’t have to give up your after-dinner coffee or tea—just stick to decaffeinated varieties. The exact cutoff time when you should switch from regular to decaf is up for debate; the CDC, for example, recommends quitting caffeine after noon, while an analysis published last year in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews advocates for the elimination of coffee about nine hours before bed. Because caffeine sensitivity varies from person to person, though, listen to your body to know when it’s time for decaf.

Like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant known to cause sleep disruptions, and research has shown smokers to have lower-quality sleep than nonsmokers. If you need help with nicotine addiction, a number of resources are available, including the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine and Tobacco QuitLine, 800-LUNGUSA (586-4872).

When you’re dehydrated, your body can’t function properly let alone recover properly. On the flip side, dehydration may be linked to shorter sleep duration.

7. Not drinking enough water during the day

You know your own bladder, but drinking too much water too close to bedtime may make for bathroom breaks in the middle of the night. Ensuring you’re adequately hydrated throughout the day can both eliminate those urinary wake-up calls and help you sleep more soundly.

Your body is mostly made up of water, which does everything from regulate your temperature to cushion your bones. When you’re dehydrated, your body can’t function properly let alone recover properly. On the flip side, dehydration may be linked to shorter sleep duration. In 2018, Penn State researchers found that adults who slept six hours nightly as opposed to eight had a higher likelihood of inadequate hydration.

8. Working out before conking out

Regular exercise is key to good sleep hygiene, per the CDC, and physical activity—whenever you can squeeze it in—is better than none. Yet engaging in a vigorous workout within a few hours of bedtime may cost you a restful night. 

Your circadian rhythm cues your core body temperature to drop before sleep; exercise raises it. Exercise also triggers the release of endorphins, feel-good chemicals that may also keep you awake.

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