10 'Harmless' Nighttime Habits That Are Secretly Ruining Your Sleep

Read this if you're waking up tired in the morning and you're not quite sure why.
Experts share the common nightly behaviors that could be the source of your exhaustion.
Oscar Wong via Getty Images
Experts share the common nightly behaviors that could be the source of your exhaustion.

We know the importance of habits. Many people try to cultivate good ones, like eating healthier, reading more or getting more sleep.

Unfortunately, sometimes we unintentionally set ourselves up for failure. especially when it comes to sleep. What we don’t always realise is that some of the things we do before bed might actually be making our kip worse.

We reached out to several experts to find out which of our seemingly harmless nighttime habits aren’t conducive to a restful night’s sleep. Here’s what to avoid.

1. Bedtime procrastination

We all have busy lives, and sometimes we don’t get to complete our to-do lists during the daytime. In order to make up for this, we’ll try to play catch up at night.

This has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic and can lead to poor overall sleep quality, according to Dr. Ashwini Nadkarni, an associate psychiatrist and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

“So many people will spend the last few minutes of the day ‘catching up,’ not only on work duties but also on household needs,” Nadkarni tells HuffPost.

“For instance, the last 30 minutes before bedtime, people may write down lists of tasks they need to get done around the house, obligations they need to fulfil on behalf of their kids, or respond to work emails that they might have missed,” she continues.

“This might feel like a version of winding down when actually, it can instigate nighttime rumination and an arousal level about additional planning for the next day, in turn, impacting sleep onset latency and worsening overall sleep quality.”

2. Drinking alcohol before bed

We know reaching for your favourite boozy beverage might sound like the perfect way to unwind from a long day, but it might also be the reason you can’t stay asleep.

Chelsie Rohrscheib, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at Wesper, an at-home tool for diagnosing sleep disorders and improving sleep, says while alcohol is initially sedating, it becomes problematic as it’s metabolised and broken down into new chemicals by the liver.

“When alcohol is broken down, it turns into a chemical that affects the sleep centres of the brain and prevents deep sleep and REM sleep, making the second half of your night more restless and causing frequent awakenings,” she says.

Additionally, alcohol can cause increased urination, so you may frequently need to get up to use the bathroom. Rohrscheib recommends having your last alcoholic drink at least three or four hours before you go to sleep.

3. Interacting with technology

Despite knowing we shouldn’t, it’s just so hard to resist reaching for a phone, iPad or laptop while in bed. However, Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a physician double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine, urges people to try.

Dimitriu explains that screens are both bright with blue light and interactive, which is wake-promoting.

“I ask all my patients to ‘tech off at 10’, ideally no screens one to two hours before bedtime,” he says. “Reading is so much more conducive to good sleep than interacting with a smartphone until the last waking moment. Besides helping you get to sleep earlier, avoiding interactive or exciting stimuli before bed also works to deepen sleep throughout the night, as your brain starts to slow down before sleep.”

This also includes watching TV in bed, adds Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health educator. “When we watch TV in bed, we can train ourselves that the bed is a place for watching TV – rather than a place reserved exclusively for sleep,” Reed said. “In addition, watching TV at night can lead to binge-watching – especially when watching Netflix shows that tend to autoplay a fresh episode as soon as one ends – delaying bedtime and leading to less time for sleep.”

Finally, if you can’t avoid screens completely, Dr. Deepti Agarwal, the director of interventional and integrative pain management at Case Integrative Health, recommends investing in a good pair of blue light glasses.

“If glasses aren’t your style, there are also plenty of screen protectors or phone applications that block blue light. Then you can enjoy your favourite wind-down show and avoid any negative influences on your sleep,” she says.

If you haven't yet, it's time to ditch your nighttime phone habit.
Westend61 via Getty Images
If you haven't yet, it's time to ditch your nighttime phone habit.

4. Doomscrolling

The act of doomscrolling refers to constantly scrolling through bad news on social media. But before doomscrolling, people were watching hours and hours of TV news. Both doomscrolling and “doomwatching” are harmful to your mental health, but they can also affect your sleep.

Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, sleep experts and authors of Generation Sleepless, believe that watching news updates two hours before bedtime is a big sleep stealer.

“Today’s terrifying news cycle is a good example of a habit that can make falling asleep a lot harder,” they both said in an email. “If we go directly from the intense emotional stimulation of a breaking news story and all the worries it triggers in our already overactive minds, to lying down in bed and trying to sleep, we are likely to lie awake instead.”

5. Evening workouts

It’s generally recommended to avoid vigorous exercise at least 90 minutes before bedtime. While many people choose to have a late night workout routine as a way to “tire themselves out”, these workouts can make for a night of restless sleep, according to Stephen Light, a certified sleep science coach.

“Avoid workouts that make you break a sweat an hour before bedtime,” he says. “This could be cardio, heavy lifting or high-intensity interval training. Instead opt for workouts like pilates, yoga or an evening walk if you feel the need to expend some extra energy. Workouts focused on easing muscle tension can help you avoid aches and pains that may keep you awake in discomfort.”

6. Not having a wind-down routine

Getting good sleep requires a prelude, which means you need to create a wind-down and bedtime routine. Carley Prendergast, a certified sleep science coach and sleep expert, said wind-down routines are important in the process of preparing the mind and body for relaxation and optimal sleep.

“Finding a relaxing routine will help the brain produce melatonin, eventually resulting in sleep,” she says. “One might want to look into establishing the routine of going to bed around the same time every night. This can help establish the circadian rhythm – the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Other soothing activities could include taking a warm bath, skincare, reading a book, etc.”

Reading before bed is a great wind-down routine.
Radovanovic96 via Getty Images
Reading before bed is a great wind-down routine.

7. Eating high-sugar foods

It’s best to avoid foods that quickly spike your blood sugar levels before bed, Rohrscheib says

“When your blood sugar is rapidly increased, it causes a blood sugar crash once it’s deleted from your system,” she says. “A blood sugar crash often leads to hypoglycaemia and this can wake you up in the middle of the night. If you need a snack before bed, reach for foods with a low glycemic index, like oats, which will keep your blood sugar stable throughout the night.”

8. Keeping the temperature too warm

It may be tempting to crank up the heat or keep your air conditioning off, but warm temperatures can be detrimental to your sleep quality. The brain and body need to undergo a slight temperature drop in order to initiate and maintain sleep.

According to Rohrscheib, “when we are too warm, our body has to work harder to cool us down and keep us cool, and this is very disruptive to sleep. Try to maintain your bedroom temperature between 66-70°F [18-21°C]. In the summer months, use fans, crack windows, or use cooling technologies like a cooling pad to reduce the chance of overheating.”

9. Spending too much time in bed

The amount of time we allot for sleep should be similar to our average nightly sleep duration, Reed said. This means that if you typically get about seven hours of sleep each night, it’s best not to allot much more than around seven-and-a-half or eight hours in bed.

“Many people who struggle with sleep allot too much time for sleep as a way of trying to get more sleep,” he said. “This sounds logical – after all, if you spend more time in bed there is more opportunity for sleep.”

But spending more time in bed if you’re already struggling to sleep can be counterproductive.

“If you are already struggling with sleep, then spending more time in bed will simply lead to more time awake in bed rather than more time asleep,” Reed says. “This leads to more tossing and turning during the night, and more worry, stress and anxiety related to being awake in bed. Over time, this creates an association between the bed, worry, and wakefulness – rather than sleep and relaxation. This makes sleep more difficult.”

10. Using your bedroom as an office

Finally, doubling your bedroom as an office space could be contributing to your sleepless nights.

“When we use our bedroom as an office, we’re creating an association with wakefulness,” says Morgan Adams, a holistic sleep coach for women. “Our beds should be a cue for sleep so working in our beds weakens this association. If you’ve been working from your bed all day it could be harder for you to fall asleep since you might have trouble turning off your ‘working brain’.”

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