Tossing and turning all night when you desperately want to sleep is an actual nightmare. Sure, sometimes this happens because of a temporary factor like unusually high stress, so you can get back to sleeping well once the tumult passes. But if you’re regularly getting a bad night’s sleep, it could be due to something entirely preventable that you’re doing right before bed. Here are a few bad nighttime habits experts want you to break ASAP.
1. You don’t have a regular bedtime.
In a perfect world, you’d go to bed at the same time every night and strive to get the recommended amount of sleep. That’s seven to nine hours for people ages 18 to 64 and seven to eight hours for those 65 and older, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“A regular bedtime is a component of a normal circadian rhythm, which governs the times of day you are naturally more tired,” Jesse Mindel, M.D., assistant clinical professor of neurology and sleep medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells. Throwing off your rhythm by constantly going to sleep at different times can make you feel sleepier when you’re awake and have more trouble falling asleep when you’re ready, Dr. Mindel explains.
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Some bedtime variation is OK, like dozing off at 10:45 P.M. instead of your usual 10:30. But, in general, you should try not to deviate from your usual sleep schedule by more than an hour or two, the National Sleep Foundation recommends.
2. You don’t put down your phone until the moment you close your eyes.
Sometimes it might feel truly impossible to pry yourself away from your phone until right before you conk out, like if there’s a breaking news alert or when a heartbroken friend is texting you. But if this is you every night—and you’re struggling to fall asleep when you do decide it’s bedtime—it’s a problem.
One main issue here is that you’re exposing yourself to excessive light, especially the blue light that your phone emits, which can mess with your circadian rhythm and make it hard to fall asleep when you should.
Another potential hiccup: You might tell yourself you’re just going to check the weather before bed, then an hour later, you’re on the Wikipedia page for the celebrity you were obsessed with in middle school. It’s all too easy to allow your phone to keep you awake—and mentally stimulated—for longer than you intended, board-certified sleep medicine researcher and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of the book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, tells. “That can make it harder to go to sleep when you’re ready,” he says. Try not to use your phone (or other electronic devices) for at least an hour before you want to go to bed.
3. You leave your phone next to your bed.
On a related note, even when you put your phone down, leaving it right next to your bed isn’t a great idea, Dr. Winter says. It’s distracting and can keep you from getting to sleep thanks to late-night texts from friends, email alerts, and social media pings. Even if your phone is on silent, the simple temptation of having it there when you can’t sleep may be overwhelming.
You can handle this a few different ways. One is to keep your phone in another room at night and use an actual alarm to wake yourself up. If you’re too worried about missing something like an emergency call, Dr. Winter recommends turning off everything except your ringer, then putting your phone on the other side of your bedroom so you’re not tempted to roll over and check it in the middle of the night. Many phone models also have sleep settings that allow you to silence all calls except those from certain numbers or allow your cell to ring if anyone calls you a few times in a row.
4. You work out intensely right before bed.
We get it, sometimes the evening is the only time you can squeeze exercise into your schedule. Unfortunately, intense physical activity too soon before bed isn’t ideal for your sleep. The U.S. National Library of Medicine specifically recommends avoiding any activity that increases your heart rate for two hours before you want to go to bed.
As you’ve probably already experienced, exercise can boost your energy—not exactly what you need when trying to fall asleep. It also tends to increase your body temperature, which is the opposite of your body temperature’s natural decline around bedtime, according to the National Sleep Foundation. “That can create a delay in your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep,” Dr. Winter says.
If you’re a nighttime exerciser and good sleep is an issue for you, trying switching your workouts to the morning or, at least, earlier in the evening, Dr. Winter says.
5. You’re eating a lot right before bed.
If you’re regularly having heavy meals or snacks in the two hours before bed, that can be a problem, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
The biggest issue here is acid reflux, says Dr. Mindel. That happens when the stuff in your stomach comes back up into your esophagus, causing heartburn, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). If you eat a bunch of food then lie down, you make it easier for the contents of your stomach to reverse course and cause irritating symptoms, Dr. Mindel says.
If you’re super hungry and know you can’t get to bed before you eat something, then, yes, it’s absolutely OK to have a light snack, Dr. Winter says. But if you’re eating late out of something like boredom and think it’s affecting your sleep, it’s best to try to avoid the evening snack.
6. You always have a cup of coffee (or some other caffeinated beverage) in the evening.
When you’re awake, the neurons in your brain make a compound called adenosine as a byproduct, the National Sleep Foundation explains. Usually, when adenosine levels drop in your body, you’ll get tired. Caffeine can block different adenosine receptors in your body, tricking your system into thinking that it’s not time to go to bed yet. Voilà—now you’re awake at 3 A.M.
If you have sleep issues, try to avoid having caffeine at all in the evening, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says. If you need an exact time, Dr. Mindel recommends cutting yourself off six to eight hours before you want to go to sleep.
7. You drink alcohol before bed to try to wind down.
As anyone who’s dozed off on the couch post-nightcap knows, alcohol can help you fall asleep. On the flip side, it can wake you up far before your alarm rings. This is partly because of that adenosine. Alcohol increases the amount of this chemical in your system, making it easier to drift off. But the effect won’t last the entire time you try to sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation, hence why you might wake up in the middle of the night after imbibing.
Drinking alcohol before bed can also create more slow-wave sleep patterns called delta activity, the National Sleep Foundation says, but it also turns on what’s known as alpha activity, which doesn’t usually happen when you sleep. When you put those together, it can be tough to get good rest.
In addition, alcohol blocks REM sleep (the most restorative type of sleep), which can leave you feeling tired and groggy when you wake up. If that doesn’t do it, the bathroom trips might—alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it can make you produce more urine. This can cause you to wake up more often to use the bathroom, interrupting your sleep even more.
Finally, if you happen to have sleep apnea (when you repeatedly stop breathing as you sleep), alcohol can worsen your condition. It relaxes throat muscles, which is the mechanism behind obstructive sleep apnea (the most common form), the National Sleep Foundation says. The resultant symptoms like waking up gasping for air can make it even more difficult to feel well-rested when you wake up, Dr. Mindel says.
Ideally, if you’re drinking, you should stop at least two hours before bed to give your body some time to metabolize the alcohol, Dr. Mindel says. You might find this easy to do. But if you’ve actively been trying to use alcohol as a tool to help yourself fall asleep, that’s a sign that something is really off with your rest. See a doctor to get to the bottom of it.