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Getting a good night’s sleep is important for your mood, your energy levels, and your overall health. It’s also dependent on what you do during the day—how much physical activity you get, what you eat and drink, and how mentally stimulated you are—especially in the hours before you crawl into bed.
"When people suffer from insomnia or other sleep issues, it’s often because of something they’re doing, probably unintentionally, when they should be preparing for rest," says Michael Grandner, PhD, a psychiatry instructor and member of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Here are 20 things you might want to avoid at night, especially if you’re suffering from a lack of shuteye.
Use an e-reader or smartphone
Several studies have suggested that using electronic devices like e-readers and smartphones, or even watching television in or before bed can disrupt sleep. Robert Rosenberg, DO, author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day, recommends avoiding any light-emitting technology for at least one hour before bedtime.
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"The blue light given off by computers, smartphones, tablets, and TV prevents the production of melatonin which helps the body become sleepy," he says. If you don’t want to give up reading your Kindle Fire or using your iPad in bed, follow this advice from a 2013 Mayo Clinic study: Keep the device at least 14 inches from your face and turn down your screen’s brightness to reduce your risk of light-related sleep problems.
Take certain medications
If you take medicines or supplements on a daily basis and you’re also experiencing sleep problems, ask your doctor whether the time of day you take your dosage may be keeping you awake. “The effects may be subtle, but some medicines can make you alert for several hours after taking them,” says Grandner. For example, antidepressants can have strong effects on sleep in either direction, and some pain medications may upset your stomach and make sleep more difficult. (On the other hand, some other medicines—such as some types of blood pressure pills—have been shown to work best when taken at night; talk to your do about when to take yours.)
A sleeping pill isn’t always the answer, either: They’re generally only recommended for short-term use—over-the-counter meds, especially—so if you find yourself taking them regularly, talk to your doctor about other options. A prescription drug will be safer and more effective to use for more than a few weeks at a time, but a longer-term solution that doesn’t rely on medication is your best bet.
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Text a friend
You may think a text is less disturbing late at night than a phone call, but think twice before you message a friend or family member, or get involved in a group text conversation, shortly before bed. If you sleep with your phone in or near your bed, you could be disturbed by replies after you’ve already retired or fallen asleep.
In fact, a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that about 10% of kids 13 to 18 are awakened after they go to bed every night or almost every night by a phone call, text message or email, and about one in five 13- to 29-year-olds say this happens at least a few nights a week. If you are worried about getting messages late at night, put your phone in another room or mute it.
Drink coffee (maybe even decaf)
A cup of coffee contains anywhere from 80 to 120 milligrams of caffeine per cup, and you probably already know you should avoid it right before bed. But some still like the idea of a hot drink after dinner, says Grandner, and may not realize that although they’re still several hours away from turning in, their habit could disturb sleep. Truth is, caffeine can stay in the body for up to 12 hours. “Even caffeine at lunch can be too close to bedtime for some people,” says Grandner.
Perhaps even more surprising: decaf coffee may not even be a safe bet. A 2007 Consumer Reports report found that some “decaf” samples” contained up to 20 milligrams of caffeine. But there’s good news for people who love a hot cup of joe in the evenings: The new (truly) decaf Counting Sheep Coffee ($12, amazon.com) contains valerian, an herb that promotes sleep.
Even if you do avoid coffee, you may not be as careful about another major source of caffeine: tea. Drinks labeled as “herbal tea”—such as peppermint or chamomile varieties—are probably caffeine-free, says Grandner, but varieties that contain black, green, or white tea leaves do indeed contain the stimulant.
There may still be able to enjoy your favorite caffeinated tea at night. Dunk your teabag quickly into a cup of hot water, then dump it out and make a second cup using that same tea bag. Most of tea’s caffeine is released early on in the steeping process, explains Grandner, so this may help you enjoy the flavor and warmth without so much of the stimulant.
Related: 12 Surprising Sources of Caffeine
Another sneaky source of caffeine is chocolate, especially dark chocolate with high cocoa contents. “People might not think about ice cream that contains chocolate or coffee as something that might potentially keep them awake, but if they’re sensitive to caffeine that could definitely do the trick,” says Grandner.
Milk chocolate bars usually have less than 10 milligrams of caffeine per serving, but a Hershey’s Special Dark Bar, for instance, contains 31—the amount in almost a whole can of Coke. Chocolate also contains the stimulant theobromine, which has been shown to increase heart rate and sleeplessness.
Skip your wind-down time
When people say they can’t shut their mind off in bed, it’s often because they haven’t given themselves adequate time to relax in the hour or so beforehand, says Grandner. “When you’re going from one distracting activity to another and not giving yourself time to sit back and reflect on your thoughts, it’s no wonder that your mind is racing when you finally climb into bed,” he says. He recommends taking at least 30 minutes before you head into your bedroom to put away anything that’s too stimulating, thought-provoking, or absorbing—anything from action-packed TV shows to work that you’ve brought home with you. Instead, focus on activities that relax you and bring closure to your evening, like making a to-do list and packing a bag for the next day.
Check your work email
Aside from the fact that a blue-light emitting device can mess with your body’s natural sleep rhythms, there are other potential problems with checking your email too close to bedtime. “Unless you’re waiting for a specific email that’s going to put you at ease and help you sleep better, I would advise against it,” says Grandner. Checking in with the office too late at night is more likely to make you nervous or agitated, or fill your mind with things you’ll need to do in the morning. In a 2014 Michigan State study, people who used their smartphones for work purposes after 9 p.m. reported being more tired and unfocused the next day.
Eat spicy or fatty foods
Having a large meal too close to bedtime can make falling asleep uncomfortable if you’re bloated or painfully full, Spicy or fatty foods may be particularly risky because they’re associated with acid reflux, which often rears its head when a person lies down at night. Ideally, you should have dinner at least two hours before going to sleep says Grandner, to give your body enough time to begin digesting it. If you’re used to eating something right before bed, stick with sleep-promoting foods like simple carbs or a glass of milk. (And ask yourself if you really need it: If you’re not careful, late-night snacking can lead to weight gain.)
"Alcohol tricks you into thinking you will sleep better, because it often makes you drowsy and makes it easier to fall asleep," says Dr. Rosenberg. "But as your body begins to metabolize the alcohol, REM sleep, the period where our sleep is most restorative, is reduced." Impaired REM sleep often leads to waking up tired and unable to concentrate, he adds. Plus, a 2014 University of Missouri study points out that alcohol is a diuretic and may make you have to go to the bathroom through the night. Dr. Rosenberg’s advice: For most people, it’s okay to have a drink or two with dinner—but skip the nightcap or the glass of wine on the couch right before bed.
We could go on and on about all the ways smoking is terrible for you, including disturbing your sleep. Many people smoke to relax, says Grandner, but nicotine is a stimulant and can make insomnia worse, especially if you light up close to your bedtime. Nicotine withdrawal can also cause smokers to wake up earlier than they normally would in the morning.
"If you’re a smoker and you’re having trouble sleeping, that may be another reason you should talk to your doctor about quitting," Grandner says. It’s not just traditional cigarettes you should avoid at night; e-cigarettes, smoking cessation patches, pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco can all keep you up.
Chug lots of water
"Staying hydrated is important, but it may not be the best strategy to drink a huge glass of water before bed or sleep with one water by your bed," says Grandner, "unless your goal is to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Instead, he suggests, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water throughout the day—and always be sure to use the bathroom before you head to bed, even if you don’t feel like you have to.
Work out too intensely
You may have heard that exercise before bed might keep you awake at night. This belief has been largely disproven, says Grandner: “The amount of physical activity that’s required to have an affect on your sleep is pretty intense, and the vast majority of people don’t get enough exercise as it is—we don’t want people to not work out just because they think it’s too late.” In fact, getting regular exercise has been shown to actually help treat insomnia and promote good sleeping habits.
There is some evidence, though, that prolonged or very high-intensity exercise late at night may make it hard for some people to fall asleep. If you’re staying up extra late to squeeze in time at the gym, or suspect that your 9 p.m. kickboxing classes may be keeping you up, see if you sleep better after an earlier workout.
Play video games
The science on television’s effects on sleep is somewhat inconclusive; some studies show that watching TV before bed can disrupt sleep (due to its melatonin-impairing blue light, its mental stimulation, or both), while others show it has little effect. One thing that most experts do agree on, however, is that electronic media that requires a lot of interaction—like video games—can definitely wreak havoc on your slumber.
"Browsing the web or flipping through TV channels before bed may not be so bad if you’re not super sensitive to light," says Grandner, "but anything that’s highly engaging will almost certainly keep you awake." Dr. Rosenberg agrees: "Stimulation from these devices can activate and excite the brain, which presents a challenge when it comes to trying to fall asleep."
Turn up the heat
Everyone’s preferences are different, but most tend to sleep best between 60 and 70 degrees. “People sleep better when it’s cooler—sometimes a little cooler than they think,” says Grandner. That’s because the body’s temperature drops during the night, and also because a lower temperature allows for people to cover up with blankets without getting too hot.
Of course, if it’s freezing in your house and you can’t fall asleep without shivering, there’s nothing wrong with bumping the heat up a degree. But know that you’ll probably sleep better at a slightly cooler temperature than your house is set at during the day.
Let your pet into bed
"Everyone with a pet knows that inviting that pet into your bed is inviting a whole lost more awakenings during the night," says Grandner. In fact, in a recent University of Kansas study, 63% of people who shared a bed with a furry friend experienced poor sleep. "If you’re cool with that, go right ahead—but it’s definitely something to consider if it starts to affect your sleep quality," Grandner says.
And those sleep disturbances can come from more than just your dog or cat’s movements through the night. Pet hair and dander in your bed could also contribute to allergies and breathing difficulties, which can also affect your slumber.
Take a shower
If you shower after working out at night or you are simply in the habit of bathing before bed, there’s certainly nothing wrong with it; a hot bath may even help relax you and prime your body for sleep. But if you normally rinse off in the morning and you only switch it up occasionally, bathing at night could send the wrong message to your brain.
"Showers often wake people up, so it might not be the best thing to do before bed," says Grandner. People with long hair should be careful not to go to bed with wet hair, either; not only can it be uncomfortable and cause knots and tangles, but it can also make sheets and pillows damp, which could cause mold to grow.
Pick a fight
There’s a good reason couples are told to never go to bed angry. “Stress is a major cause of insomnia,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “If a conversation is stressful, it will elevate cortisol and other stress hormones impending your ability to fall asleep.” Plus, he adds, angry people tend to ruminate, or play over thoughts again and again in their minds, which can also make falling asleep difficult.
Going to bed with unresolved issues may not be your best bet either, but Dr. Rosenberg suggests trying to hash out any problems earlier in the night, and saving important decision-making or serious conversations for days when you have more time to reflect and relax afterward. “A serious conversation before bed is not a good idea,” he adds.
Alter your routine
Doing the same thing every night before bed is one of the tenets of good sleep hygiene. Brushing your teeth, washing your face, and laying out your clothes for the morning, for example, can all send a signal to your brain that it’s time for bed—especially if you do them in the same order, at the same time every night.
But switching up that routine, by doing things out of order or earlier in the night than usual, can disrupt that mental process. “Without a consistent bedtime routine, your brain doesn’t go into sleep mode until you crawl into bed and turn out the light,” says Grandner. “You’ll fall asleep much faster if you can start that process a little bit earlier, as you’re getting ready.”
Anything that’s too exciting
Reading in bed can be a great pre-slumber activity, and if it helps you wind down and makes you tired, says Grandner, then go for it. The same goes for any routine habit that helps you get to sleep—chatting on the phone with your best friend, organizing a photo album, or knitting, for example.
But if that book or that knitting project or whatever else you’re doing draws you in too much, you may have a hard time putting it down and turning out the lights. “When I read at night, I get too absorbed in the story and the next thing I know it’s 3 a.m.,” says Grandner. If this happens to you, be careful about the activities you choose before bed, and set strict time limits for whatever you do decide to take on.
By Amanda MacMillan
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