10 Sleep Habits to Stop Immediately

Whether conscious or not, most of us are sabotaging a good night’s sleep through our daily behaviours. Here, we help you minimise the bad habits and replace them with healthier, more restful alternatives.

For Shakespeare, sleep “puts each day to rest” and “heals hurt minds.” It's bad news we’re not getting nearly enough of it then…

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of American adults struggle to get the right amount of sleep. In the UK, Mental Health UK estimates around one in five of us still aren’t getting enough rest, with 25% of adults questioned citing money worries as negatively impacting their sleep.

Not only can this leave us grouchy the next day, but there are serious health implications, too. A meta-review looking at studies of over 1,382,999 participants in 2010 found that sleeping less than the recommended seven hours a night increases mortality risk by a massive 12%.

The thing is, most of us aren’t helping ourselves. “Bad sleep habits, or ‘poor sleep hygiene’, refers to behaviours that negatively affect sleep quality, duration, timing, and regularity — the four dimensions of sleep you need to optimise to feel and function your best while you’re awake,” explains Jeff Kahn, sleep expert and founder of Rise Science.

Kahn explains that from the moment we wake up to the moment we close our eyes at night, everything we do has an impact on how restful our night’s sleep is. “Activities like exposure to natural light, physical exercise, dietary choices, technological distractions, and stress management all play critical roles in setting the stage for a good night's sleep,” he says. “Some of this, we’re unaware we’re even doing.”

To help you get a better night’s sleep, we’ve outlined the bad sleep habits to look out for, and what to do instead.

What are the bad habits I need to stop right now?

For most of us, bad habits are things we’re at least partly aware we shouldn’t be doing, but we shrug off anyway. When it comes to sleep, these are the main offenders.

Downing too much coffee

We get it: you’ve got a lot to get done, but while coffee has plenty of cognitive and health benefits, Kahn warns that a flat white after mid-morning puts your night’s rest at risk. “Caffeine, a stimulant and adenosine receptor antagonist, can delay your sleep and impair sleep quality.

Worse, it can last in your system far longer than most of us realise — even upwards of 12 hours,” he says. Kahn warns that “Having your last cup of coffee before noon may work for some, but for others, your cutoff may need to be much earlier.” There are other options: according to the Mayo Clinic, an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains around 100 milligrams of caffeine, while the same serving of tea has half as much – enough to keep you alert, without keeping you awake.

Nighttime scrolling

There’s no better way to fall asleep than a bit of TikTok, right? Yeh, about that...

“Rather than nodding off, your brain will actually be stimulated by watching TV or scrolling social media,” explains Korina Burkhard, sleep expert at Dozy Sleep. “The blue light from electronic devices will interfere with the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone, making it harder to fall asleep. You should avoid screens at least an hour before bed.”

The solution? Back to books and rewind offline.

Eating too late

Unless you have very young children, you’re likely not sitting down for your evening meal until eight pm or later. Kahn thinks this is a mistake. “Having your last meal within two to three hours of bedtime is a bad sleep habit as it takes time for your body to digest that food and this is best done in an upright position,” he says, i.e. not lying down.

Dine early with the kids instead and keep TV-watching snacks to a minimum.

Napping too much

We all love naps but an unscheduled sleep can mess up your eight hours. “Napping can reduce sleep pressure (the natural build-up of sleepiness), making it harder to fall asleep at the desired bedtime,” explains Kahn. The National Institute of Health even found that naps longer than 10 minutes can make us more sleepy by throwing our circadian rhythms out of whack. Still need to nap? The best solution is to stick it out until your usual bedtime.

Enjoying an evening beer

And there’s nothing wrong with that in moderation, except for when it comes to trying to sleep. Kahn argues that you need to cut the booze six hours before bedtime because “while alcohol might initially promote sleepiness due to its sedative effects, it winds up greatly disturbing the sleep you should be getting later in the night.”

According to data from the National Institutes of Health, this is because alcohol interacts with several neurotransmitter systems important in the regulation of sleep, throwing them out of whack.

Not following a sleep schedule

“It may be convenient to go to bed anytime you want or stay up late, but an inconsistent sleeping schedule will throw your circadian rhythm into chaos,” warns Burkhard. In fact, research shows that maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help you get better-quality sleep, and more of it.

And, by helping to maintain your circadian rhythm, having a solid sleep schedule can contribute to a healthier body composition, and even reduce your risk of heart disease. “Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, even on weekends,” advises Burkhard. “And avoid snoozing your alarm to maintain consistency, too. Your body will thank you.”

What else can I change?

As Kahn pointed out, as well as the more obvious bad sleep habits, there are some things we aren’t even aware we’re doing. If you’ve addressed the points above and are still struggling, it might be time to cast your next wider, starting with the below.

Working out too late

Most of us have to fit our workouts in whenever we can, but Burkhard suggests sweating in the am, rather than last thing at night. “Intense workouts close to bedtime will elevate your heart rate and body temperature, making it harder to fall asleep,” she says, pointing to research that found cooler conditions are more conducive to a good night’s sleep.

“Exercise during the day, and only do light stretches a few hours before bed,” advises Burkhard.

Getting distracted

Too often, our last thoughts are about what we have to do tomorrow, and what we should have done today. All of which is pretty stressful. Writing it all down can help. “Writing a to-do list can help ease chore-based anxiety and help us get to sleep quicker,” says Kahn.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that spending just five minutes listing tasks for tomorrow helps us get to sleep an average of nine minutes faster. “Get your troublesome thoughts down on paper, leaving your brain clear to focus on sleep,” advises Kahn.

Feeling lonely

“Loneliness and social isolation are another under-appreciated bad sleep habit,” says Kahn. “They can negatively impact sleep by increasing stress, anxiety, and depression, which are closely linked to sleep disorders.” According to a study in the journal Scientific Reports, this can be a particular problem for men and women as we age.

The study notes: “Sleep problems, loneliness and social isolation often increase with age, significantly impacting older adults’ health and wellbeing.” We aren’t entirely sure why; a 2020 meta review found that “despite the mounting evidence linking loneliness with health, the mechanisms underlying this relationship remain obscure.”

While the direct link is not fully understood, Kahn notes that “the lack of social cues and interactions can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle, leading to irregular sleep patterns and poor sleep quality.”

While there are a lot of resources online to help with loneliness, it might be worth getting out and trying a new sport, be that joining your local bouldering gym, taking swimming lessons, or even looking for local art clubs, all of which are a great way to meet like-minded people looking to socialise.

Not getting enough natural light

According to a meta-review published in The Journal of Physiology, light is the “most potent stimulus” for regulating our circadian rhythm – the built-in clock that tells our body when to sleep. The study notes that variations in light can suppress our production of melatonin, the so-called ‘sleep hormone.’

Natural light can help. “Getting enough daytime light is under-appreciated as a tool against the melatonin-suppressing effects of indoor lighting and light from our screens,” Kahn explains. As well as taking your lunch outside, Kahn suggests positioning your desk by a window. Battling overcast days? Stanford Medicine suggests investing in bright light therapy to mimic daylight conditions.

Words: Tom Ward

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