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7 (Not So) Obvious Things to Avoid if You Have Trouble Sleeping

Insomnia is one of the most common and frustrating complaints that my patients report. The underlying cause can be anything from stress and anxiety to depression, medical conditions, pain, medications or poor sleeping habits.
05/03/2016 10:03am ET | Updated May 4, 2017
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Almost 1 in 3 American adults struggle with insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Insomnia can be trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking early in the morning or all of the above. Sound like anyone you know?

Insomnia is one of the most common and frustrating complaints that my patients report. The underlying cause can be anything from stress and anxiety to depression, medical conditions, pain, medications or poor sleeping habits. Your doctor will be the best person to help determine your specific cause(s). However, there are a few things you can stop doing today to sleep better tonight.

Here are seven things to cut out of your routine if you want to get better sleep:

1. Stop drinking caffeine after lunch
If you are having trouble sleeping, you should avoid drinking caffeine (this includes coffee, tea and energy drinks or any other stimulants) for the four to six hours prior to going to bed. Many sources recommend not having any caffeine after lunch.

2. No alcohol before bed
It may be a surprise that alcohol also worsens your sleep. While alcohol can make you fall asleep faster, it causes a disruption in normal sleep in the second half of the night and decreased and delayed REM (rapid eye movement) sleep throughout the night. Alcohol can also make snoring and sleep apnea worse, further contributing to daytime fatigue. This may be why you feel less rested after a night of drinking, even if you do not feel "hung-over."

3. Stop smoking
It is easier for me to type it, than for you to do it, but this is just another reason you should quit smoking. We have known for decades that cigarette smokers are significantly more likely to report problems falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and daytime sleepiness. Sleep disturbance may be more prevalent among smokers due to the stimulant effects of nicotine, nicotine withdrawal during the night, sleep disordered breathing conditions, and/or an association with psychological disturbance.

4. Avoid eating large meals before bedtime
If you were thinking a "food coma" might help you sleep better, it may surprise you to learn that you should actually avoid large meals within three hours before going to sleep. One problem with consuming large meals, or the majority of daily nutrients late in the evening, is that they may increase susceptibility to obesity and other cardiometabolic diseases, both of which can increase the risk of sleep problems. More acutely, going to bed hungry or eating a large meal before bedtime can worsen sleep by disrupting normal sleep/wake cycles. If you are hungry at bedtime, it is okay to eat a light snack.

5. Stop drinking (excessive) fluids after dinner
The need to decrease fluid intake is more obvious. Less fluid before bed leads to less trips to the bathroom during the night.

6. Do not exercise within three hours of bedtime
It is important to maintain a regular exercise schedule. For those with trouble sleeping, the best time for exercise seems to be in the late morning or mid-day. For some people, exercise or other strenuous activity before bedtime can be too stimulating and may prevent them from falling asleep. If you are having trouble sleeping and tend to exercise late in the day, it may be time to change up your routine.

7. Stop using your bed for non-sleep activities (work, telephone, Internet)
In order to train your brain to associate sleep with getting into bed, it is important to limit your bedroom activities to those that promote sleep and relaxation. Therefore, you should only be using your bed for sleep (or sex). Your homework is to stop reading, watching TV and eating in bed, all of which may actually help both you and your significant other sleep better.

These are just a few of the steps you can take to get a better night sleep. These suggestions for a better night sleep come from the larger concept of "Sleep Hygiene." If you have already tried these, or want to read more about sleep hygiene, good sleeping habits and ways to avoid insomnia, you can learn more here.

Dr. Goldenberg is an Addiction Psychiatry Fellow in Los Angeles and has written numerous articles about mental health and addiction topics. You can follow Dr. Goldenberg at docgoldenberg.com and on Twitter: @docgoldenberg