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Wellness

These 'Harmless' Evening Habits Are Totally Messing Up Your Sleep

Experts share the biggest mistakes you can make before hitting the pillow.

Sometimes it feels like no matter what you do before hitting the sheets — whether it’s meditating, turning on a white noise machine or some other soothing activity — it’s still impossible to get good rest. But the truth is, some aspects of your routine earlier in the night may be contributing to the problem.

HuffPost chatted with sleep experts who shared some common evening habits that are known to keep people awake into the wee hours. Luckily, many of these can easily be managed and addressed with a bit of effort and attention. Take a look below:

Drinking a cup of coffee after dinner

Caffeine is a stimulant, which is why people rely on it to get their bodies alert and moving each day. But for the same reason, it can also keep you up at night if you keep sipping too late into the afternoon or evening. Caffeine’s effects can persist for several hours after consumption, the National Sleep Foundation explains. So for optimal rest, you’ll want to cut off your caffeine intake several hours before you head to bed.

“Caffeine can keep you awake at night, but it also leads to less restful sleep,” said Janet K. Kennedy, a New York City-based clinical psychologist who specializes in treating sleep disorders. “So even if you can fall asleep after an evening espresso, your sleep won’t be as deep and restorative.”

Raman Malhotra, an associate professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, suggested avoiding caffeine and stimulants after lunch in order to achieve a solid night of rest.

Swiping through dating apps before hitting the pillow

Limit your screen use, whether it’s for browsing Bumble or watching an episode of “Queer Eye” before you turn the lights out. Besides over-stimulating your brain with activity, screens emit blue light that can disrupt your circadian rhythm by suppressing melatonin, which is the body’s sleep hormone, Kennedy said. She suggested powering down all hand-held screens at least an hour before bed to give your brain a chance to wind down.

Malhotra added that any bright light entering the eye close to bedtime can alter your body’s internal clock into thinking it is not time for bed. “One way to help avoid this problem besides not using electronics before bed is to use blue light blocking glasses,” he said.

If you can’t seem to nix your evening phone habit and don’t want to go the glasses route, you can also check your phone settings to see if there’s an option to filter blue light during evening hours.

Doing an intense workout at night

Evening workouts are a common part of many people’s schedules, but engaging in a high-energy evening workout can also sometimes make it harder for you to relax afterward. That could mean trouble for sleep.

“It’s best to avoid rigorous, high-intensity workouts that are stimulating at least three hours before bed, as this can counteract our natural circadian rhythm and stimulate the brain with higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol in the system, both of which can prevent the onset of sleep,” said Kelly Johnston, a registered dietitian and health coach at Parsley Health, a medical clinic in New York.

Besides boosting cortisol and adrenaline, intense workouts can also raise your body temperature, which can disrupt the body’s normal cooling process that occurs as bedtime approaches. That can also make it harder to fall asleep, Kennedy said.

Drinking a few too many nightcaps

Alcohol has sedative effects and can make you drowsy, but don’t assume this means it will help you sleep.

“While alcohol may help in initiating the onset of sleep, drinking alcohol before bed will actually fragment and disrupt your sleep throughout the night and wake you up many more times,” Johnston said, adding that this makes it harder to activate rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep.

For the best sleep, drink in moderation and not within the two or three hours before you go to sleep, Kennedy said.

Eating your last meal right before you go to bed

When you eat dinner just before going to sleep, you don’t give your body time to properly digest.

“Digestion occurs best when standing, walking or positioned vertically with the help of gravity,” Johnston said. “When laying down with a full stomach, heavy meals too close to bedtime can promote reflux and digestive issues that can interfere with sleep patterns.”

She added that, from a nutritional perspective, consuming too much processed or refined sugar, such as cookies, cakes and other baked goods, close to bedtime can also be problematic.

“To help with sleep, cut down on processed sugar in the diet overall and particularly before bed,” Johnston said. “To meet your carbohydrate needs, swap these products with healthier forms of complex carbohydrates through fruit, starchy vegetables, beans, lentils and whole grains.”

Trying to sort through a work problem as you get in bed

According to the National Sleep Foundation, anxiety can not only cause sleeping problems but worsen sleeping problems that already exist. A good rule of thumb is to avoid stress at bedtime by addressing tomorrow’s activities, concerns or distractions earlier in the day rather than bringing these worries with you to bed, Malhotra said. This includes potentially anxiety-inducing activities like going over to-do lists and paying bills.

If you’ve been having trouble falling or staying asleep, another helpful tactic may be to set up a healthy, 15- to 30-minute bedtime routine that separates your sleep time from activities that cause excitement, stress or anxiety. This could include reading a relaxing book, taking a bath, or listening to calming music that lets your mind and body slow down before you drift off to sleep.

“Develop sleep rituals before going to bed,” Malhotra said. “Do the same things in the same order before going to bed to cue your body to slow down and relax.”

And for those times that you simply can’t fall asleep? Malhotra recommended leaving the bedroom to quietly read or do another activity that’s relaxing to you.

Taking sleep aids to help you drift off

You’re not alone if you’ve ever taken Benadryl or some other over-the-counter medicine to help you fall asleep. But this isn’t the greatest idea, the Mayo Clinic explains. For one, your body can quickly develop tolerance to Benadryl and other sleep aids containing antihistamines, so after taking them for a while they won’t help you sleep as easily.

Meanwhile, they can also leave you feeling sluggish and tired the day after, and your sleep quality may not be that great. For short-term insomnia, over-the-counter sleep aids can be helpful, but regular use over a long period of time isn’t recommended, according to the National Sleep Foundation. For longer-lasting sleep problems, your best bet is to see a doctor rather than immediately reaching for the over-the-counter meds.

Squeezing in a few more minutes of an activity before bed

Many people have trouble getting enough rest because, for them, sleep doesn’t take precedence over other activities like work, catching up with friends or a Netflix binge.

“One of the most common habits that disrupts sleep is not prioritizing getting enough sleep,” Malhotra said. “Many people will prioritize continuing to work on their computer, watching television or reading their book over going to bed for the night.”

Malhotra pointed out that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. So make sleep a priority, and stick to it.

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