6 Things That Are Messing with Your Sleep & What To Do About It
A good night's sleep is the ultimate recharge. But if you spend the night tossing and turning, you can wake up feeling frustrated rather than refreshed.
And it's not just the next-day drowsiness that is a problem. Over time, poor quality and inadequate amounts of sleep can impact cardiovascular and metabolic health1 outcomes. Prioritizing good, restorative sleep is a crucial component of overall health.
So, let's dive into what could be stopping you from getting a good night's sleep and the appropriate steps to take to fix it.
What's messing with your sleep quality
Even if you are tucking yourself in with plenty of time to hit the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, you might be making some crucial mistakes that leave you buzzing instead of just zzz'ing.
Here are some of the top offenders that might be getting between you and some sweet (restorative) dreams:
Using your phone right before bedtime
If your idea of winding down before bed is scrolling through your phone, you may want to rethink your strategy.
All electronics, including your cellphone, TV, and laptop, emit what's called blue light. Exposure to this shortwave light suppresses melatonin production2—a hormone that helps you fall asleep.
While all artificial light suppresses melatonin production to some degree, blue light can be especially detrimental if you're exposed to it for more than two hours at a time.
It's not just the blue light that can cause issues, though; how you're using technology matters too.
One study found that checking social media within 30 minutes of bedtime can negatively affect sleep. So log off, completely, for a better night's rest.
Napping during the day
Daytime naps are tempting, especially when you're not getting enough quality sleep every night. But while a nap can give you some immediate gratification, the longer-term negative effects might not be worth it.
One study found that taking daytime naps3 not only reduces the duration and quality of nighttime sleep, it can also lead to increased sleepiness during the day and an overall feeling of tiredness.
Of course, that doesn't mean that you can't ever take a nap, but if you do decide you need a midday snooze, keep it short.
Research shows that short, 10-minute naps can improve alertness4 and productivity, while longer naps can increase sleep inertia5, that groggy feeling you get when you first wake up.
Working in your bed
If you work remotely, it can be extremely tempting to grab your laptop and work from bed, but experts from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School don't recommend it.
This habit blurs the lines between work and downtime. If you're working on particularly stressful projects from your bed, it makes it hard to associate your bed with relaxation.
Instead, you can start to feel work tension and stress when you crawl under the covers. If you're a student, this also applies to studying and other schoolwork.
On the other hand, limiting your bed to bedtime activities, like sleep and sex, can boost the association between your bedroom and sleep and make it easier for you to catch those Zzz's.
Lying in bed when you can't fall asleep
Although it may seem counterintuitive to get up when you're trying to sleep, experts actually recommend getting out of bed if you can't fall asleep.
If you've been in bed for 20 minutes and you're still awake, leave your bedroom and engage in a relaxing activity, like listening to calming music or reading a book.
Pay attention to the lighting, though. If you decide to read, make sure the lights are warm and dim. If they're too bright, it can work against you and wake you up instead of making you sleepy.
It's also best to avoid sleep-disrupting activities, like watching TV or scrolling through social media.
Once you feel your eyelids start to get heavy, head back to bed and try again.
Drinking caffeine and alcohol
If you are having trouble getting good sleep, Stephen Amira, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, recommends limiting both caffeine and alcohol.
Caffeine is a stimulant that helps wake you up. While that can be beneficial in the morning, it can significantly disrupt nighttime sleep, especially if you're not careful about your timing.
That afternoon cup of coffee may be tempting, but it's best to ditch the caffeine at least six hours before you're ready to call it a night.
This cutoff will vary person to person, since we each metabolize caffeine at different rates. Slower metabolizers of the caffeine phytonutrient will want to be especially cognizant of implementing an earlier caffeine consumption cutoff.
Keep in mind that while coffee is a major contributor of caffeine, it's not the only source. Tea, chocolate, soda, and some targeted supplements also contain amounts that can interfere with a good night's sleep (when not consumed well in advance of slumber).
Some OTC formulas also contain caffeine, so check with your doctor if you take medications to be sure.
Alcohol is classified as a depressant, and while it can help you fall asleep initially, it can also inhibit sleep6 after a few hours of being in your system, waking you up at night and decreasing your quality of sleep.
So if you choose to consume alcohol, you’ll want to practice moderation (defined as up to one drink daily for women and up to two drinks per day for men), and avoid it completely within three hours of bedtime.
Eating a big dinner
Although you might have heard the advice that it's best to avoid late-night snacking, the benefits go beyond that.
While researchers from one study were looking at how eating later in the day7 could contribute to weight gain, they found something interesting about sleep.
Participants in the study who ate after 8 p.m. not only had higher BMIs, but they also didn't sleep as long as those who ate earlier in the day.
Some foods, like pepperoni pizza, can also cause stomach upset that can wake you up in the middle of the night and negatively affect your sleep quality.
This goes for fluids, too. If you have to get up in the middle of the night to pee, it's harder to fall back to sleep, and waking up in the middle of the night, even for a few minutes, can make you feel sleepier the next day8.
While there's no official cutoff time, try to do most of your eating and drinking before 8 p.m.
How to sleep better
After you've cut the sleep-disrupting habits, there are a few things you can do throughout the day to help you sleep soundly at night.
Most of these remedies are small lifestyle changes that can add up to big results (and don't cost a fortune).
Get outside during the day
You may not realize it, but light actually plays a huge role in how well you sleep. Your body operates on a 24-hour biological cycle called the circadian rhythm.
Without getting too deep into it, your circadian "clock" uses natural light to tell you when it's time to wake up and when you should hit the hay.
Studies show that timing, intensity, duration, and wavelength of light can affect your circadian rhythm9, both positively and negatively.
When you're not exposed to sunlight during the day, it disrupts your internal clock and can make it difficult to fall asleep naturally at night.
A lack of sunlight or irregular light environments can also negatively affect your mood10 and ability to learn.
So, how do you take advantage of light's sleep-inducing power? "Open your blinds as soon as you wake up, and be sure to spend at least some time every day outside in broad daylight," suggests holistic psychiatrist, Ellen Vora, M.D.
Natural sunlight keeps your circadian rhythm operating on a healthy sleep-wake cycle, so it's important that you're exposed to it regularly.
Get a little (natural) help
There are several natural sleep aids that can help. Here are the most well-researched ones to try:
Magnesium: Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a role in regulating your nervous system and helping promote a sense of calm.* In one study, participants who took 500 milligrams of magnesium daily for two months experienced a positive impact on both sleep quality and sleep duration11 and were able to sleep in longer in the morning.* Although there are many forms of magnesium, your best bet is the magnesium glycinate form, which is more bioavailable and has fewer side effects12 (i.e., it’s gentle on your GI tract) than other forms.*
GABA and L-theanine: The amino acid neurotransmitter GABA (especially PharmaGABA®) has been shown in clinical research13 to improve sleep quality in adults. What’s more, research also shows that supplementation with a combination of GABA and another amino acid, L-theanine, can positively affect the time it takes to fall asleep and can increase sleep quality and duration.* An effective daily dose of GABA for adults is 100 milligrams, while 200 milligrams and higher of L-theanine helps promote sleep
Melatonin: Melatonin is probably the most well-known sleep aid.* Because melatonin is a hormone that's tightly connected to your ability to fall asleep, supplementing with it in the short term can support circadian rhythm reset in some people, especially when traveling across time zones or working the night shift.* But because melatonin is a hormone, most experts recommend taking melatonin in low doses (0.5 to 1 milligram) and practicing caution when it comes to hormonal balance in your body overall. “Taking melatonin, particularly at higher doses, can be linked to undesirable desensitizing phenomena, such as nightmares, grogginess, and headaches,” mbg’s VP of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, once told mbg.
Valerian root: Valerian root is an extract of the valerian plant that's been used as a sleep aid in Europe for decades. According to one study, supplementing with valerian root can promote sleep quality and the amount of time it takes to fall asleep14 without any known side effects. However, there hasn't been enough research to determine a standard daily use.
It probably isn't breaking news that working out is good for you, but aside from its cardiovascular and body composition benefits, exercise can actually help improve your sleep, too.
One study15 found that engaging in regular moderate aerobic exercise, like walking or riding a bike, improved sleep quality and reduced the time it took to fall asleep in adults.
The participants in the study also reported that they felt more rested in the morning, which translated to an improved quality of life.
If you have to prioritize between getting enough sleep or fitting in exercise, sleep takes the cake, but try to schedule in at least a half-hour of movement every day.
Bonus points if you can take your exercise to the pavement and get some sunlight while you're at it.
Try meditation and deep breathing
Exercise is a natural stress reliever, but when you're having trouble sleeping because of stress, targeted relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing aren't just handy, they're necessary.
You can't go from being completely stressed out to snoozing soundly; that's like trying to bring your car to a stop on the highway by pulling the emergency brake when you're going 75 mph.
The goal is to get into a relaxed state before your head hits the pillow.
If you're generally tense or stressed, this may seem impossible, but the relaxation benefits of meditation and deep breathing are more than just anecdotal.
According to a review of more than 50 studies, regular meditation16 helps regulate the brain functions and physiological processes involved in sleep, leading to enhanced slow-wave sleep (or deep sleep) and better rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.
One study found that, when combined with other positive lifestyle changes, slow, deep breathing can help you fall asleep faster16 and make it easier to go back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night.
That's because deep out breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate and relaxes your muscles.
If you're new to meditation and deep breathing, start small. Find a quiet spot where you can sit or lie down and practice for five minutes.
Every week, add one more minute to your time until you can comfortably reach 30 minutes in one sitting.
Block the blue light
Try keeping your cellphone out of your bedroom. Charge it in the kitchen or somewhere that's not within arm's reach. If you rely on your phone to wake you up in the morning, get a traditional alarm clock instead.
But if you can't completely ditch your electronics before bed, take steps to reduce your exposure to blue light.
Most cellphones and laptops have a nighttime mode that warms up the screen's color tones, which reduces blue light.
You can also turn down the brightness of your screen because as light intensity decreases, so does the suppression of melatonin.
You can also opt to wear a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses, which filter out blue light and have the added benefit of reducing eye strain when you're staring at a screen for too long.
Take a warm bath or shower
A warm bath (a shower works, too) is another way to calm your body and mind before hitting the sheets. The warm water relaxes your muscles and helps relieve pent-up tension, but the benefits go deeper than that.
According to Shahab Haghayegh, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin's Department of Biomedical Engineering, warm water stimulates the body's thermoregulatory system—the system that controls internal body temperature.
About an hour and a half before you go to sleep, your body naturally drops its temperature by about 0.5 to 1 degree Fahrenheit.
The warm water from a bath or shower can help kick-start that natural process, and it doesn't take much time either.
According to research led by Haghayegh, as few as 10 minutes in a warm shower or bath17 about an hour or two before bedtime is enough to improve sleep quality.
If you want to light two candles with one flame, you can use your bath as a time to meditate and practice your deep breathing or add some epsom salt, which is a form of magnesium, to promote muscle relaxation.
Upgrade your bedding
It may seem obvious, but one of the keys to getting a good night's sleep is making sure that you're comfortable. And when it comes to your bed, there's a lot that's involved.
You want to consider your mattress, pillows, and sheets, all of which play a role in your comfort level, especially if you experience back, neck, or shoulder discomfort.
According to one study, the comfort and support of your sleep surface18 are directly related to problems with the quality of your sleep and the ability to fall and stay asleep.
Of course, which mattress and pillow are "best" is extremely subjective. The key is finding an ideal balance between comfort and support.
If you don't know which mattress to go with, work with a sleep specialist who can guide you in the right direction.
And while there may be some initial sticker shock when shopping for a high-quality mattress, the investment in your sleep is worth it. Plus, most mattresses come with a 10-year warranty, so you'll have it for a while.
Keep in mind that it takes some time to adjust to a new bed. Experts recommend an adjustment period of about 28 days, after which you should notice a difference in quality of sleep and comfort levels19.
Adjust the temperature of your room
While the right mattress and pillows are a vital part of getting comfortable, so is creating the ideal sleep environment. And your room's temperature is a big part of that.
One study even goes so far as to call your thermal environment20—or the temperature of your room—one of the most important factors that affects your sleep.
When it's time to hit the hay, your body responds by releasing heat through your skin to lower your internal body temperature.
If your room is too hot, especially if it's humid heat, it prevents this temperature release, which makes it harder to fall—and stay—asleep.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping your bedroom temperature between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit to help initiate sleep and improve sleep quality.
In addition to using a thermostat to control your room's temperature, you can also make your sleep environment cooler by swapping out your standard sheets for a set with cooling technology (like these five organic breathable sheet sets) and sleeping with the fan on.
Stick to the same sleep schedule
Having a regular routine is really important, especially when it comes to your sleep.
According to Amira, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps set your body's internal clock so that it becomes programmed to expect sleep at certain times.
And when your body's clock is set, you tend to get tired at the same time every night and fall asleep easier.
One study found that college students with irregular sleep schedules21 had a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep at night and slept more during the day than those students who had a regular sleep schedule, even when the amount of sleep was the same.
Decide on a wake-up time and a bedtime, and make it a priority to follow that routine. While it may be easier to stick to a set sleep schedule during the week, do the best you can on the weekend.
While a lack of sleep can be extremely frustrating, you aren't doomed to sleep poorly forever.
You might not see improvements overnight, but with consistency, you should be on the right track to a better night's sleep.
If none of these tips work, it's best to check in with your health-care provider or a sleep specialist who can make specific, targeted recommendations for you.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.