4 Common Habits a Sleep Doctor Is Begging You To Stop for the Sake of Your Shut-Eye
January 13, 2023
Good sleep can be tough to come by, even when you’re focused on doing all the right sleep-boosting things—like drinking a calming beverage in the evening, doing gentle stretches, and practicing a nighttime ritual, for starters. Because sleep operates in accordance with your circadian rhythm (aka 24-hour body clock), which can be affected by various day and nighttime actions, there are also a handful of behaviors that can work directly against your sleep. And steering clear of these (not-so-obvious) bad sleep habits is as essential to achieving good shut-eye as engaging in the good ones.
Below, sleep specialist Jade Wu, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Hello Sleep, shares the bad sleep habits she suggests you avoid in order to set yourself up for optimal snoozing. Which, to be clear, is well worth the effort: As a refresher, getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night can help boost your concentration, enhance your mood, regulate your blood pressure, and kick your immune system into full gear, among other benefits.
4 surprising yet common bad habits that could be interfering with your sleep
1. Taking random naps
Much like your hunger drive or appetite, your sleep drive (or how much your body and brain craves sleep) is a finite thing. As a result, taking random naps throughout the day will eat into it—just like snacking will cut into your appetite. Once the time comes for you to go to bed at night, you’ll then be left with less of a drive for sleep than you might ultimately need to doze off easily, says Dr. Wu. “That’s especially the case if you nap for a long time during the day or if you nap in the evening (for example, nodding off after dinner while watching TV),” she says.
That said, not all naps would qualify as a bad habit for good sleep, says Dr. Wu. Rather, it’s the haphazard or lengthy ones that happen later in the day that can throw off your circadian rhythm (confusing your body as to when it should be sleepy and when it should be wakeful) and, again, diminish your overall sleep drive. If you do want to nap, make it a power nap (20 to 30 minutes) sometime in the middle of the day, before 3 p.m., and try to be consistent each day, she says.
2. Doing work, studying, or watching TV in bed
You might know that from a boundaries standpoint, if you’re working remotely, it’s a good idea to separate your work from your bed (and your full bedroom, if you can). The physical distance between the two just makes it less likely that your work will encroach on your sleep and leisure time. And physiologically speaking, working from bed isn’t the most conducive option for your posture and alignment, and for avoiding back pain, either.
“It’s harder to shut off a busy brain at night if it’s used to being alert in the bedroom.” —Jade Wu, PhD, sleep specialist
But there’s yet another downside to the work-from-bed setup—namely, your sleep. When you work from bed, “your brain starts to associate the bed with working or other types of stimulation, and you lose the compartmentalization between work and rest, awake versus sleepy,” says Dr. Wu.
That’s also why she doesn’t recommend watching TV from bed at night, either, especially if the stuff you watch tends to be highly captivating or engaging or otherwise riles you up. “It’s harder to shut off a busy brain at night if it’s used to being alert in the bedroom,” she says.
If possible, reserve your bed as a place for bed-centric things, instead, like sleeping, sex, cuddling, and reading for leisure, suggests Dr. Wu.
3. Holing up inside all dayIt isn’t just a boon for your mental health to see the light of day at least once each day.
It’s a major help to your sleep, too. Because your circadian rhythm is largely regulated by light exposure, making sure to see at least some of that light during the day keeps it chugging along smoothly, whereas remaining inside (especially in a dimly lit space) can throw it off-kilter.
The reason for this has to do with the day versus night contrast in light exposure: If the contrast is low (meaning that you’re getting similar light exposure from day into night while remaining inside), “then your brain gets confused about what time it is, making it harder to fall and stay asleep at night, and worsening your sleep quality,” says Dr. Wu. But if you’re able to increase that contrast by stepping out into the natural light at some point during the day, your brain will be more effectively clued into the time of day. Once nighttime arrives, it will then be able to interpret the increasing darkness as its signal for sleep, making it easier for you to doze off.
You might think that the artificial lights in your home would suffice to provide enough light during the day, and therefore, enough contrast in light exposure from day to night, but that’s not typically true. While sunlight has up to 10,000 lux (a measure of illuminance), most indoor lights have around 100 to 200 lux—so even if you crank up your lights all the way during the daytime, you’re still doing your sleep a disservice if you don’t spend at least some time outside each day.
To get specific, Dr. Wu suggests stepping into natural light for at least 30 minutes each day. And if that’s not possible, she recommends trying to spend as much time as you can by a bright, sun-soaked window (which can offer light exposure of about 1,000 lux).
4. Sleeping in on the weekendsIt might seem like a smart idea to make up for lost sleep during the week by having yourself a sleep marathon on the weekends when there’s no alarm buzzing or things to do first-thing in the morning.
And it’s true that if your weekend bedtime winds up being much later than usual, you can push back your wakeup time the following morning to catch a few more zzz’s—but experts suggest not sleeping in for longer than an hour, max (and only if you really feel the need to) in order to avoid throwing a wrench in your circadian rhythm.
Consider how pushing back your sleep schedule to sleep in on the weekends is much like giving yourself jet lag (hence, the name “social jet lag” to describe this scenario when it happens after a late night out).
“For example, if you sleep in three hours later than usual on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s like flying from New York to California and back every weekend,” says Dr. Wu.
Your body and brain are experiencing a time change that confuses your body clock, she says, making it harder to then fall asleep at your usual weekday time on Sunday night and to get good-quality sleep (which is also why Monday can feel extra-challenging to get through).
Instead, to keep your sleep functioning optimally, “try to wake up and get out of bed at the same time every day, if you can, allowing yourself just up to one hour’s worth of wiggle room to sleep in on the weekends, if you’d like,” says Dr. Wu.
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