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Nighttime Habits That Ruin Your Sleep, According to Science

You snooze, you lose — at least if you have these less-than-optimal sleep habits.
Who can sleep these days? Since you may be having trouble, we rounded up the unhealthy sleep patterns that are easy to lapse into as we age, along with recommendations on how you can get your best night's rest. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Had COVID And Should Tell Your Doctor.

You Think Sleep Issues Are Part of Normal Aging

Woman having trouble sleeping

You might remember your parents or grandparents rising early and talking about "needing less sleep" as they got older. And you might find yourself having trouble sleeping after age 40. But it's a misconception that we should sleep less as we get older. In fact, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, at age 40 or 60, you need the same amount of sleep as you did in college. Read on to find out how much that should be.

Recommendation: Sleep is not a waste of time or something you grow out of; it can extend your life. You can get too little (or too much). Stick to the recommendations below.


You're Getting Less Than Seven Hours

trouble sleeping

All of us, young and old, are sleeping less and less — and it's bad news at any age. According to Gallup, the average American sleeps 6.8 hours nightly, and 40 percent of us sleep less than six hours a night. The problem? Adults, even older adults, need seven to nine hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Getting less shut-eye has been associated with an increased risk of depression, weight gain, even car accidents.

Recommendation: Read on to see how much sleep you should be getting nightly.


You're Staring At Screens An Hour (Or Less) Before Bed

playing with phone in bed

Cell phones, TVs and computers emit a blue light that can keep you awake. It disturbs your natural circadian rhythm, which tells you it's time to turn in. Avert your eyes from TV, phones, computers and tablets at least 60 minutes before lights-out. "For the best night's sleep, consider pretending that you live in an earlier time," advises the National Sleep Foundation. "Wind down by reading a (paper) book, writing in a journal, or chatting with your partner."

Recommendation: If you feel like you can't miss your favorite late-night shows, record them and watch them the next day — with enough time to power down an hour before bed.


You Had Late-Night Cocktails

Manhattan whiskey cocktail

Alcohol might seem like an effective way to ease into Z's, but consuming alcoholic beverages too close to bed actually hinders rest. Researchers have found that alcohol shortens deep (REM) sleep, which makes sleep less restorative.

Recommendation: Stick to one to two drinks nightly, and don't use booze as a sleep aid — it's counterproductive and can lead to dependence.


You're Snoring (And Not Doing Anything About It)

Woman (age 30) suffers from her male partner (age 40) snoring in bed

Loud snoring isn't just a pain for anyone who can hear you. It can be the sign of a serious health problem: Namely, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). During OSA, breathing can stop for as long a minute, before your brain wakes you up to resume breathing. These pauses in breathing can happen many times a night. Sound scary? It is: OSA has been associated with high blood pressure and other health problems. It's also exhausting.

Recommendation: If you suspect you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor.


You're Using Sleeping Pills

Man sitting on bed about to take sleeping pill or night medicine. Suffering from insomnia

Sleeping pills are entrenched in pop culture, but that doesn't mean they're good for you. You shouldn't need to rely on meds to get to sleep, even over-the-counter drugs. Some studies have linked the use of hypnotic (sleep-inducing) drugs to an increased risk of cancer and death. Researchers aren't sure why that may be, but why risk it?

Recommendation: There are many strategies you can follow before requesting a prescription, including meditation, relaxation and avoiding screens. Talk to your doctor.


Your Afternoon Nap Is Too Late

girl napping

Few things feel better than an afternoon nap. Just don't doze too long — anything over 25 minutes or so will put you into a deeper sleep and make it harder to wake up. Snooze too late in the day — say, anytime after 5 pm — and it may be harder for you to hit the hay later.

Recommendation: If you're having chronic insomnia, try not to nap during the day at all.


You're Going To Sleep On A Full Stomach

Paleo grilled chicken pineapple sandwich
Mitch Mandel and Thomas MacDonald

Eating a full meal too close to bedtime increases your risk of acid reflex and indigestion, which can lead to snoring or insomnia.

Recommendation: Eat dinner at least three hours before bed. If you need a late-night snack, stick to something light. Like rice cereal, bananas and milk — see why Eat This, Not That! says that's the perfect bedtime food.

RELATED: The #1 Cause of Obesity, According to Science


You Haven't Changed Your Pillow

Large bed with pillows and blankets

Your pillow should be washed every six months and replaced every year or two, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The reason to wash: Dust mites. These microscopic critters (and their waste) can worsen allergies and asthma, impairing breathing and therefore your sleep. The reason to replace: You deserve proper support. Feathers go flat, and foam degrades with age. More than half of us experience neck pain as we get older, which could be alleviated by purchasing a pillow that properly cradles your head and neck.

Recommendation: Whether they're filled with foam, feathers or down, pillows can be washed in a regular washing machine. Just wash them in a separate load and make sure they dry completely in a dryer, so they don't develop mold. Toss some tennis balls in the dryer to help that process.


You're Not Washing Your Sheets Enough


We don't mean to nag, but dust mites can also nestle in your bedding. That doesn't mean you need to throw them out; some sheets and pillowcases can last decades, depending on their quality.

Recommendation: Experts recommend washing your sheets at least every two weeks, weekly if you suffer from allergies, asthma or eczema. To prevent dust mites from inhabiting your mattress, use a protective cover. Wash it every two months.


You're Sleeping With A Pet

Man sleeping in bed with dog

Sorry to break this to you: If you share the bed with a cat or dog and you're suffering from poor sleep or daytime tiredness, it might be because Man's Best Friend is causing your worst nightmares. According to a study by the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, 53 percent of people who sleep with their pets have disturbed rest and abnormal sleep patterns, because of their four-legged friend's restless behavior (or the real estate they take up).

Recommendation: It might be time for Cujo to transition to a nice bedside basket.


You're Not Getting Enough Exercise


Exercise doesn't just lead to a trimmer waistline: Study after study has shown that it can improve your sleep, helping you fall asleep more quickly and have better quality rest. Researchers don't know exactly why, just that it works. (And the science is clear that you shouldn't exercise intensely one to two hours before bed; you need to give the endorphins time to wash out of your system.)

Recommendation: Getting as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day has been shown to lead to better shut-eye, warding off sleep-inhibiting conditions like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome (both of which get more common as we age).


You Toss And Turn

Experts recommend that if you're having trouble getting to sleep, get out of bed after 20 minutes.

Recommendation: Do a calm activity, like reading a (paper) book or listening to music until you feel sleepy. Avoid screens.

RELATED: 9 Everyday Habits That Might Lead to Dementia, Say Experts


You're Sleeping On Your Stomach

sleepy woman lying on stomach wearing pants

Many stomach sleepers experience pain because that position twists the body out of alignment. You have to sleep with your head turned to the side, which makes it hard to breathe and puts strain on your back and spine, raising your risk for neck problems or a herniated disk.

Recommendation: Since neck and back problems increase as we age, you might want to avoid this position. If stomach sleeping is your thing, sleep with a thin pillow (or no pillow) and place a pillow under your pelvis to take the strain off your spine.

RELATED: Signs You're Getting One of the "Most Deadly" Cancers.


You're Sleeping Too Much

Woman sleeping in bed

Sleep is vital for health as we age, but there can be too much of a good thing. Oversleeping has been correlated with an increased risk of dementia.

Recommendation: Stick to nine hours, max, and wake up at the same time every day. And again, to stay your safest during this pandemic, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael
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