5 Things You Should Stop Doing If You Have Trouble Sleeping

By Isadora Baum

If you're powering down in the evening, you don't want to do things that might bring stimulation or mess with your mind and body. Factors like food, exercise, media, and caffeine all play a role—so be mindful of the timing of them all.

sleeping
credit: Twenty20

Instead, focus on positive behaviors that can improve sleep, such as meditation, relaxing music, a warm bath, and a light read. Here are the worst things to do before bed, so avoid them like the plague!

Eating Dinner Too Late

"I recommend eating dinner at least three hours before you go to bed. Late night eating not only represents a risk factor for poor sleep and weight gain, but may increase your risk for acid reflux as well as 'silent reflux,'" says Dr. Robert Glatter, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health and attending emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Silent reflux may lead to difficulty swallowing, a chronic cough, as well as sore throat—all due to effects of gastric acid from late night eating, he says.

Eating the Wrong Foods

It's not just about timing, but also the specific foods you're eating, too. "Other foods that can trigger reflux before bed and to avoid include soda, chocolate, nuts, cheese, coffee, citrus fruits and juices," he says.

"Soda is quite acidic in nature, and can lead to irritation of the lower esophageal sphincter. The carbonation also can increase pressure in the stomach, exacerbating reflux symptoms," he says.

And, while you might want dessert, be careful with chocolate. "Chocolate is high in fat, which also relaxes the esophageal sphincter, leading to a spike in reflux symptoms. Chocolate also contains caffeine and the stimulant theobromine, which will keep prevent you from falling asleep," he says.

Cheese itself, by virtue of its high fat content, may trigger reflux symptoms late at night, too. "Swiss and Parmesan may have less of an effect, compared to mozzarella or feta—making it important to stay away from late-night pizza runs! Citrus is also quite acidic in nature [and] orange juice late night may be one of the biggest triggers of acid reflux," he says.

So what's the best choice if your stomach is growling? Foods that are low in acidity. "Try a low sugar cereal with low fat milk. These choices are easy on your stomach and will make you feel full and satisfied. Bananas are another good choice that has reduced acidity," he says.

sleep
credit: Twenty20

Drinking Coffee Too Late in the Day

Cut yourself off mid-afternoon. Coffee is not only acidic, but generates stimulates secretion of additional stomach acid, he says. You can try decaf, but there's still some caffeine. "Decaf has reduced levels of acid compared to regular coffee," he says.

Having a Night Cap

Alcohol relaxes the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach, leading to exacerbation of reflux symptoms, he says, so don't think a night-cap will actually help you sleep. Instead, calm down with a nice cup of tea. "I suggest chamomile tea with low fat milk," says Glatter. (Ed's note: Golden milk or dandelion tea are great options, too!)

Exercising Too Late

"Exercising before bed does not seem to affect everyone in the same manner. In some people, it can potentially help you to fall asleep sooner," he says. Yet, if you feel it's keeping you too energized, move your workout up a few hours.

"While some studies do show minimal effect on quality and duration of sleep, I feel that it's best to place yourself in a more relaxed state and frame of mind before bedtime," he says.

Your body needs to physically and spiritually wind down as bedtime nears. Meditation, deep breathing, and reflection can lead to better overall sleep quality.

Yet, get that workout in. "Studies have shown that exercise can improve the quality of sleep of those with chronic insomnia, especially as a nonpharmacologic treatment for disturbed sleep," he says. However, high intensity and vigorous aerobic exercise too close to bedtime—such as running or weight lifting —has not been shown to improve quality of sleep overall, he says.

Basically, exercise increases your heart rate, elevates your core body temperature, and releases adrenalin, the flight or fight hormone. While the net effect of exercise is certainly beneficial, it's the timing of it that can ultimately cut into valuable sleep time.

"My best advice is that if it does affect your sleep, make sure you complete it at least two hours before you go to bed," he says.