Being unable to sleep is disconcerting, and the problem only compounds the more you think and stress about it. There's being unable to fall asleep; then there's waking up in the middle of the night, and then there's waking up too early—all of which suck equally. However, there are some common—and easily avoidable—culprits that could be to blame for your sleepless nights.
Keep scrolling to learn what they are, so you can finally rest easy.
Exercising Too Late in the Day
You know how trainers will tell you to work out even when you're exhausted because it will energize you and wake you up? Exactly. Exercising revs up your heart rate and prompts the body to produce adrenaline, which can make you feel alert and stimulated for hours afterward. Though researchers agree that exercising in the evening affects individuals differently, if you are prone to restless nights, you might want to consider moving your late-day workouts to the morning.
Eating Protein Too Close to Bed Time
We bet you would never suspect plain old protein as a sleeping saboteur, but protein, in fact, takes a lot of energy for the body to digest, and thus can keep your system in overdrive when you need it to relax the most. Though lean protein is always a healthy dinner option, it's never a good habit to eat a protein-rich meal (or any meal) and then plop your head down on the pillow shortly thereafter. Experts recommend having your last meal at least two hours before bedtime.
Going to Bed Hungry
Conversely, you shouldn't go to bed hungry. Crashing on an empty stomach might seem like a good idea when you're so tired you can't summon the energy to open the fridge door, let alone cook, but you'll be doing yourself a disservice. If you go to bed not having eaten for several hours, your hunger can (and probably will) wake you up. The hunger hormone, ghrelin, makes the brain alert. Even just a small snack, like string cheese and a few crackers, is better than nothing.
Sneaky Sources of Caffeine
You're probably aware that a cup of coffee too late in the afternoon can interfere with sleep, but there are sources of caffeine you might not think about. Many people opt for a post-dinner treat of several squares of chocolate (dark, if you're trying to be healthy), and just one ounce has around 20 mg of the stimulant (a regular cup of coffee contains around 90). In fact, the darker the chocolate, the more caffeine it has. The same stimulating quality goes for chocolate ice cream and other chocolate desserts.
Even more disruptive, a serving of coffee ice cream contains 48 mg of caffeine, which is basically like drinking half a cup of coffee before bed. Additionally, decaf coffee technically isn't decaffeinated. An eight-ounce cup contains about 2.4 mg of caffeine. If you're sensitive to caffeine and experience sleeplessness, skip the coffee and chocolate.
Sleeping In (or Not Enough) on Weekends
If you have a 9 to 5 job Monday through Friday and get up at the same time every day, it can be tempting to make Saturday and Sunday "binge" days and sleep way past your usual wake-up time. The simple, scientific truth is that binge-sleeping on weekends can screw up your ability to sleep during the week. Not sticking to a regular wake-up time messes with your body's circadian rhythm, which means its natural cues to rev up during the morning and wind down at night are thrown out of whack.
Similarly, skimping on sleep and staying up until the wee hours of the night on the weekends (which probably means you'll be sleeping in, too) has the same detrimental effect.
Napping Too Long (Or Late) in the Day
Naps are okay if they're around 30 minutes (i.e. cat naps), and not too late in the day (not after the sun has set). But napping when it's dark out and napping longer than 30 minutes will confuse the heck out of your internal sleep clock, thus making consistent sleep at night more problematic.
Your Sleep Partner (Ahem, Pet)
Pets. They're cute, they're furry, and they love you unconditionally. But they make terrible sleep partners. They're loud (they snore), they move around a lot, and they have active dreams (which means more noise, and more movement). A recent study at the University of Kansas found that a third of people who sleep with pets reported getting woken up at least once a night, and registered as having poor sleep quality. If you're having sleep problems, it's probably time to kick Fido out from under the covers.
Common cold medicines and decongestants Mucinex DM can keep you up at night, and migraine medicines like Excedrin contain caffeine as the primary ingredient because it constricts blood vessels to help with the intensity of the migraine. Taking these meds close to bedtime can wreak havoc on a solid night's sleep.
You're Not Winding Down
Watching TV or scrolling through your Instagram feed right before bed aren't just bad activities because of the disruptive blue light they emit, they're also downright stimulating. They can make you excited, stressed, and alert, as the synapses in your brain start firing off with related thoughts. A character on your favorite show is celebrating their birthday. Birthdays. You forgot someone's birthday. When was it? Did it pass or is it tomorrow? You need to get on Facebook and check, while you still remember. You get the idea.
Instead of engaging in stimulating entertainment before bed, focus on the opposite: relaxation. Write a to-do list to get thoughts and worries about the next day out of your head and onto paper, take a bath, or meditate and practice some deep breathing.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, FoodData Central. Chocolate, dark, 70-85% cacao solids. Updated April 1, 2019.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, FoodData Central. Coffee, brewed, decaffeinated. Updated April 1, 2020.
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Cleveland Clinic. Put the phone away! 3 reasons why looking at it before bed is a bad habit. Updated April 22, 2019.