10 Reasons You're Not Getting a Good Night's Sleep

Need better sleep? Forgo trendy solutions and simply stop making these common nighttime blunders.

By: Madhu Puri

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The Secret to Deeper Sleep

Sleep has become such a cultural obsession we now have sleep trackers on our cellphones, smart mattresses to analyze REM cycles, and direct-to-consumer brands pushing sleep-enhancing sheets, vitamins, and drink supplements. But if you’re looking for a more natural, analog approach to a better night’s rest, consider avoiding these daily mistakes health and healing experts say many of us make.

Eating and Drinking Too Late

According to the American Sleep Institute, the average adult needs at least seven hours and no more than nine hours of uninterrupted sleep. Dr. Ralph Cardin and Dr. Heather Cardin, of the Cardin Center for Wellnessin Kansas City, where alternative therapies and chiropractic work are used to treat insomniacs, both say this recommended sleep time begins four hours after your last meal, since the nervous system takes that long to complete digestion. And did you know there are more nerves in our gut than our spinal cord? Dine early, decrease liquids (including water) after 6pm, and stave off alcohol to ensure your body can properly shut down when it needs to.

Keeping the Lights On

Light can suppress the release of melatonin, a natural hormone our bodies produce in the presence of darkness. Making things worse, most of us are heavily exposed to screens or "blue light waves," which the Cardins’ explain are the "shortest, highest energy wavelengths in the visible light spectrum." Blue light, combined with artificial household lighting, all interrupt our natural circadian rhythms (a.k.a. our sleep/wake cycles). Aside from shutting down electronics before you retire to bed, consider buying glasses that block and filter out active blue light when you are looking at screens in the evening.

Forgetting to Breathe

"Focused breathing is a valuable tool to calm anxiety, soothe a restless mind, ease body tension, and promote healthy sleep," says Natasha Kubis, L.A.C., a licensed acupuncturist and yoga practitioner based in Asheville, NC and New York City. She recommends a three-step technique called: The 4-7-8 Breathing Method. Breathe through your nose for four seconds, then hold your breath for seven seconds, and finally exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. This type of deep breathing decreases adrenalin and cortisol — stress hormones that may be keeping you from deep sleep.

Working Out

"Exercise is a form of stress that can elevate stress hormones making it harder to chill out post-workout," says Mandi Neubecker-Phillips, a certified Pilates teacher, personal trainer, and reiki practitioner based in Brooklyn, NY. If your days are spent sedentary, however, look to workouts like yoga and Pilates, which build, lengthen, and stretch muscles all at once. Kubis suggests trying a series of basic yoga moves including "cat/cow stretch," "child pose," and "butterfly pose," as part of your bedtime ritual. Hold each pose for three to five minutes for the best results.

Getting Too Cozy

As enticing as snuggling up under the covers may be, keeping your body too warm can adversely affect sleep. Research from the Center for Chronobiology in Basel, Switzerland shows that a drop in our core temperature triggers our bodies’ sleep signals. "As you sleep, your body temperature naturally lowers," says the Cardins.’ "Introducing your body to a cooler environment helps stimulate sleep and allows you to cycle naturally through the sleep stages." Both doctors suggest lowering your bedroom temperature by five degrees Farenheit to start.

Keeping a Clock By the Bed

Regulating your internal clock rather than focusing on an actual clock is common advice for insomnia sufferers. Clocks immediately trigger the mind to tally our sleep, thereby creating anxiety, which makes it harder to doze or go back to sleep if you wake in the middle of the night. Kubis advises sticking to the same sleep time and wake time, even on weekends. "Do not look at a clock if you can’t sleep," she says. "Go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel drowsy enough to return to bed and sleep again."

Tensing Up

"Taking muscular tension to bed will hinder sleep," says Neubecker-Phillips. To release tight muscles, use a foam roller and target areas such as the upper back, shoulders, and neck — where our bodies tend to hold stress. Separately, Kubis suggests progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), a technique that involves tensing and relaxing one muscle group at a timeuntil the entire body is at ease. "Begin with your face muscles," she says. "Contract for one to two seconds, relax, and repeat. Then proceed to the jaw, neck, arms, fingers, chest, abdomen, backside, legs, and feet, in that order."

Not Eating Enough

"I ask for food journals from my clients and often see a link between no or low carbs at dinner and poor sleep," says Neubecker-Phillips. "If someone eats a salad for dinner, they may be left unsettled and possibly hungry before bed." Filling root vegetables like parsnips, beets, and sweet potatoes, along with healthy carbs like quinoa, can stabilize your energy and mood. "Most clients have reported feeling more centered and calm with fewer racing thoughts once they incorporated these foods," she says. Even better, corn, asparagus, olives, broccoli, cucumber, barley, rice, walnuts, peanuts, and flaxseed, all boast naturally-occurring melatonin to lull you straight into a deep slumber.

Sleeping in the Wrong Position

Whether standing, sitting, or lying, proper alignment is key to overall health. One of the best ways to maintain good posture when sleeping? Lie on your side and keep your back as straight as possible. "Find a mattress that supports the curvature of your body, while still embracing the pressure points of your shoulders and hips," says Dr. Heather Cardin. "Pillows should be the same thickness as the natural curve in your neck." Using covers that reduce allergens and dust mites will also help prevent sleep disruptions.

Thinking Too Much

If making to-do lists before bed is part of your routine, it’s time to stop. Instead, engage the mind in activities more akin to winding down, such as listening to soothing music or writing in a journal. Neubecker-Phillips prescribes a simple visualization exercise to her reiki clients in which you imagine cutting a cord from the events, people, and places of the day. If that feels like too much work, Kubis suggests basic acupressure techniques to clear the mind. "The 'Anmian point' literally translates to 'peaceful sleep,'" she says. Simply massage this depression (found between the ear and base of the skull) in a circular motion 100 times for instant relaxation.