The Surprising Things That Can Affect Your Sleep

Small, but major.

by Natalia Lusinski

You’ve probably heard that doing things like drinking wine and caffeine and looking at your phone — or other screens — too close to bedtime can negatively affect your snooze patterns. (Hello again, insomnia.) But there are other, less obvious things that can affect your sleep, too — and they are likely not on your radar at all.

Nicholas Witton, sleep science lead at the sleep headphones brand Kokoon, says we, as a society, tend to devalue sleep — and that’s a problem. “Although we innately know that the quality of your sleep will determine the quality of your time awake, our society still does not allow us to value sleep,” he tells TZR in an email. “It is still the first thing we all will choose to give up. Given the choice between staying up to socialize and going to sleep in order to get up earlier for work, many of us never prioritize sleep.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults need at least seven hours of sleep for optimal health. And research has found that insomnia is more common than you may think — one study discovered that 33% of the adult population sampled suffered from it. While you may think it’s no big deal to not sleep much, it can lead to health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes, and increase anxiety. So the time to work on developing better sleep habits is now. Ahead, Witton and other sleep experts chime in on atypical things that may be affecting your nightly shut-eye — or lack thereof.


The Temperature Of The Room Is Too Hot (Or Cold)

Dr. Peter Polos, sleep medicine specialist and expert for Sleep Number, says that temperature is one of the most important — and often overlooked components — in promoting a good sleep environment. “Yet a study found that 83% of couples actually sleep too hot or too cold,” he tells TZR in an email. “The reality is that an elevated room temperature can make it more difficult to fall asleep, as it raises your core body temperature. An ideal room temperature is anywhere from 67 to 69 degrees.”

Not Getting Enough Light Exposure In The Day

“Not getting enough light exposure in the first half of the day can be detrimental to sleep,” Dr. Chelsie Rohrschieb, lead sleep specialist at Wesper.co, a sleep management patch company, tells TZR in an email. “This is because light is needed to maintain your circadian rhythm, your internal 24-hour biological clock that tells your brain when to be asleep and awake. Incoming sunlight into the eyes suppresses the hormone melatonin and keeps you awake and alert during the day. As soon as it starts getting dark, melatonin is released and this allows you to fall asleep when you go to bed.” So, if you don't get enough light during the day, your brain won't be as responsive to changing melatonin levels and it becomes harder to fall asleep, and sleep soundly. “For best results, get two hours of natural light exposure by sitting by a window,” she explains. “If you don't live in a sunny area, you can use a UV lamp instead.”

Witton agrees and says you can make getting as much daylight as possible part of your morning routine. “We call this having a ‘photon shower,’” he says. “This can be done by simply having breakfast by a window or using a light box to work next to during the winter months.” And Witton adds that another way to increase your light exposure in the mornings is by getting off public transportation one stop early and walking the final few minutes of your commute, taking a walk when you get to work, or by having your coffee break outside.

Similarly, Witton says that bright light exposure in the evenings can also inhibit the production of melatonin. “So any bright, artificial lights in the evenings are sending mixed messages to the brain, signaling that it is daytime (when it is not) and that we should stay alert and not be asleep,” he says. “We can reduce the amount of bright light we receive past 7 p.m. (for instance). If you are at home, it is wise to dim the lights around the house, especially in the bathroom, as these are normally the brightest lights in the house and also the last light we use before bed.”

Being Out Of Sync With Your Partner’s Sleep-Wake Schedule

If you’re partnered up, they may be negatively affecting your sleep more than you think, Dr. Wendy Troxel, Senior Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep, tells TZR in an email. “Some people are natural night owls who hit their stride in the late evening hours and prefer later bedtimes, whereas others are morning larks, who wake up cheerfully at the crack of dawn,” she says. “So problems can arise when couples are mismatched in their sleep-wake preferences.”

She says she’s seen many cases where the night owl will try to go to bed at the same time as their early-bird partner, so as not to sacrifice that important time together in bed. “But here’s the problem — our sleep-wake preferences are largely genetically determined (about 50%), so you can’t just override your biology because you want to be in-sync with your partner,” she explains. “What ends up happening is the night owl tries to fall asleep much earlier than their biological clock tells them they are ready, leading to an inability to fall asleep, frustration, and insomnia.”

Instead, she suggests that couples take advantage of that important time to be together before falling asleep to cuddle and unwind. Then, when it’s time for the early bird to go to bed, the night owl can quietly leave the room and return when it’s time for their natural, later bedtime. “Eye masks and earplugs can also help to avoid disruption caused by the night owl returning to bed later, or the early bird waking up earlier in the morning,” she adds.

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Using Your Bed For Non-Sleep Activities, Like Work Or Worrying

Some experts say you may have trouble sleeping if your bed doubles for an office — especially with so many people working from home these days. We then associate it with being awake, which doesn’t help when it comes time to sleep. In addition, associating your bed with frustration or worry can also get in the way of sleep, says Polos. “Many of us have trouble winding down or relaxing before bed, meaning that we can’t always ‘turn off’ our thoughts when our head hits the pillow,” he explains. “If you find yourself staring at the ceiling more and more, try getting out of bed and going into another room and doing something relaxing, such as reading or listening to music. It’s important to train your brain that your bedroom and bed are for sleeping. Reserve the bed for sleep and sex only — do not eat, work, or watch TV in bed.”

And Troxol adds that if anxiety or worries are keeping you up, set aside some “worry time” before bed. “Schedule 15 minutes per day, a few hours before bedtime, to write down all of the worries, lists, and concerns that go through your head,” she says. “When the 15 minutes is up, literally and figuratively, close the book on your Worry Journal. This will help train your brain that the bed is not the place for worry.”

Exercising Too Close To Bedtime

“While exercise can help promote sleep, doing so too close to bedtime can actually affect some people’s ability to fall asleep,” says Polos. “If you exercise, try doing so at least one hour before bedtime.” He suggests low-impact exercises like yoga, stretching, or brisk walking. More intense workouts can be saved for earlier in the day. Dani Schenone, RYT, ACSM-CPT and holistic wellness specialist at Mindbody and ClassPass, agrees. “Studies show vigorous or high-intensity exercise just before bedtime can disrupt one’s sleeping patterns,” she tells TZR in an email. “It stimulates the nervous system and can raise both heart rate and core body temperature. This makes it difficult for the body to relax and move into a sleep state. Be sure to either tone it down to a moderate-level of effort or try exercising in the morning or afternoon.”

Sleeping With A Pet

“While many people enjoy sharing a bed with a pet, because of the sense of comfort and security pets provide, it sometimes comes at a cost to their sleep,” says Troxel. “Pet hair and dander can cause allergies in many people, which can negatively impact sleep, and a pet’s movement or noises throughout the night can also cause sleep disturbances.” She says it’s important to balance the benefits of the comfort and security pets may bring with these potential drawbacks. “It may be helpful to have the pet sleep in the room but not on the bed — or consider a larger mattress,” she says.

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Not Following A Consistent Sleep Schedule

Dr. Helen Kollias, science advisor at Precision Nutrition says a big problem younger adults face regarding sleep is “social jetlag,” which occurs when you end up shifting your sleep (and awake) times due to activities (usually social) you'd do on weekends (or non-work days). “For example, you normally work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so during the weekdays you wake up at 7 a.m. and go to sleep at 11 p.m. But on the weekends, you like going out with friends, so you don't get to bed until much later (1 to 3 a.m.), so you sleep in until 9 a.m. or noon. You're still getting your usual seven to nine hours of sleep, but it's shifted. Scientifically, that two- to four-hour shift is social jetlag.” It causes a misalignment in circadian rhymes that can lead to sleep disruption, she adds, and is one reason why a lot of people struggle with Monday mornings.

So while you might think that catching up on sleep during the weekend will set you up for the week ahead, it won’t, Polos agrees. “Because our body runs on a clock that is about 24 hours long (our circadian rhythm), regular sleep habits are the best way to maintain a regular sleep routine,” he says. “This means going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, seven days a week (even on weekends!).” To help you out, you can do things such as: use a sleep tracking app (many phones even have them built into the Health section); set a nightly bedtime (and wake time) that allows you to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night; shut down electronics 60 minutes before bed to avoid blue light exposure from items such as computers, tablets, cell phones, and TVs; stay away from stimulants (such as caffeine and alcohol) within 3-to-4 hours of bedtime; and, if necessary, relax or unwind with music, reading, or meditation before bed.

Witton adds that a good evening pre-sleep routine will consist of following the “3-2-1 rule,” which is: 3 hours before sleep, you have your last meal and alcoholic drink; 2 hours before sleep, you stop working; and 1 hour before sleep, you turn off all your screens and dim the lights around the house. Night-night!