Are you sabotaging your own sleep?
Danielle Fourie, Naturopathy Student
5 everyday things that may be keeping you sleepy
Here’s the scenario: you go to bed at night, get what you think is the right amount of sleep for you, and then wake up the next morning ready to nap. What can possibly be going wrong?
Okay, so the answer isn’t always straight forward, but let’s just start at the simplest possibility: sabotaging your own sleep. “Sabotage?!”, you ask in surprise. Yes, sabotage. There may be a few habits that you pay no heed to that ultimately affect the quality of your sleep; habits that are so normal in life that they seem perfectly harmless.
1. Blue screen of…sleepiness.
Laying down in bed and checking your Facebook newsfeed? Going to bed right after one last episode of your favourite show? Propped up in bed with your laptop doing some last-minute work? This may seem harmless enough, but ultimately, it’s the biggest mistake you can make if you value your beauty sleep.
Blue light, as emitted by our electronic devices, consists of a specific wavelength that boosts our attention, mood and reaction times and suppresses the “sleep” hormone, Melatonin (Harvard Medical School, 2018). In other words, it keeps us active, focused and awake. Not exactly the traits you want for sleep time. Sure, you may still fall asleep easily enough, but if your brain is active, you’re not actually getting that healing, restful sleep that you need.
2. Light is the enemy of sleep; embrace the darkness.
Following on from the blue light saga, we have light in general. Darkness in the room is so important for a good night’s sleep. The body uses light as a way to set its own internal clock (aka the circadian rhythm); basically, so that it can figure out when it’s day time (awake time) and night time (rest, heal and sleep time). However, if there is too much light at night, there is confusion in the body and boom, restless sleep. More light means less melatonin production, and less melatonin leads to less deep sleep (Gooley et al., 2011).
3. Having one more drink before bed to help you sleep? Re-think the night cap.
Alcohol may calm you enough to induce feelings of drowsiness, but does it actually allow you to sleep well and truly rest? Sadly, no. While the initial onset of sleep may be easier, alcohol tends to keep you awake; you may just not realise it! It may be in small, unnoticed ways like the alteration of brain waves resulting in a more active brain at night, or in larger, more noticeable events such as waking to urinate more frequently during the night (Park et al., 2015).
As if that wasn’t enough, it may bring on breathing problems like sleep apnoea or snoring. How does this matter if you are asleep? Alcohol acts a relaxant for the muscles in your throat and ultimately blocks your ability to get air in, so your brain wakes your body up to get more oxygen, an event you may not necessarily even be aware of (National Sleep Foundation, 2019). I’m sure I don’t need to tell you: air is good, no air is bad.
So, what does all this mean? Well, it’s simple: your body may be reclined, you may be tucked in, warm and comfy, but your brain is alive and active ultimately resulting in a night of not-so-restful sleep.
4. A fan of dessert? Maybe tea and biscuits after dinner? Time to reconsider the sweet end to a meal.
As tasty an idea as it may appear to be, consuming those high sugar treats before bed is an often-overlooked item on the sleep sabotage list. Dessert is too normal a thing. Consumption of sugar and sugar-rich items (be it ice-cream, chocolate, biscuits or even high-fructose fruits like mango) have been linked to lighter and ultimately less restorative sleep (St-Onge, Roberts, Shechter, & Choudhury, 2016).
And what about that cup of tea? Surely, it’s not as bad as coffee, right? Well, that depends on the tea. Are you drinking black tea with sugar and milk? Or herbal teas like chamomile? Black tea contains all the stimulating fun of caffeine, and caffeine and sleep do not play well. This is ultimately a little extra zing of stimulation for your brain, resulting in less deep sleep and more tired mornings.
5. Side effect or stimulating ingredient; some medications and supplements shouldn’t be taken at night.
Sure, this is a more complicated notion than just “medications keep you awake”, but what many don’t realise is that some medications can cause sleep problems, whether noticeably (like insomnia) or by just keeping the brain active enough to prevent deep sleep. Certain medications can increase neurotransmitters that keep us awake while others may contain stimulating chemicals such as caffeine. Anti-depressants, anticonvulsants, blood pressure medications and even some supplements (like B-vitamins) (Tsai, 2017) are all examples of commonly prescribed treatments that can lead to sleep sabotage. So, check out what you are taking. If you’re unsure, ask your health care practitioner what ingredients are in the medications you are taking, and if they’re adding to the sabotage, perhaps its time to re-arrange your medication schedule to keep your sleep safe.
The take-home message is pretty simple: mindful living. Being aware of our habits and routines, no matter how trivial they seem to be, is a great way to prevent this unconscious sabotaging of something as important and impactful in our lives as sleep. Set a wind-down routine and stick to it. Have screen-free nights. Let the emails wait until you get back to the office. Sleep is important for the body, the mind and the soul; it’s meant to be a time of healing and restoration. So: take stock and give yourself the best chance at a good night’s sleep by cutting back on the things that keep you awake.
Gooley, J. J., Chamberlain, K., Smith, K. A., Khalsa, S. B. S., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., Van Reen, E., … Lockley, S. W. (2011). Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration in humans. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 96(3), E463-72. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2010-2098
Harvard Medical School. (2018). Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved May 15, 2019, from Bluelight has a dark side website: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
National Sleep Foundation. (2019). How Alcohol Affects the Quality—And Quantity—Of Sleep. Retrieved August 9, 2019, from National Sleeo Foundation website: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-alcohol-affects-quality-and-quantity-sleep
Park, S.-Y., Oh, M.-K., Lee, B.-S., Kim, H.-G., Lee, W.-J., Lee, J.-H., … Kim, J.-Y. (2015). The effects of alcohol on quality of sleep. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 36(6), 294–299. https://doi.org/10.4082/kjfm.2015.36.6.294
St-Onge, M.-P., Roberts, A., Shechter, A., & Choudhury, A. R. (2016). Fiber and saturated fat are associated with sleep arousals and slow wave sleep. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 12(01), 19–24. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.5384
Tsai, S. (2017). Medicines that can cause insomnia. Retrieved August 10, 2019, from National Jewish Health website: https://www.nationaljewish.org/conditions/insomnia/causes/medicines-that-can-cause-insomnia