6 Surprising Habits That Can Disturb Your Sleep, According to Health Experts
If you find it challenging to get a good night’s sleep, you’re not alone. By some estimates, up to 70 million Americans experience sleep disorders, per the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
According to the NHLBI, inadequate sleep increases the risk of developing chronic health conditions like hypertension, diabetes and depression. Poor sleep habits may also disrupt metabolic health, which can lead to weight gain, per a 2023 article in Nature Reviews Endocrinology. “Sleep hygiene plays a big part in one’s overall health,” says Danielle Townsend, RDN, LD. “Your body typically needs seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep to properly restore itself.”
However, those hours can be difficult to get, especially if you struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Knowing which sleep-disrupting habits to avoid is essential to developing a nightly routine that will give you the best rest possible. Thankfully, many of the best sleep-promoting strategies are simple to implement in your daily life. Learn more about the surprising habits that disrupt your sleep and how to avoid them.
The #1 Habit You Should Break for Better Sleep, According to a Dietitian
1. Having Too Much Screen Time
Screen time, especially in the hours before bed, is associated with negative effects on sleep. Screens produce blue light, which reduces melatonin circulation, per the 2023 article. Melatonin plays a central role in sleep onset, and lower circulating levels may make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Additionally, computers, smartphones and smartwatches often have alerts or notifications that distract from or interrupt sleep. These distractions can make it difficult to prioritize sleep, ultimately cutting into the total time spent sleeping per night.
It’s also important to avoid content that can disrupt sleep, especially if it’s fast-paced, stressful or overly engaging. Instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media before bed, avoid screens for an hour or so before bedtime. “Ideally, it’s recommended to turn off all screens two to three hours before going to sleep,” says Townsend. “If that’s not practical for you, even one hour before sleep can help.” Commit to limiting screens before bed by keeping your phone or computer in a different room. Focus instead on reading, listening to music or some other relaxing activity in the hour before bed, if possible.
2. Drinking Alcohol Before Bed
While alcohol can initially promote relaxation and increase drowsiness, which often makes it easier to fall asleep, it may surprise you to learn that it can significantly disrupt sleep as the night goes on. “The reality is that just one glass of wine, beer or drink impacts your sleep,” says Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, an anti-inflammatory diet expert and co-host of the podcast Happy Eating. Because of how the body metabolizes alcohol, it negatively affects your sleep later into the night. “It may not be obvious, but alcohol impacts your REM sleep—that deep, restorative level of sleep,” Williams says. “It can also cause you to wake up during the night, which, even if you go right back to sleep, is disruptive to overall sleep quality.” Instead of drinking alcohol before bedtime, replace alcoholic beverages with nonalcoholic options like sparkling water, herbal tea or other favorite drinks, such as a delicious Tart Cherry Nighttime Mocktail. If you choose to drink alcohol, aim to limit it to four hours before bed to prevent negative effects on sleep quality, per a 2019 study in Sleep.
3. Relying Heavily on Caffeine
You can find caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks and supplements like pre-workouts. Caffeine works by acting as a nervous system stimulant to promote wakefulness. In addition to being an everyday pick-me-up in the general population, caffeine is regularly used by athletes and others looking for performance enhancements, due to its effect as an ergogenic aid. You may think an afternoon cup of coffee won’t impact your sleep, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “Once consumed, caffeine has a half-life (half the caffeine remaining in your system) ranging from 2 to 10 hours,” says Mandy Tyler, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD. “This means that your afternoon cup of coffee could still be impacting your quality of sleep that night.” Ironically, sleep deprivation may lead to greater reliance on caffeine throughout the day to stay awake. This habit can feed into a cycle leading to poor sleep night after night.
According to a 2023 systemic review published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, it’s recommended that you avoid coffee eight hours before your planned bedtime, whereas a typical pre-workout supplement with caffeine should be avoided up to 13 hours before bed. Try replacing your afternoon cup of coffee with a decaf coffee or herbal hot tea. And if you regularly exercise later in the day, skip the pre-workout supplements that contain caffeine for a restful night’s sleep.
4. Limiting Daily Activity
Exercise is associated with many health benefits, from boosting mental health to reducing the risk of chronic disease. It’s also one of the best ways to improve sleep quality. Exercising for 30 minutes daily has been shown to improve sleep in healthy adults, per a 2023 review in Cureus. Exercise promotes relaxation by releasing endorphins and reducing stress. It also plays a role in melatonin production, which is central to the sleep-wake cycle. By prioritizing exercise, even just a few minutes daily, you’ll likely experience significant positive effects on sleep duration and quality.
Plan to set aside time each day for a quick walk or another type of exercise. If you find your schedule too busy and adding dedicated exercise time isn’t possible, consider ways to build activity into your day. This may mean taking a walking meeting or regularly opting for the stairs. Any way you can easily move your body during the day will benefit your health and sleep.
5. Having an Inconsistent Bedtime
Research shows that in extreme cases where bedtime varies significantly, your circadian rhythm is severely disrupted. But it doesn’t take sleeping at very different hours to negatively affect your sleep. Even small shifts in bedtime can be disruptive. According to a 2017 small study on college students published in Scientific Reports, those with irregular bedtime had more disruptions in their circadian rhythm. Additionally, irregular bedtime was associated with poor academic outcomes.
A consistent bedtime schedule can help regulate your circadian rhythm and, therefore, improve sleep quality. Consider your daily schedule and plan to go to bed around the same time each night to improve your sleep. This may mean sacrificing the late-night binge of your favorite TV show, but know that the limited screen time and consistent bedtime will make for a better night’s sleep and more energy the next day.
6. Not Getting Daylight Exposure
Spending time outside may not be your No. 1 priority in colder months or when your schedule is packed with work and other responsibilities. But staying inside too much can significantly affect your sleep—and not in a good way. Exposure to daylight, especially in the morning, can help regulate the circadian rhythm.
A simple solution is to enjoy the quiet morning hours outside for a few minutes. Even better, plan for a short walk in the morning to get the combined benefit of the morning light plus exercise, both of which will improve sleep quality.
The Bottom Line
Sleep is often overlooked as not having a significant impact on health. Instead, the emphasis on diet and exercise creates a missed opportunity to greatly improve well-being. While all three components play a significant role in a healthy lifestyle, sleep shouldn’t be the last priority.
Quality sleep can spill over to other areas of your life, making it easier to maintain healthy habits. If you struggle to get a good night’s rest, look at your daily routine and see what small behavioral changes you can implement to promote better sleep. The effect will benefit all aspects of your health, not just your energy level.