We all know how important sleep hygiene is, but that doesn’t mean we actually follow the recommendations set forth by experts to a tee. In fact, most people do all kinds of things that mess with their sleep habits, from lying in the dark with a smartphone in hand to having a glass of wine right before bed, even though they know that they’re not supposed to be doing it.
But what if you knew that your nighttime routine was actually having a negative impact on your brain health? According to sleep experts, what you do between the sheets could have a major impact on how your mind functions—and we don’t mean that in a fun way. Yes, anything that messes with your sleep quality is bad for your brain, too.
Struggling to get a good night's sleep? These are the most common nightly routine mistakes that impact brain health, plus how to remedy them.
“The most common and most detrimental sleep habit is simply sleeping too little,” says David White, MD, chief medical officer at Philips Sleep and Respiratory Care. “When we’re not able to get enough sleep, we see sharp declines in our mood, and it also may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke,” he says. “Too little sleep also affects cognitive functioning and overall performance in terms of memory and ability to stay on task,” White notes. In other words, you’re going to notice a decline in how your brain functions overall when you’re not logging sufficient hours.
On the other hand, more isn’t necessarily better. “Research has shown that getting too much sleep may be associated with symptoms of depression and pain, as well as a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes,” says White. While research does not show that getting too much sleep actually causes these problems, it’s pretty safe to say that there’s no reason to be sleeping more than nine hours per night on the reg.
The Fix: Clock seven to eight hours every night.
“The recommended number of hours of sleep by both the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation is about seven hours for adults, but many Americans do not get that nearly that amount,” says James A. Rowley, MD, Detroit Medical Center interim chief, Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine. “The best thing you can do for your brain health is to get at least the recommended seven hours of sleep every single night,” he adds.
Not only that, but it looks like sleeping in on the weekends can actually do more harm than good. “People should not vary their sleep and wake patterns by more than 30 minutes each day,” says Rowley.
Just admit it: You bring your smartphone to bed with you. Or maybe you doze off with your favorite Netflix show playing in the background. Unfortunately, this common habit has a less-than-favorable consequence. “Technology tends to wind us up, whether it’s reading a last-minute email, watching the news, or even watching an emotional movie,” says Christine Hansen, FDN-P, a holistic sleep strategist a coach at Sleep Like a Boss.
“Falling asleep is a process, and it takes time for your brain to wind down and transition into sleep,” she explains. Technology makes that transition a whole lot harder. “The rays of artificial blue light found in screens have a very short and intense frequency and can interfere with melatonin, the hormone that we need in order to feel sleepy,” says Hansen. Basically, using a screen before bed means it will likely take you longer to fall asleep and can even affect how well you sleep.
The Fix: Power off.
As much as you might not want to stop scrolling through your Instagram feed before bed, it’s the easiest solution here. Since all of our devices are meant for consuming content, they actually keep your mind engaged long after you stop using them, according to Robert Lebby, MD, FAASM, FCCP, sleep medicine consultant and Snore Report technical consultant. “It is recommended to stop using your phone, tablet, and computer for at least an hour before you go to sleep,” he says. Instead, try activities like reading a book or magazine, chatting with your S.O., writing in a journal, or using a coloring book.
In a U.S. poll, 30% of insomniacs admitted to using alcohol as a sleep aid, and while it might seem like having a nightcap is a good idea, here’s the problem with it: “Even though alcohol can help to de-stress, it also interferes with our sleep phases,” says Hansen. “We don’t sleep in one long stretch but instead in cycles, and each cycle consists of four sleep stages.” Stages one and two are light sleep, stage three is deep sleep, and stage four is REM sleep.
“Alcohol reduces deep sleep, which is where most of our brain maintenance takes place,” Hansen explains.” Because of this, drinking alcohol before bed keeps our brain from healing itself, which can also have repercussions on our psyche and favor depression or anxiety.”
The Fix: Start a wind-down ritual.
“Instead of alcohol, I would suggest looking for help from a sleep expert or committing to lifestyle changes, including implementing a routine before going to bed,” says Hansen. What you do in that routine is totally up to you, but having certain habits that signal it’s time to go to sleep can make all the difference, whether it’s taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness, drinking some caffeine-free tea, or even stretching and foam rolling before you hop into bed.
So your bedroom’s a mess. It happens. But you probably didn’t realize that the state of the room you sleep in can have major repercussions on the quality of your sleep. “It’s very important to have an environment conducive to sleep and relaxation,” notes Lebby. “A clean, non-cluttered room promotes sleep. It’s also not advised to have unfinished projects around your room, which can remind you of things you need to do,” he says. Other strategies for improving your sleep environment include “wearing non-confining clothing, keeping the temperature cool, keeping the room dark, maintaining normal humidity, and keeping the area free of interruptions like phones, pets, and allergens.”
The Fix: Make your bedroom an oasis.
Invest in comfy pj’s, close your blinds, go on an organizing spree—do whatever you need to in order to make your sleep area feel clean and comfortable. “In general, we want to avoid chaos,” says Hansen. “An eye mask is a great shortcut if you can’t get blackout blinds, and it has also been shown that aromatherapy can help (lavender and ylang ylang fragrances in particular),” she adds.
You might think that it’s no big deal to settle for a mattress that you don’t find that comfortable, but experts say it’s actually a critical element in determining your sleep experience. “A mattress is extremely important, as you need to be comfortable to ensure quality sleep time,” says Rowley. “An uncomfortable mattress—whether too firm or too soft or one that no longer keeps its shape or has coils poking through—will lead to a poor night of sleep and result in difficulty functioning during the day,” he says.
The Fix: Splurge on one you love.
There’s no magic formula for the perfect mattress, unfortunately, but taking some time to figure out what you like is worth the investment. “A specific type of mattress cannot be recommended for all people,” Rowley explains. “Each person must find a mattress that will be most suitable for them. Firmness or softness does not matter so much as the person finds it comfortable and to their unique preference.” So go ahead and get to testing.
Have you changed your nightly routine to improve sleep? Tell us what made a big impact.