What’s Stealing Your Sleep?

Do any of the following describe you?

  • I drift off during afternoon meetings.
  • I sleep on short daytime flights after a full night’s sleep.
  • I fall asleep watching TV in the early evening.
  • I sleep when I’m a passenger in a car.
  • I need to drink caffeine and open windows to drive two hours.
  • I been known to drift off at a red light.

Many of us can relate to some of these behaviors, which may lead you to believe that it’s OK to just live with them. But each may be a sign of sleep deprivation. This might surprise you, especially if any of these are familiar and you think you already get enough rest (seven to nine hours for most people). It’s important to remember that it’s not just how much sleep you’re getting, but also how well you’re sleeping that determines how you feel the next day.

Being even subtly tired means you may not be enjoying “restorative sleep.” This phrase captures the essential truth that our bodies and minds need not just quantity but quality from the Zzzzs we get. “Restorative sleep is not a luxury—it’s a health essential,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “If you’re not getting enough, it will affect you both behaviorally and biologically.” A good night’s rest helps the body repair itself and restores the mind’s emotional balance. It boosts immunity, helps control weight, improves mood, gives you energy, sharpens your focus and may play a role in preventing diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

Each of us likely has more than one reason why we’re not really rested. Whatever your age, gender, health status or life stage, you can see improvement by identifying and addressing the factors affecting you. Here are the most common thieves in the night:

Stress and Anxiety: Emotional stress, worry and anxiety are the most typical reasons why people can’t fall or stay asleep. It’s easy to understand how an unquiet  mind, perhaps accompanied by shallow breathing and a racing heart, can make it hard to rest well. Though you may not be able to solve the issue that’s bothering you before bedtime, there are many ways to unwind in the evening that can help take the edge off. You might try taking a relaxing bath, doing some soothing nighttime yoga moves or experimenting with aromatherapy.  

More: Create a Soothing Bedtime Routine

Artificial Light: Light interferes with a good night’s rest by suppressing melatonin, the hormone that triggers sleep. The blue light that emits from your TV, laptop, tablet and smartphone screens is especially disruptive. It’s best to turn off all devices, as well as overhead lights, at least a half hour before you want to fall asleep. Reading by low lamp light (old-fashioned incandescents produce less blue light than compact fluorescent bulbs) is a good way to power down your brain and drift off. Dim red bulbs are the best choice for night lights because they have the least effect on melatonin.

Caffeine: Caffeine blocks the chemical adenosine, a compound that builds up during the day and makes you tired, enhancing deep sleep. If you have too much of the stimulant sloshing around your system, even if you can fall asleep, “you may miss out on some of the benefits of deep slumber,” Dr. Dedhia says. Don’t forget: Caffeine has an average “half-life” of seven hours—which means that for some people it takes that long to metabolize just half of the caffeine in their systems. If you’re one of those people, half of the perk-up power in the coffee or tea you have at 3 p.m. is still in your system at 10 p.m.

Alcohol: “A nightcap is still the number one way many people try to fall asleep,” Dr. Dedhia says. The problem: For each alcoholic drink, you’ll feel more relaxed for about an hour—followed by an hour in which you’ll be more easily woken up. “So those two late-night beers mean two hours of grumpier sleep are not too far into your future,” Dr. Dedhia explains. If you have a borderline breathing problem, alcohol will also make it worse. Plus, both alcohol and caffeine can contribute to frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom, another common sleep stealer as we age.

More: Evaluating Your Drinking

Exercising at Night: Regular physical activity fatigues the body and relaxes the mind, and it’s one of the best ways to improve your sleep. But despite this—and the many other reasons why physical activity is good for you—exercising too close to bedtime might make it harder to nod off. One reason may be that it raises your body temperature (a cooler core helps you fall asleep). Working out at night doesn’t keep everyone up, but if you’re having trouble getting your Zzzzs, see if wrapping up your routine at least three hours before you go to bed helps.

Me Time: When the hectic day is done and everyone’s in bed, you finally have some time to catch up on your favorite sitcoms, surf the Internet—do something just for yourself. Each of us deserves time to focus on our own needs and interests, but remember that staying up late to fit that in tonight steals from tomorrow. “Sleep time is me time, too,” Dr. Dedhia says. “When you learn to enjoy the benefits of it, you’ll start enjoying your days more.”

Your Bed Partner: You want to sleep, but your significant other has other plans. “This is tough, but you have to have a conversation about honoring your needs, so your partner can be part of the solution,” Dr. Dedhia says. That might mean your mate agrees to read in the living room, instead of the bedroom, for example. Pillow talk can be precious, but discussing conflicts can wind you up. If bedtime conversation gets heated, agree to relax for now and carve out time to discuss the issues tomorrow. And if your partner’s sleep issues (that chainsaw snore, for example) are keeping you up, encourage them to see a doctor—both for their own health and yours.

Your Age: As we grow older, our sleep naturally becomes less deep and we may wake up several times a night without even realizing it. This can be compounded by certain life stages, like the menopause transition, and the general stresses of life. Many medical issues, including heartburn, certain heart and pain conditions and overactive thyroid, can also affect sleep—as can many of the medications used to manage them. “It’s important to tell your doctor if a health issue or drug is keeping you up so you don’t have to choose between feeling better and feeling rested,” Dr. Dedhia says. “That’s a choice no one should have to make.” 

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