15 Sneaky Sleep Stealers

Photography by: Catherine Ledner
15 Sneaky Sleep Stealers

6} You’re on drugs “Medications either stimulate or inhibit the brain,” says Yan-Go. For example, some over-the-counter painkillers (including Excedrin, Midol and Anacin) contain caffeine, so check ingredients lists. Common prescription drugs, including beta-blockers, can also inhibit sleep. The most shocking sleep stealer? Antidepressants. Insomnia is a symptom of depression, so you would expect the pills to help you nod off. “But selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs such as Paxil, Lexapro or Prozac] release a relentless stream of serotonin that results in disturbed sleep for many people,” says Naiman. Talk to your doctor if you suspect a medication is messing with your z’s. There may be alternatives, or perhaps you can adjust your schedule so that you take a medication that stimulates you in the morning and vice versa.

7} You work out too hard Exercise can help you sleep better—as long as it’s at the right intensity. In a recent study from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., sedentary adults with insomnia slept better and longer when they did 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise four times a week for 16 weeks. However, says Yan-Go, “Excessive exercise can negatively affect sleep. It’s not just a problem if you exercise too late at night—you can overtrain, regardless of when you work out.” Scrimgeour, who treats many endurance athletes, explains: “When you push yourself too hard, your body secretes excess cortisol, which in the short term can affect your ability to fall asleep,” he says. “Furthermore, over time, this will deplete your adrenals, which will affect your ability to sleep well through the night. Overexercisers have a hard time calming down.” So dial those sweat sessions down a notch, and balance out your routine with soothing, restorative movement, like qigong, tai chi or yoga (just not at bedtime). Research from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that three 40-minute tai chi sessions per week can help you sleep longer and better.

8}You worry too much “There is no question that worrying and ruminating over issues that are painful or cause discomfort can lead to a rise in stress hormones and result in insomnia,” says Northrup. And anxiety intensifies at night: If you worry at a subtle level throughout the day, you may not notice it. Suddenly, when you turn out the lights, that whisper of anxiety becomes very loud. What can you do to quiet it down? Just like you clean your teeth and face before bed, you need to clear your mind. Studies show that focused journaling at night, which involves writing down your worst fears in a short list, actually helps people sleep better.

9}You sweat too late It’s better to exercise in the evening than not to exercise at all. However, “Some people find that evening exercise makes them too excited and awake; it’s better for them to do it in the morning,” says San Francisco-based integrative family physician Daphne Miller, M.D. Reap extra benefits by heading outside in the early a.m. to pound the pavement or go for a bike ride: Exposure to natural light in the morning and throughout the day reinforces a normal sleepwake cycle.

10} Your supper is too stimulating You know not to down a cup of joe right before bed—the half-life of caffeine is six or seven hours, which means it takes that long to metabolize just half of the substance. But here’s a surprise: Spicy foods are also a no-no at night. “They give your metabolism a jolt, similar to caffeine,” says Scrimgeour. “Cooling foods, like melon, do the opposite. Eating them at dinnertime could help you sleep.” A meat-and-potatoes dinner could also keep you up. “Animal protein, particularly beef, is more difficult to digest than plant-based protein,” says Reardon. “After a big steak, your body is too busy digesting food to focus its energy and attention on sleep cycles.”