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6 Habits That Ruin a Good Night's Sleep

Getting older doesn't have to mean fitful nights if you avoid these mistakes

By Sally Stich and

(This article previously appeared on

If you equate getting older with needing — or getting — less sleep, here's a wake-up call: It's not true.

"The majority of us require between seven and nine hours of shuteye a night," says Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute. "And there's little reason — whether you're 55 or 80 — not to get it."

Barring disease, medication and pain (all legitimate sleep interrupters), if patients complain of bad sleep, Oexman looks at their nighttime habits, where the problem almost always resides. These are six habits he encounters. One of more of them might be sabotaging your z-z-z-z-z's.

Bad Habit No. 1: Watching TV until you fall asleep. This problem has nothing to do with what you watch — Downton Abbey isn't a better pre-sleep choice than Dog the Bounty Hunter. Rather it's the exposure to TV's bright light that's the culprit.

Artificial bright light after dusk not only enhances alertness, it delays the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. So even if you nod off (in front of the TV, for example), you probably won't stay asleep for long.

EZZZ fix: An hour before bedtime, treat yourself like a baby: a warm bath, followed by a quiet activity in dim light such as meditation, journal writing or reading. But no reading or writing on your computer before bed or in the middle of the night. (Almost half of the respondents in the AOL Email Addiction survey admitted to checking email during the night. If that's you, keep technology out of the bedroom.)

Bad Habit No. 2: Sleeping with Fido. While animal-lovers argue the emotional benefits of sharing a pillow with their pets, research shows that pets can contribute to less than sound sleep.

How? "Pets have different circadian rhythms than humans," says Oexman. "They sleep most of the day, and they shift a lot when sleeping — they get comfortable, then they move. This goes on all night, and whether you admit it or not, it interrupts your ability to get the level of sleep needed to feel rested." (As for pet dander and allergies, sneezing and wheezing are not great sleep enhancers.)

EZZZ fix: For two weeks, put your pooch or cat in a crate outside your closed bedroom door. When your pet can sleep quietly in the crate, move the crate inside your room for another two weeks. When the crate training is complete, try letting the dog or cat sleep in his own bed near your bed.

Discourage all attempts by your pet to jump on your bed and reward all successes for staying in his own bed. (Caveat: Plan on interrupted sleep for a few weeks.)

(MORE: A Good Night's Sleep Could Ward Off Alzheimer's)

Bad Habit No. 3: Exercising too close to bedtime. Remember how poorly you sleep when you have a fever — drifting in and out, never really feeling rested? Well, heavy exercise too close to bedtime has the same effect; it raises your core body temperature so your sleep is fragmented at best until your body temperature drops to normal, which may take several hours.

EZZZ fix: No hardcore exercise at least three hours before bedtime. That way, when you lay your sleepy head on the pillow, your body temp will be normal.

Also, keep the bedroom temperature between 58 and 65 degrees for the ideal sleeping climate. Too cold for you? Pile on the blankets. Just make sure your head (no stocking cap, please) is exposed to the cooler air to help regulate your body temperature.

Bad Habit No. 4: Drinking too much liquid before bed time. When you do, you have to get up and pee frequently.


EZZZ fix: Need we also mention that coffee, tea, and colas are not only diuretics, but also stimulants? Stop drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch and other liquids at least three hours before bedtime. Peeing at night and aging do not automatically go hand in hand unless you suffer from a prostate issue, sleep apnea or weak pelvic muscles; in those cases, see your doctor for help with the related sleep issues.

Bad Habit No. 5: Eating heavy, fatty foods too close to bedtime. Heartburn strikes anyone of any age, but it's the most common GI disorder in older adults. If you've ever tried to go to sleep after eating a fatty meal, you've probably found the discomfort of stomach acids leaking into your esophagus less than conducive to falling asleep or staying asleep.

EZZZ fix: Try to eat your last meal of the day at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. If you're starved, consider a carbohydrate-rich snack.

"Carbs stimulate melatonin production," says Oexman, "so have a (normal size) bowl of cereal, a half a bagel with a spread of hummus or a small boiled potato."

Or maybe have a serving of jasmine rice. According to the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating jasmine rice helped people in a study fall asleep faster than other types of rice. Who knew?

(MORE: 7 Ways to Get a Good Night's Sleep)

Bad Habit No. 6: Accepting snoring as normal sleep behavior. Snoring may seem as common as breathing, but it's considered the biggest sleep disrupter and is linked to several causes: sleeping on your back, being overweight, having a cold or allergies, drinking or taking certain medications.

At its most serious, snoring is caused by apnea, a potentially life-threatening illness. For the snorer, it disrupts sleep by awakening him or her every so often in order to breathe normally. For the partner, the noise can be deafening.

EZZZ fix: For minor problems, try the obvious; lose weight, sleep on your side or take decongestants if you have a cold. In addition, Oexman recommends using a mouthguard, which is a non-invasive way to open the breathing passages (SnoreRX, Pure Sleep).

To rule out or diagnose apnea, consult your doctor. And never dismiss snoring as just a nuisance until you've discovered the underlying cause. That means no separate bedrooms as the quick fix.

Sally Stich Read More
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