The five fatal flaws in your plan to fall asleep

Battling to fall asleep? Make sure you’re not making any of these five mistakes.

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There are few things more frustrating than lying in bed, waiting for sleep, and it just not coming.

Or getting a full night's sleep only to still feel shattered in the morning.

After this article, you’ll know the things that you thought would help you fall asleep that may actually have been working against you.

Stop following bad advice

Humans are renowned for giving terrible advice. 

  • “Just have a small nightcap”
  • “A warm tea will help you drift off”
  • “Still battling? Take a sleeping pill”. 

Perhaps you’ve followed this advice, or perhaps you have been the one giving it! 

Either way, we’re about to go into full myth-buster mode so that the next time you’re struggling to doze off or waking up knackered, you’ll be able to make smarter choices for a better night’s sleep.

Let’s dive into the five fatal flaws holding you back from deep, peaceful slumber. 

Flaw number one: Alcohol before bed can affect your sleep

One of the most widespread myths is that alcohol can be a sleeping aid. 

The truth is that while alcohol can help initiate sleep, just two drinks for men and one for women can then decrease overall sleep quality by 24%.

Anything more than that reduces sleep quality by nearly 40%

In context, that is like sleeping eight hours but only getting five hours of rest. 

This can start a vicious cycle of waking up tired, drinking lots of coffee to stay awake throughout the day, and then drinking alcohol again in the evening to offset the effects of all that caffeine and fall asleep.

This cycle can grow out of hand as alcohol tolerance rapidly builds up, leading to more and more alcohol every evening in order to get the desired effect.

It is no coincidence that people diagnosed with alcohol abuse also frequently report chronic sleep issues.

Alcohol’s effect on sleep quality is due to its suppression of both REM sleep, involved in emotional processing and memory consolidation, and deep sleep.

If you’ve read our article on what happens when we don’t sleep, you’ll recall that deep sleep is when waves of fluid course through your brain to remove toxic waste products that build up during the day. One of these is beta-amyloid, the protein specifically implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Put simply:

Alcohol before bed → Fewer hours of deep sleep → Fewer waste products removed  → Greater risk of dementia

Flaw number two: There is more caffeine in tea than most people realise

What could be more soothing than a lovely warm cuppa before bed? 

It turns out many things could be better.

This is because tea actually contains more caffeine than most people realise. In fact, some tea leaves even contain a greater level of caffeine than coffee beans. 

Green tea also packs a punch with around 28 mg of caffeine in a cup, while black tea also comes in as a heavyweight with 47 mg of caffeine per cup.

This means that you’ll have more caffeine rushing through your veins by having a cup of black tea before bed than if you took a shot of espresso.

And one of the main things we know about caffeine is that it doesn’t mix well with sleep. Having caffeine just three hours before bed can cause you to take over an hour longer to fall asleep than usual. 

It is also worth being aware that decaf doesn’t necessarily mean caffeine free.

Decaf coffee, for example, can contain up to 15mg of caffeine. If you are somebody who has a strong reaction to caffeine then even this little bit might keep you up late into the night counting sheep and hours of sleep lost.

This is because the caffeine molecules found within the tea leaves and coffee beans attach to the part of your brain that makes you feel drowsy, which stops the natural onset of fatigue.

Flaw number three: Sneaky sleeping pills

If you have a history of battling to sleep, it may at first seem as if medication is your best bet; however, this often just masks the symptoms instead of dealing with the underlying issues.

The NHS suggests rather avoiding sleeping pills as it isn’t clear how effective they are.

What is clear is that they produce side effects, impact sleep quality, and can lead to you forming a dependency on them. 

This can worsen your sleeping patterns in the long term, as when you stop taking the pills; you’ll find falling asleep even more challenging than before. This type of dependence can form within just a few weeks.  

Some evidence shows that they may even increase the risk of dementia within some populations. 

Instead of resorting to medication in the first instance, try taking stock of your daily routine by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Am I moving my body every day?

  • How much caffeine do I consume every day?

  • Am I taking actions to reduce stress and calm my mind before bed?

  • Is my sleeping environment peaceful, dark and cool?

  • Am I keeping a regular sleep schedule?

Have a look at some of the resources from the NHS to get more ideas on how to sleep better.

Flaw number four: Smoking before a snooze

Plenty of people look to smoking to help them unwind, although, as you can probably guess by now, this may be making things worse.

The nicotine within cigarettes and vapes has been shown to actually increase insomnia symptoms as it alters the receptors within your brain.

Smoking causes the nicotine to be absorbed into your bloodstream, which circulates into your brain within a few seconds. As nicotine is also a stimulant, it directly affects your brain and causes the release of adrenaline, a ‘fight or flight’ hormone.. 

This is where the kick from smoking comes in. Unfortunately, a shot of adrenaline is the last thing you need when you’re trying to fall asleep.

Nicotine is linked to it taking longer to fall asleep, waking up more during the night and decreasing the quality of your sleep so that you end up still being exhausted the next day.

Flaw number five: Pre-slumber snacking

Many of us are far too familiar with the sleepy feeling you get after eating a big meal. 

For this reason, you might be tempted to go straight to bed after dinner; however, eating within one hour of bedtime doubles your chances of waking up in the middle of the night and then staying awake for over half an hour. 

So when should you eat dinner?

The optimal window seems to be four to six hours before bedtime. 

This is especially important if you’re consuming spicy or acidic foods to avoid the dreaded heartburn so that you can fall asleep as soon as your head hits that soft pillow.  

In a survey of 1,000 people, 75% admitted that heartburn affected their sleep. Regular experiences of acid reflux can and is known as GORD (Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease). 

If GORD is affecting your ability to fall asleep at night, you can use this NHS resource to read further about possible causes and treatments. 

If you snooze, you don’t lose

There are no downsides to sleeping more. 

Nearly every aspect of your health and happiness can improve with proper sleep. Imagine that you can have less stress, get sick less often, do better in your work and have stronger relationships overnight. 

So when you’re getting ready for bed tonight, recall these five flaws to make sure that the sleep you’re getting is actually working its magic and not being wasted. 

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