6 Weird Things You Didn't Know Were Messing With Your Sleep

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
At this point, we all know the things we're supposed to be doing to get better sleep. That means exercising regularly, keeping a consistent bedtime, and going easy on the caffeine. What you might not realize is that there are so many other things that can affect your sleep in ways good and bad that you might not even be aware of.

And that's exactly what Holly Phillips, MD, explains in her recent book, The Exhaustion Breakthrough. Everything from your diet to your period may play a role in how easy (or difficult) it is for you to drift off to sleep.

In honor of National Sleep Awareness Week we talked to Dr. Phillips to get the details on all the unexpected things we're overlooking. If you're struggling with your sleep, and you've already done the normal sleep hygiene routine, don't despair. These things might be the problem. And the good news is that there are ways to fix 'em.
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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
1. Your partner.
Yes, you love them. But you also love sleep. And if you're not getting sleep, it's really hard to love anything else. So if you're having problems getting your ZZZs, Dr. Phillips suggests kicking your partner out of bed — just for a week! — to see if that solves the problem. If it doesn't, you can welcome your partner back under the covers and keep looking for the source of your sleep issues. But if it does help, she suggests getting creative about finding ways to sleep in the same bed without ruining each other's nighttime routine.

For instance, if it's your partner's morning alarm that's throwing you off, try a fitness tracker with a silent vibrating alarm. If snoring is the culprit, you can try a white noise machine (or have him or her checked out for sleep apnea). But if your partner's a kicker or just moves around a lot during the night, a bigger bed, a mattress that's delineated or two twin mattresses pushed together might be the answer.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
2. Your period.
Those monthly hormonal changes can affect a lot of your life, so it's probably no surprise that they might also mess with your sleep habits. "There are people who are very, very sensitive to the rise and fall in estrogen and progesterone levels throughout the month," says Dr. Phillips, "and a lot of women experience a few days before their period where it's especially difficult to fall asleep and they're energized at night."

That's due to a couple of different things, but is primarily thanks to estrogen. Because the hormone is thought to promote restorative sleep, you might feel less rested when that severe drop comes every month. To make it easier to deal, try using a period tracker so you'll at least know what to expect and when. From there, just make sure you're on top of your usual sleep hygiene routine. And if you're finding your sleep difficulties to be severe, talk to your doctor about a hormonal birth control option, which can regulate the hormonal ups and downs.
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Photographed by Christine Hahn.
3. Your posture.
Your sleeping position can make a difference in how easily you drift off to dream land, Dr. Phillips says. In general, people who sleep on their side tend to get the most restful sleep, while those who prefer to sleep on their stomach get the least. But she also says that as long as you feel rested that's not such a big deal.

On the other hand, your posture during the day might be another problem. If you're not sitting up straight and your spine is misaligned all day, it can create extra tension and keep you from breathing fully. This, in turn, can make it harder for you to relax when it's time to wind down from the day.

"I do really think it's important to decompress mentally and physically before you fall asleep," says Dr. Phillips. "I suggest getting your mind ready and body ready even if it's just listening to music, deep breathing, stretching, or taking a warm bath." Bonus: getting out of a warm bath will also mimic the natural drop in body temperature that happens as you're falling asleep, making the transition a bit easier.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
4. Your clock.
At this point you already know you should not be looking at your phone — or any other source of blue light, ideally — before bedtime. But what you may not know is that those devices can affect us in other ways. One big one, Dr. Phillips says, is that they remind us of the time.

"Even if you think you've been up for an hour, it's best not to look at the clock," she says. "We start to panic when we can’t fall asleep, and [looking at the time] creates a mild anxiety that turns into a cyclical process." Basically, we can't fall asleep so we check to see how long it's been. But when we find out — whether it's been an hour or 10 minutes — that just makes us more aware of the fact that we're having trouble sleeping. We know it's painful, but avoid looking if you can. Remove it from your bedroom if you need to.
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
5. Your end-of-the-day relaxation.
Apologies up front for this one — your favorite way to unwind may actually not be that helpful. Both alcohol and cigarettes relax us in the moment and, therefore, might make it easier to fall asleep. But they actually make it harder for us to get restful sleep.

"Most people experience a glass of wine in the evening as relaxing and it may help you fall asleep faster, but part of the process of metabolizing alcohol releases byproducts that are stimulating," Dr. Phillips explains. "[That] creates microarousals where you wake up a little bit. You might not even be aware of them, but they disturb sleep and make it hard to get deep sleep." And even if a nighttime cigarette calms you down, nicotine is a stimulant, and Dr. Phillips says those effects will eventually come through.
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Photographed by Jessica Nash.
6. Your meds.
Of course your sleep aid of choice can help nudge you toward those crucial ZZZs when you really need them. But going off the medication may leave you in an unexpectedly tough spot. "Sleep aids are good options for people who have long-term insomnia to break the cycle," says Dr. Phillips, "but we do develop a tolerance around them. When you suddenly go without your sleep aid, it may be harder for you to fall asleep both for physical and psychological reasons." So in that case, it may be time to swap the prescriptions out for a non-habit-forming sleep aid, such as melatonin.

But other medications that you might not even suspect can mess with your sleep, too. For instance, many asthma medications are actually stimulants, so Dr. Phillips suggests patients take them a few hours before bedtime if possible. And some blood-thinners are actually diuretics, so people who take those may need to get up during the night to go to the bathroom.

If you've tried looking into all of these less obvious causes of sleep problems and are still having trouble, it might be time to bring in the big — professional — guns. Talk out your issues with your doctor to figure out exactly what's going on. Dr. Phillips says the good news is it's not uncommon to need a little extra investigative help beyond these issues, and normally it doesn't take long before you start sleeping soundly.

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