Falling asleep at night is the hardest thing some women do all day. Thanks to go-go-go schedules of meal planning, after-school chauffeuring and homework wrangling, it's no wonder studies show women are more likely than men to develop insomnia and log less shut-eye. Problem is, in our never-ending search for a good night's sleep, we tend to look for help in all the wrong places. In fact, many of our favorite ways to wind down at night actually worsen our sleep. Family Circle is sounding the alarm on five habits you may think bring on the zzz's but really leave you up all night. Beat them with our advice, and you'll wake up feeling more relaxed, refreshed and energized than ever.
Sleep Crutch #1: A goblet of vino
Why it backfires: Although alcohol can cause drowsiness and make you doze off faster, it also throws off your body's sleep-wake cycle. Booze relaxes your throat muscles and rushes you into slumber, making it more likely that you'll snore or have difficulty breathing. Plus, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases your odds of getting a wake-up call from Mother Nature. The third strike: You won't feel restored the next day. Alcohol shortens the amount of time you spend in the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase, which is crucial for rebuilding next-day memory and concentration levels.
Sleep-well solution: Finish off that one glass of Merlot at least three hours before bedtime and unwind with a relaxing activity, like reading or light yoga, instead. "You may miss its calming effects," says Jay Puangco, M.D., service chief at the Judy & Richard Voltmer Sleep Center at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California. "But you'll eventually teach your brain to power down on its own."
Sleep Crutch #2: Nodding off during The Voice
Why it backfires: Zoning out in front of the tube isn't the relaxing remedy it appears to be. In fact, TV can stimulate your brain, making it even harder for you to unwind. Plus, electronics (including tablets and cell phones) emit light, particularly blue waves, that inhibits your body's release of melatonin, the hormone that helps you prepare for sleep.
Sleep-well solution: Remove the TV from your bedroom—the sooner, the better. Over time, your brain associates screen time with sleep, which reinforces this bad habit, says Steven Lockley, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Experts suggest turning off the TV at least 30 minutes before bedtime, although they say that a 60- to 90-minute window is ideal. If you can't quit cold turkey, try powering down for the night in 15-minute increments, working toward 90 minutes. Forgo watching TV on a tablet or computer in the hours before bed—your best bet is to sit farther away from the screen—and dim the lights in your house in order to minimize the suppression of melatonin.
Sleep Crutch #3: Tackling your to-do list
Why it backfires: We're all guilty of trying to cram chores we couldn't complete during the day into the hours when the kids are finally in bed. Although you might believe that doing a few loads of laundry or finishing up work assignments gives you the peace of mind to drift off, it's actually a surefire way to increase your stress level. "You can't zoom around at 80 miles per hour and then go right to sleep," says Ruth Benca, M.D., Ph.D., a sleep specialist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "You need to unwind. Otherwise you tend to ruminate about the day's worries and stresses."
Sleep-well solution: Try to finish the to-do list before dinner, says Mary Esther, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist in Charlotte, North Carolina. Any tasks you don't complete can wait until tomorrow. Planning out when you'll take on bigger projects (like researching a family vacation or calculating next month's budget) can also keep you on track. If you're worrying about long-term problems, consider this trick from Spanish researchers: Write down your concern on a piece of paper, tear it up and throw it in the trash.
Sleep Crutch #4: Earplugs—for a snoring husband
Why it backfires: There's nothing wrong with earplugs per se. But if your husband's snoring wakes you up in the middle of the night (and if it's punctuated by pauses in breathing), he may have sleep apnea, a serious condition that can increase the risk of heart disease. Getting him treated is healthy for you as well: "When we take care of one partner's poor sleep, the other gets better rest too," says Dr. Esther. Besides, you may want to talk to your doctor if you're struggling with daytime sleepiness, as you may be waking up in the middle of the night unknowingly. Need more convincing? Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that just one night of tossing and turning makes you more likely to fight with your partner the next day.
Sleep-well solution: Talk to your husband about scheduling an appointment with his doctor or a sleep specialist, who will examine his nose and throat or recommend an overnight sleep study. Now, if it's your husband who needs the earplugs, mention this to your doctor. Women's symptoms may differ from men's, and can include waking up gasping for breath and a morning headache or dry throat.
Sleep Crutch #5: Popping over-the-counter sleep medications
Why it backfires: Many OTC sleep aids contain antihistamines, which become less effective the more you use them, says Dr. Benca. Although they're safe to turn to occasionally, these meds are only FDA-approved for short-term use and should be taken under the guidance of your doctor. And just because they're OTC doesn't mean you won't experience side effects—including dry mouth and grogginess.
Sleep-well solution: If you're dependent on an OTC aid to get your rest, it's time to consult your M.D. for an evaluation, says Dr. Benca. The culprit for your insomnia might be a certain medication, like a beta blocker, or an underlying medical condition, such as anxiety, menopause, arthritis or heart failure. Or it may be that you need a stronger sleep prescription. In this case, knowledge is more than power—it's eight hours of uninterrupted bliss.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.