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4 Everyday Habits That Wreck Your Health

We all are guilty of skimping on sleep, biting nails, skipping flossing or something similar. However, these seemingly benign things that you do on a regular basis may be anything but. Four women reveal their little indiscretions and share how they made a change for the better.

By Brooke Benjamin

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Mary Lynn Blasutta
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"I never got enough sleep."
—Jill Houk, Chicago

This 42-year-old single mom slept four hours a night while starting her own culinary business. Her wake-up call? She began to forget things she had said to her 11-year-old son.

The Danger: Too little sleep doesn't just sabotage your next day's performance: In one recent Archives of Internal Medicine study, women who got five hours or less per night were 39% more likely to develop heart disease than those who slept eight hours nightly, perhaps because poor sleep triggers your body to create more of the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels are linked to high blood pressure and glucose intolerance, which is a risk factor for diabetes.

Jill's Tips for Sleeping Better
Keep a food diary.
"I'm a chef, so I decided to track my meals to see how food affects my sleep," says Jill. "I already knew that caffeine kept me up, but I discovered that spicy dinners and wheat did too."

Make a bedtime ritual. "Every night at 9 p.m. I have an hour of 'me-time' in my bedroom. I thumb through a magazine, and I don't even look at my BlackBerry (I put it inside a special box to charge overnight so it can't stress me out). Lights go out at 10 p.m., and I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m."

Expert Advice: When Jill has trouble nodding off, she should count backward from 300 by 3s, suggests psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep (Plume). "It's a distraction technique that calms your mind. I never make it past 150," he says.

"She could also try progressive muscle relaxation, which can help your entire body to relax. As you lie in bed, tense and relax your muscles, starting at the top of your head and working your way down: Squint your eyes shut and hold for five seconds, then relax; scrunch your nose for five seconds, then relax—move all the way down to your feet.

Surprise Benefit: "When I was sleep-deprived I'd fly off the handle at the littlest thing. Now I'm a better parent," says Jill.

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