The Top 10 Sleep Mistakes (And Their Solutions)

Although we may not like to admit it, many of the sleep problems we experience are the result of bad habits and behaviors. We stay up late or sleep in late. We eat foods that disagree with us or enjoy a drink late at night, oblivious to their disruptive impact on our sleep rhythms. Over time, we teach our body not to sleep and for relief we often turn to sleeping pills, which mask rather than solve the problem, and can lead to addiction. Ultimately for real success, with insomnia as with any chronic problem, one must look for the underlying imbalances and root causes and address those.

Here are the common sleep “mistakes” I see in my practice and their solutions.

Mistake #1: Not keeping a consistent sleep schedule

We often think we can make up for lost sleep by going to bed extra early another night but the body clock’s ability to regulate healthy sleep patterns depends on consistency. We stay up late on weekends, expecting to make up sleep later or use the weekend to make up for lost sleep during the week. Both practices disrupt bodily rhythms and late night weekends in particular can cause insomnia during the workweek.

Solution: Create a routine and stick to it. Getting up and going to bed around the same time, even on weekends, is the most important thing you can do to establish good sleep habits. Our bodies thrive on regularity and a consistent sleep schedule is the best reinforcement for the body’s internal clock. Waking and sleeping at set times reinforces a consistent sleep rhythm and reminds the brain when to release sleep and wake hormones, and more importantly, when not to.

Mistake #2: Using long naps to counter sleep loss

Long naps during the day especially after 4pm or even brief nods in the evening while watching TV can damage a good sleep rhythm and keep you from enjoying a full sleep at night.

Solution: Nap for no more than 30 minutes. If naps are absolutely necessary, make sure you only nap once a day and keep it under 1/2 hour and before 4 pm. In general, short naps may not hurt sleep and in fact a short siesta for half an hour after lunch or a 20 minute power nap before 4 pm works well for many people.

Mistake #3: Not preparing for sleep

Expecting the body to go from full speed to a standstill without slowing down first is unrealistic. Our bodies need time to produce enough sleep neurotransmitters to send feedback signals to the brain’s sleep center, which will result in the release of sleep hormones to allow you to sleep.

Solution: Take the time to slowly shift into sleep. Create an electronic sundown: By 10 pm, stop sitting in front of a computer screen (or TV screen) and switch off all electronic devices. They are too stimulating to the brain and will cause you to stay awake longer. Dim the lights an hour or more before going to bed, take a warm bath, listen to calming music or soothing sounds, do some restorative yoga or relaxation exercises. Getting your mind and body ready for sleep is essential. Remove any distractions (mentally and physically) that will prevent you from sleeping.

Mistake #4: Not giving your body the right sleep signals

Our bodies depend on signals to tell them when to fall asleep and wake up, the two most fundamental ones being darkness and light. But we live and work in artificially lit environments and often miss out on the strongest regulatory signal of all, natural sunlight. When we go to sleep and our bodies need complete darkness for production of the important sleep hormone, melatonin, our bedrooms are not pitch dark, thereby interfering with this key process.

Solution: At night, keep the room as dark as possible. Look around your bedroom: the alarm clock read-out that glows in bright red; the charging indicator on your cell phone or PDA, the monitor on your computer, the battery indicator on the cordless phone or answering machine, the DVD clock and timer. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your pineal gland’s production of sleep hormones and therefore disturb your sleep rhythms. Conceal or move the clock, cover all the lights of any electronic device and use dark shades or drapes on the windows if they are exposed to light. If all of that is not possible, wear an eye mask. If you get up in the middle of the night, try keeping the light off when you go to the bathroom. Use a flashlight or night light.

Mistake #5: Having a bed time snack of refined grains or sugars

These are metabolic disruptors which raise blood sugar and overstress the organs involved in hormone regulation throughout the body. This hormone roller coaster can affect sleep cycles by waking you up at odd times during sleep as the hormone levels fluctuate.

Solution: If you have to eat, have a high-protein snack. It is better not to have anything before bed but at least a high protein snack will not only prevent the hormone roller coaster, but also may provide L-tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce melatonin.

Mistake #6: Using sleeping pills to fall and stay asleep

Sleeping pills mask sleep problems and do not resolve the underlying cause of insomnia. Many sleep studies have concluded that sleeping pills, whether prescription or over the counter, over the long term, do more harm than good. They can be highly addictive and studies have found them to be potentially dangerous. For short term use, there may be indications for sleeping pills, but over time, sleeping pills can actually make insomnia worse, not better. If you have been taking them for a long time, ask our doctor to help you design a regimen to wean yourself off them.

Solution: Learn relaxation techniques. Aside from physical problems, stress may be the number one cause of sleep disorders. Temporary stress can lead to chronic insomnia and circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Many people tell me they can’t switch off their racing minds and therefore can’t sleep. Do some breathing exercises, restorative yoga or meditation. These will calm the mind and reduce the fears and worries that trigger the stress.

Mistake #7: Using Alcohol to fall asleep

Because of alcohol’s sedating effect, many people with insomnia drink alcohol to promote sleep. Alcohol does have an initial sleep inducing effect, but as it gets broken down by the body, it usually impairs sleep during the second half of the night leading to a reduction in overall sleep time. Habitual alcohol consumption just before bedtime can reduce its sleep-inducing effect, while its disruptive effects continue or even increase.

Solution: Take nutrients that calm the body and mind, getting you ready for sleep. Don’t drink alcohol to help you sleep. Look for a calming formula that has some of the following: amino acids, L theanine, taurine, 5 HTP and GABA, and herbs like lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile and valerian root. Taking the minerals, calcium and magnesium at night is also helpful. For some people, especially we folks over 50, melatonin can be helpful too. This is because the body produces less melatonin with advancing age and may explain why elderly people often have difficulty sleeping and respond well to melatonin.

Mistake #8: Watching television to fall asleep

Because we have no trouble at all falling asleep in the living room in front of the TV many of us watch TV in bed to fall asleep. But when we fall asleep in a bed watching TV, we invariably wake up later on. This sets up a cycle or conditioning that reinforces poor sleep at night. I have had many patients over the years develop insomnia due to this type of conditioning.

Solution: Get the TV out of the bedroom. Don’t watch TV in bed, the bed should be associated with sleep (and sex).

Mistake #9: Staying in bed hoping to fall asleep

If you can’t fall asleep within 30-45 minutes, chances are you won’t for at least another hour, and perhaps even longer. You may have missed the open “sleep gate” or missed catching the sleep wave. A “sleep gate” is the open window of time your body will allow you to fall asleep. Researchers have found that our brain goes through several sleep cycles each night where all sleep phases are repeated. These cycles last from 90 minutes to 2 hours, and at the beginning of each cycle, the body’s ‘sleep gate’ opens. You won’t be able to fall asleep when your sleep gate is closed.

Solution: Catch the sleep wave. If you find you can’t fall asleep within 45 minutes, get up and get out of the bedroom. Read a book, do a restorative yoga pose or do some other calming activity for another 1 -1.5 hours before trying to sleep again. Staying in bed only causes stress over not sleeping. It is like surfing, you need to catch that sleep wave. Haven’t you noticed that you can be exhausted and yet you avoid going to sleep and then a few hours later when you are ready for bed, you are suddenly wide awake? You missed the wave.

Mistake #10: Making sleep a performance issue

Often just thinking about sleep affects your ability to fall asleep. What happens frequently is that the way you cope with the insomnia becomes as much of a problem, as the insomnia itself. It often becomes a vicious cycle of worrying about not being able to sleep which leads to worsening sleep problems. Like so many things in life, it is about letting go, going with the flow. Sleep needs to become a natural rhythm like breathing, something that comes automatically and you don’t think about.

Solution: Let go and go with the flow. Use the time to practice breathing exercises or meditation and to become aware of how what you eat, what medications you take, what behaviors or certain activities can affect your sleep cycle. Increase your awareness by paying attention to your body and becoming conscious of how you react to different foods and situations. Use this time productively instead of getting upset that you can’t fall asleep.

One final point

For chronic insomniacs, especially if you are heavy snorer, it is a good idea to rule out Sleep Apnea as the cause. This is a serious condition that affects at least 12 million Americans, many of whom have not been diagnosed. Usually they are heavy snorers. What happens is that the tissues at the back of the throat relax and in so doing block the airways. The brain senses oxygen deprivation, and sends wakeup signals. There is a release of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. Not only does this interfere with sleep, it can increase blood pressure, raising your risk of heart problems and stroke. It can also interfere with insulin sensitivity, and increases your risk of diabetes.

  • great wisdom! thank you very much.

  • great wisdom! thank you very much.

  • Bo Berg

    Dr Lipman,

    Not even mentioning the impact of electromagnetic radiation/wireless devices on sleep patterns and insomnia is very strange indeed, how come you do not know about it?

    I know for sure this is a big issue – people of all ages are affected negatively by home routers, mobile masts, extensive smartphone use etc. The effects of this radiation on melatonin levels, blood circulation, and even cancer rates are obvious in the research that has been made. Insomnia and tinnitus are among the earlier symtoms.

    Please have a chat with Dr Rau and Dr Mercola – or other well informfed people. There's more to know about sleep disturbances than habits and relaxation.

  • Actually I do write quite abit about it….see my book Revive (Or

    Spent). That article happened to be called top 10 sleep mistakes, so

    I did not put it in the top ten, thats all

  • snmseo

    They are sold under various names, by prescription, to treat anxiety,
    insomnia and a host of other similar medical conditions. Taken in
    therapeutic doses, and even when adhering to the prescribed dose, these
    drugs can cause addiction. Used as an illegal recreational drug almost
    guarantees addiction after a short while.

    Benzodiazepine Addiction

  • JST Books

    Many people use the justification that, “marijuana is not physically addictive”, therefore they do not have a problem, however, marijuana can negatively affect a person’s life on a number of different levels. Marijuana decreases short-term memory capacity, creates confusion, paranoia, anxiety and restlessness. In addition marijuana can negatively impact a person’s motor skills as well as his/her ability to feel emotions. Marijuana is often used in combination with other drugs and treatment for marijuana abuse is available and readily utilized.The Rehab Doc

  • Carchiebissell

    good i guess

  • Kenrae

    obviously these short minded stoners have only done enough research to justify their habit. It does in fact cause major issue over long term use. A few years ago, back in the 90’s and early 00’s many were justifying it saying it doesn’t cause any issues. The problem back then was not enough public credible evidence going around to let people know of the issues. It does cause short term memory loss over an extended period of time. There’s many other issues too. Granted a lot of those issues are a case by case basis and could indeed be as individual as the person. It can even cause psychosis over a long period of time. I’m not disregarding the fact that the THC chemical does indeed have medicinal properties if administered correctly. If it’s just ‘used and abused’ aka smoking in the regular form, then over a period of time it will have crazy side affects. I mean let’s be realistic about this. Even supposed good things in large quantities ,over a long period can be bad. Like everything addictive, one generation passes and the next one thinks they know the answers. Rather than learning from the previous they just try and re-invent everything and try to claim it as their own. Those who smoke pot constantly will not be aware of the long term affects because you’re not gonna have the perception beyond a brain that’s been affected by it. Before anyone has an emotional reaction just because they’re trying to justify their use, my advice: Think before you speak !!!

  • Molly

    What about if you did bad already and you’re just searching this right now so youcan sleep? What do you do right then and there

  • Will

    This is genuinely the best advice I have come across, and really helped me one night when i was really struggling. The point that sleep comes in ‘waves’ really relaxed my mind, i got on with some work and just waited until i felt tired again, within 15 minutes i was in a deep sleep

  • amankeeroo

    i am going to sleep

  • Programfreeze

    I’m at least 12 years old and i always fall asleep around 9am i go to sleep at night but none of these tips aren’t helpful can somebody please reply send me a message heres my email [email protected]

  • Programfreeeze

    Do you realize [email protected] is also my email

  • am

    Well it’d be nearly 4 am and I went out female. Got drunk got s few guys numbers came home to my man forgot the other dudes I cannot sleep. I have had this phone plasteredto my face iI love my boyfriend .. Why do Igo out we h err n I have a gemat home

  • Jen

    In your book, you frequently say to turn off all electronics by 10 pm. As a shift worker, I’m up at 4 am. I typically try to be in bed at 8 pm. Any advice here about when to turn things off? Also, what do you think about alarm clocks that simulate the sunrise?

  • salsa

    i do almost half of these and have no problem sleeping (except eating before bed)

  • Anonymous

    There is nothing natural about smoking pot you idiot.

  • Person

    Those studies fail to take into account the type of people that would choose to smoke weed. For some reason, they tend to be absent-minded teenagers, yet, I know a few graduates of science and engineering that smoke pot and are very sharp, and if they didn’t tell you, you would not even have guessed that they do. That you say marijuana is often used in conjunction with other drugs just goes to further display your ignorance. There is a difference between normal recreational users and people who abuse drugs and alcohol at parties and the like.

  • CDS

    Define “large quantities”. I know dozens who have smoked for 30+ years at “moderate quantities” and none of them are experiencing any “crazy side effects” I can tell you that much. Sure there is merit to what you’re saying, but you are blowing it out of proportion and that makes people take it less seriously.

  • rbt

    well so far i have tried all that i could in order to have a peaceful night but the thing is, i could not just sleep like all other, when they all lie in peace and i remain awake, i feel like the most pitiable thing ever,and yeah! as i am through this for such a long time now i feel like its a gift

  • Jamst3r 99

    i only have 1-3 hours sleep regardless of when i TRY to sleep, i can’t actually fall asleep until 3am early hours time, i can’t use sleeping tablets as i have a history with seizures, and even when i go to bed early 8pm i can’t settle down :/
    my brain: during the day: ………?

    at night the square root of pie 3.1256… *8am* “[email protected]~! time to get up”
    i used to have a relaxation CD (well it was mum’s really) called the sea of tranquility and it sounded like no other, i always got off to sleep within 1/2 hour with it.

  • Shaen

    I’m not anti-marijuana, but I am sick of people saying it is not addictive at all. It is. Anything that stimulates you can be addictive. I’ve seen potheads who run out and it’s dry, and they cant’ find any. They freak out, stress out, turn bitchy, get emotional. That is because they are addicted. Maybe it’s an emotional addiction, but it is an addiction. Having said that, I actually do know some people who only use it socially and not all the time. Sounds like alcohol and any other stimulate. You want to be taken seriously? Stop acting like weed is this magical perfect stuff that has no negatives or consequences. You make yourself look stupid. You can be honest and still make good points about it. By the way, It’s “you’re” not “your”.