10 Sleep Aids That Are Actually Hurting Your Sleep

Millions of Americans struggle with insomnia yet so much of what we're doing to "help" may be worsening the problem.

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Turning on the radio


A little background noise is sometimes the only way a person can fall asleep, hence the popularity of white noise machines and tracks, says Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, who's been treating insomnia and sleep disorders for decades. And that sleep habit is generally fine but it depends on exactly what you're listening to, he adds. There's a big difference between sounds of ocean waves and a pop radio station. The former can help you lull you into dream land but sounds that are variable, involve talking, or playing fast music, may be too stimulating. He adds that for some people white noise isn't helpful either, as they find it irritating. Falling asleep to sound is highly individual, but Dr. Buchfuhrer recommends going for something repetitive, soothing, soft, and as boring as possible. It's not just the radio—here are 11 other "harmless" habits that can cause insomnia.

Reaching for a nightcap (of the alcoholic variety)


A glass of wine may be the most popular "sleep aid" around, but while booze may help you fall asleep faster, it will actually make your sleep worse through the night and over time, according to a recent study published in Alcohol. The problem is that it reduces quality sleep, disrupting the body's natural homeostasis. "This may be part of why a hangover feels so awful," Dr. Buchfuhrer explains. "The alcohol destroys sleep architecture, so while you may be spending plenty of time in bed you're not getting much real rest, making you wake up groggy and tired." Instead of drinking, try one of these healthy snacks shown to help insomnia.

Using OTC sleep aids regularly

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Over-the-counter sleeping pills like ZZZQuil, TylenolPM, and Unisom have grown in popularity over the years for good reason—they're cheap and they work. But how well they work depends on how much you use them, Dr. Buchfuhrer says. "Using them every once in a while, like on a trip, is fine but over time they will hurt your sleep," he explains. They rely on the drowsy side effect of antihistamines, generally used as cold or allergy medications, and the other side effects like rebound insomnia, anxiety, and dehydration can take a toll. Plus, he adds, you can develop a tolerance over time and can become dependent on them to fall asleep.

You're hitting the gym after dinner

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You know that old adage of if you want to sleep well, wear yourself out physically first? It's simply not true, Dr. Buchfuhrer says. "Exercise produces adrenaline and endorphins which rev you up, making it harder to fall asleep," he explains. This doesn't give you a free pass to get out of exercise though. When done earlier in the day—say before 5 p.m.—working out is one of the best ways to beat insomnia. It's all in the timing, he says. Not sure if your schedule is working for you? Check out these 8 signs you're headed for an awful night of sleep.

Netflix-ing in bed


Thanks to tablets and phones it's easier than ever to watch TV in bed (not that it was ever that hard before!). But while catching up on your favorite shows may relax you, the blue light from the screens actually tells your brain it's daytime. This signal suppresses melatonin production in your body which ultimately makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, Dr. Buchfuhrer explains. Even worse, watching a show in bed trains your body to not think of the bed as only the place where you sleep which can lead to insomnia as well. For a good night's rest turn off all screens an hour or two before bed. And ladies, menstrual insomnia is a real thing—here's how to deal.

Turn off your sleep tracker


Many of our smart devices, like Fitbits and Apple watches, now come with built-in sleep trackers that profess to be even better than Santa Claus in knowing when you're sleeping and when you're awake. The problem? They're not all that accurate, Dr. Buchfuhrer says, especially for people who tend to move a lot in their sleep. He explains that movement doesn't necessarily mean you're not getting good quality z's, but the tracker will pick it up as wakefulness regardless, perhaps causing you to think you have a problem you don't really have. "They can provide feedback but it's not necessarily useful feedback," he says, "and worrying about every detail of your sleep may actually make it harder to sleep." Interested in sleep apps? We tried out five, here's what happened.

Not using a regular, comfortable pillow


Health tech has infiltrated every part of our lives, and the bed is no exception, with companies now making special pillows, pillow covers, and even hats designed to "optimize" sleep. The types of things they do vary from product to product but Dr. Buchfuhrer points out that all the bells and whistles may backfire when it comes to helping you fall asleep. "Pillows are very individual, and something that's even a tiny bit different can bother you," he says. "Just buy a pillow you find comfortable and forget the gadgets." These are the best pillows for every type of sleeper.

You're popping melatonin supplements


Melatonin supplements are the most popular "natural" sleep aid, but the way the "sleep hormone" works in our body isn't as simple as popping a pill, Dr. Buchfuhrer says. Patients whose primary source of insomnia is being affected by light will benefit the most from melatonin, but others will see little or no improvement, he adds. Plus they aren't fast-acting and have the potential to mess up your circadian rhythm, making your sleep problems even worse. Want to stick to natural cures? Here are 11 home remedies for insomnia that actually work.

You're using snore sprays

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"They don't work. Period," Dr. Buchfuhrer says. "If you're snoring and it's severe or is interrupting your partner's sleep, it's time to see a doctor about your options." Don't believe us? Why snoring is a sign of dangerous sleep apnea.

Your Rx meds are not a good fit


Ambien is the number one most prescribed sleep aid in the U.S. and while it does help many people, it must be used with great care, Dr. Buchfuhrer says. It is a serious medication and like all medications can have side effects that in some cases can mess up your sleep more than they help. "Unusual behavior becomes more common with a sedative," he says, which explains famous reports of sleep-eating, sleep-texting, and even sleep-driving on the drug. He adds that it can be psychologically addictive so it should be used only under a doctor's care and only three to four days a week, max.

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