Caffeine, alcohol, and anxiety are the most typical culprits.

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Sleep is important—so important, in fact, that doctors recommend getting at least seven hours of it per night (though, eight or nine is preferable). As dreamy as that may sound, it's not always possible; when demanding work hours, children, and pets (or the odd loud neighbor) interfere, a good night's rest can feel like a challenge. With that being said, it's important to note that the aforementioned nuisances aren't typically the reason for your consistently poor sleep schedule. Sure, blue light exposure or working out before bed can make you feel more awake than you should be, but when it comes to the most common sleep disruptors, Dr. Michael Breus, Ph.D.—he's also known as The Sleep Doctor—says that it typically comes down to caffeine, alcohol, and anxiety. Keep reading to find out how each plays a role in your journey to dreamland.

woman sleeping soundly in bed at night time
Credit: gorodenkoff / Getty Images

Caffeine

If you grab a coffee, soda, or energy drink in the afternoon in the hopes of boosting your mental performance and overall alertness, you are very likely impacting your sleep cycle. "Most people don't realize it, but caffeine has a half-life of six to eight hours," Dr. Breus, a sleep advisor for celebrity-favorite sleep tech brand, Oura, explains. "A half-life is the amount of time it takes to get half of the substance out of your system, so if you drink coffee at 2 p.m., probably about half of it is still on board at 10 p.m."

While a caffeinated beverage might help you in the moment, it can also hold you back come bedtime. Dr. Breus points out that different caffeine sensitivities exist, which can further complicate the situation. "Some people can drink an espresso and go to sleep, while others can't even eat chocolate," he explains. The only way to know where you fall on this spectrum is to potentially sacrifice your sleep—but you likely already know where you stand. If you rely on caffeine to make it through the afternoon and are getting poor, easily interrupted sleep night after night, Dr. Breus advises weaning off for two weeks and analyzing your rest—this includes monitoring how revitalized you feel the next day. "Here is my argument: Caffeine is still a stimulant, and it's still reducing your deep, physically restorative sleep," he adds says, noting that even if caffeine isn't keeping you awake, it's probably preventing you from getting the level of rest you need.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant, so you may assume that it would promote deeper, better sleep. On the contrary, Dr. Breus says that drinking alcohol before lights out can trigger unsteady sleep patterns. "The effect that alcohol has on sleep is based on two factors: How much and how close to bedtime," he says, explaining that one or two drinks three hours before bedtime is fine. "If you go over two drinks, you get buzzed, which feels great—but eventually, your brain says, 'What is going on?' and spikes cortisol. This is the hormone of wakefulness, or fight or flight. If this is produced, you will have a very difficult time falling asleep. "Alcohol also dehydrates you—and it's impossible to sleep truly well in a dehydrated state, shares Dr. Breus. "Sleep itself is also a dehydrating event, so when you get up after a night of boozing, this is why you feel terrible," he adds.

Anxiety

"One of the most important things to recognize is that anxiety affects sleep. This is a negative factor of modern life," Dr. Breus explains. These worries aren't necessarily related to or as extreme as a panic attack or phobia (though both of these do impact our rest), however: "We are all under tremendous stress, especially now, and even though we may not feel it, it's there—and it's affecting our sleep," he says. For example, when we hop into bed, no one is asking us for a snack or making demands on our time—and that's exactly when all the thoughts from our day come flooding in. "This will elevate stress and anxiety, and is something we technically call autonomic arousal," he clarifies. "This is when your heart rate and respiration increases, and so on—and that is going in the opposite direction of sleep."

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