cartoon drawing of book for light reading as part of the best thing to do before bed

The best thing to do before bed: What to aim for and 10 pitfalls to avoid

By Jason Wooden, PhD | August 2, 2022

Given the importance of sleep for wellness and quality of life, the best thing to do before bed is to maintain a relaxing routine that aids the transition to sleep.  Among the things to avoid are bright electronic screens, social media and YouTube rabbit holes, eating the wrong things, and unsettling conversations.

Why we struggle with what to do before bed

It’s no surprise people struggle with what to do before bed given the fast-paced, over busy, and sometimes frantic world we live in.

All the stress, ups and downs, and worries of everyday life which can make nights extra challenging.

Modern technology doesn’t make things any easier.  We no longer strictly rise with the sun and go to sleep when it’s dark.

Thanks to electricity and the internet, there are more things to do before bed than ever before – watching TV, reading, late night phone calls, texting, social media, YouTube, computer games, and surfing online.

Altogether, this is why deciding how to pass the time in the evening and figuring out the best thing for you to do before bed harder than it should be.

So, what are people ACTUALLY doing to unwind before bed?

According to a 2019 American Academy of Sleep Medicine survey:

  • two-thirds of U.S. adults have lost sleep due to reading
  • 88% of US adults lost sleep due to binge-watching
  • 72% of young adults are likely to stay up for video games
  • Two-thirds of U.S. adults are staying up to read and losing sleep
  • 60% of all U.S. adults have stayed up past their bedtime to watch sports

I’m guessing you will find similar numbers in other countries.

The truth is sometimes what seems best in the short-term turns out not to be so good in the long-term.  Something that’s enjoyable or useful in the moment can come back to bite you later.

Depending on what you decide to do, it can make life better or worse.

Let’s take a look at what’s really at stake.

The price we pay when we do the wrong thing before bed

Currently, we’re in the midst of a global epidemic that’s taking a toll on people.

No, I’m not talking about COVID.

I’m talking about POOR sleep.

Yep, every night as many as a third of adults worldwide struggle with sleep.  Staying up too late has become a big part of the problem for many.

And they are staying up too late because they’re doing the wrong things before bed.

For some, staying up too late and waking up sleep-deprived has become a way of life.

We’re paying the price for this habit even if you don’t realize it.

For starters, sleep deprived people don’t think as clearly, have a harder time coping, and don’t perform as well at school or on the job. Relationships and intimacy can suffer.

Would you believe studies have found that when you’re sleep-deprived what it does to your brain is the same as being drunk?

If it becomes an ongoing issue, you’re going to be more at risk for all sorts of issues – diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity related illnesses, a weakened immune system, anxiety, and depression.

That’s a whole lot at stake and for millions it’s because they’re doing the wrong things before bed.

What’s the best thing to do before bed?

There’s more to this question than at first glance since it sort of depends on your situation and what’s going on in your life.

You could be feeling extra stressed after a tough day…

Finishing work or staying up late studying…

Expecting something important to happen the next day…

Or maybe, you’re just under the weather…

Regardless, given the importance of sleep for health and quality of life, ideally what you do before bed should set you up for a great night of sleep so you can make the best of the next day.

So, the best thing you can do before bed is maintain a pre-bedtime routine that helps you relax so that you can transition to sleep on time.

That’s what you should be aiming for.

It’s also important to give yourself adequate time to unwind at the end of the day so that you feel ready for sleep.

It’s hard to sleep if you’re feeling wired and restless…

If your head is racing because of something that’s happened or is about to happen…

Doing the wrong things in the evening can really come back to bite you.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can really get into trouble.

Pitfalls: Some of the worst things you can do before bed

Choosing the wrong ways to pass the time, even if seemingly a good idea, can come back to bite you.

It can keep you up way pass when your body says it’s time to sleep, make it harder to fall asleep, and affect how much restful sleep you actually get.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of ways to get in trouble at night.

 

Some of the worst things you can do before bed you should are:

photo of person reading

1) Reading a page turner

Who doesn’t like a good read?  Unfortunately, some books are so good or interesting you just can’t put it down.

Before you know it, it’s WAY past your bedtime as you look at the clock…

photo of person watching TV in bed which is not the best thing to before bed

2) Watching something too exciting or disturbing

Like a good book, it can be hard to turn off the TV if you’re watching a really good show or movie.  Ditto, if you’re watching something disturbing. it can be hard to get it off your mind…

3) You-Tube

It’s easy to get sucked down a rabbit hole on YouTube.  There’s so much interesting stuff right at your fingertips.  It can be hard to stop clicking on those video suggestions.

That’s why YouTube can be addictive.

cartoon showing social media apps which is not the best thing to before bed

4) Social media

Like YouTube, it’s just as easy to get sucked into a rabbit hole on social media.  You can spend hours reading posts on Facebook, twitter, and other places. 

And some of the stuff can really get you riled up.

photo of bright smart phone screen

5) Exposing yourself to bright screens

Whether you’re binge watching, gaming, texting, or on social media, electronic screens emit bright blue light which has been shown to interfere with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycles.

It signals your brain it’s time to wake up when you really should be sleeping.

cartoon showing man chugging water

6) Drinking too much too late

Too much water in the evening can wreck your sleep with repeated trips to the bathroom.  Soda can be just as bad because of the sweetener, caffeine, and carbonation.

7) Eating the wrong food

We’ve all had the late night munchies at one time or another.  What you eat in the evening can cause or worsen sleep issues if you’re not careful.

Some food can cause uncomfortable digestive issues while others may more directly get you wired up.

On the no-no list are:

  • caffeinated foods such as chocolate and coffee
  • spicy foods
  • refined carbs
  • natural diuretics such as melon
  • high fat and protein
  • aged, cured, fermented, and smoked foods
photo of alcoholic drinks which is not the best thing to before bed

8) Alcoholic drinks

Some people find that a glass of wine helps them fall asleep.  Unfortunately, while it may initially make you drowsy, later on it can cause your sleep to be more shallow and rob you of restful sleep.

photo of man smoking

9) Nicotine

Like alcohol, some people like to have a smoke or vape in the evening because they find it relaxing. 

However, people who consume nicotine are twice as likely to have sleep problems. They’re also four times as likely as nonsmokers to wake up feeling unrested after a night’s sleep.

While a hit of nicotine may initially relax you, it also raises your heart rate making it harder to fall asleep.  During the night, you may have more wake ups and sleep less deeply.

 cartoon of couple arguing which is not the best thing to before bed

10) Unsettling conversations

This should be no surprise but it’s happened to everyone.

Engaging in a conversation that’s unsettling or worrisome at the wrong time can also come back to bite you.  Whether it’s politics or relationship stuff, having an intensely emotional or heated conversation can make it harder to relax and transition to sleep.

Some of the best things you can do before bed

We’ve talked about what NOT to do.  So, ideally, what sorts of things SHOULD people be doing before bed?

Sleep experts recommend that during the evening you should choose activities that help you relax and smoothly transition to sleep ON TIME.

 

Some of the best things you can do before bed as part of your evening routine are:

Light reading

Something relaxing that gets your mind off of things but not a page turner that’s hard to put down.

Light music

Another favorite, be sure to avoid the more heart pumping tunes and listen to something calming whether it’s classical or something else such as a relaxation track.

A sleep friendly munchie

How about an evening chat over a warm cup of milk or herbal tea?  For snacks, you can try foods with natural sleep-promoting nutrients such as cherries, mixed nuts, almonds, or sliced turkey.  More bedtime snack ideas

Relax with a bath or shower

For some, a leisurely soak or hot shower does the trick.

Light stretching

A good way to calm the body and the mind.  Try a little light yoga or some other gentle body stretching.

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has been found to improve sleep quality in studies.  The ways it helps sleep is believed to be through slowing down the heart rate, lowering stress hormones, and promoting a relaxed state of mind.  Learn more

Prayer

Like meditation, a little quiet evening prayer can occupy and calm the mind.

Journaling

Reflect and write down the events and thoughts from your day.

Puzzles

Another way to get your mind off of things.

Have a relaxing chat

A quiet chat at the end of the day with a roommate or bedmate can be a great way to unwind.  Be sure to save the heavier stuff for earlier in the day.

Sit by the fireplace

I don’t know what’s so relaxing about those flames, but people have found it enjoyable for millennia.

Romance and intimacy

A great time to reconnect with someone you care about.  In fact, many sleep experts say the bed should be for sleep and intimacy.

What you do before bed isn’t the only thing to think about…

Now that we’ve talked about the best thing to do before bed, you should keep in mind that pre-bedtime routine isn’t the only important thing when it comes to sleep.

What you do during the day can also have a big impact:

  • napping too long can make harder to fall asleep
  • caffeine too late in day can make it harder to sleep
  • exercise promotes deep sleep

Your sleep environment can help or hurt your sleep:

Ideally, you want your bedroom to be dark, quiet, and a bit on the cool side.

Things going on with your body can cause or worsen sleep issues:

Too many people are unaware how many medical issues are linked to poor sleep.   The list includes chronic pain, heartburn, cancer, dementia, asthma, and undiagnosed sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

Likewise, some medications can make it harder to sleep.

It’s worth seeing a doctor, especially if poor sleep has become a fact of life for you.

Mental health challenges can cause sleep issues:

Stress, anxiety, and depression can all make it harder to sleep.  In fact, they are major sleep killers.

Unfortunately, poor sleep can worsen mental health challenges which means you can get into a vicious cycle.

If you’re struggling with feeling anxious or down, it’s worth chatting with a mental health specialist.

Sources:

1. New survey: 88% of US adults lose sleep due to binge-watching, 2019, American Academy of Sleep Medicine website

2. Talking Points, World Sleep Society website

3. Sleep Deprivation Has The Same Effect as Drinking Too Much, Says Study, 2017, ScienceAlert

4. Internet Addiction, 2019, GoodTherapy

5. How soda and sweet tea impacts your urological health, scottdmillermd.com

6. Insomnia in Adults: The Impact of Earlier Cigarette Smoking from Adolescence to Adulthood. J Addict Med. 2015 Jan-Feb; 9(1): 40–45.

7. Smoking Linked To Sleep Disturbances, 2008, ScienceDaily

8. A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia. Sleep. 2014 Sep 1;37(9):1553-63.

9. How Meditation Can Treat Insomnia, 2022, Sleep Foundation

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