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Not sleeping well? These pandemic habits may be to blame

Here are four surprising reasons you're not getting shut-eye.
Close-Up Of Breakfast Cereals
To address your added sugar intake, and potentially help you sleep better, consider how often these foods and drinks show up on your menu and take steps to reduce them.Jeny Reyes / EyeEm / Getty Images stock

According to the 2020 Sleep in America Poll , Americans said they felt sleepy an average of three days per week. Bear in mind, this survey was conducted before the pandemic. It's not a surprise that the stress of the pandemic has created more sleep problems, with data suggesting a 37% increase in clinical insomnia compared to pre-pandemic rates. Yet, stress might not be the only culprit. Our pandemic eating habits and work-from-home lifestyles also play a role. Besides stress, here are some other reasons you may not be getting enough sleep, along with some pointers for getting the seven to nine hours you need.

1. You’re skipping your morning commute

A morning commute exposes you to sunlight, even if only for a short time. This early morning sunshine sets the pace for your melatonin production, the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle. When you’re exposed to more sunlight in the morning, your nighttime melatonin production kicks in sooner, so you feel drowsy and fall asleep more easily.

If you’re skipping your morning commute and hunkering at home most of the time, your melatonin production may be weak, which can disrupt your sleep. The antidote to this is to spend more time outside. According to one scientific report, stepping out for just ten to fifteen minutes in the morning can help. But skip the shades.

2. Your magnesium levels are low

About 75% of Americans don’t consume enough magnesium in their diets to function optimally, and that may include sleeping well. As one of its numerous actions, magnesium binds to receptors in the brain that are responsible for calming down your nervous system so you can fall asleep. Low magnesium levels are also linked with anxiety, another factor in sleep disturbances.

Magnesium is predominantly found in leafy green veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and dark chocolate, but even if you’re eating these foods routinely, you may be coming up short. For example, alcohol use is associated with lower magnesium levels since alcohol’s diuretic effects lead to increased excretion of the mineral. You also excrete more magnesium when you’re under stress. Various health conditions and medications can also impact your magnesium status.

The first step toward correcting magnesium insufficiency is to boost your intake of magnesium-rich foods. For example, if you tend to shy away from leafy greens, try adding a fistful to smoothies, soups and pasta dishes. Snack on nuts and seeds, and swap refined grains, which have been stripped of magnesium, with whole grains. It’s also crucial to stick to the recommended alcohol limits defined as one alcoholic drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

If you decide to take a magnesium supplement, they can interfere with certain medications, so if you take medicine for a health condition, check with your doctor before taking one.

3. Your diet is high in added sugars

If you’ve been stress eating for the last year, these habits may be causing sleep issues. A 2016 study found that a typical Western diet, which is high in added sugars, was linked with lighter, less restorative sleep. However, even if your eating habits haven’t shifted much, there’s a chance this is still contributing to your restlessness. About two-thirds of adults consume a diet high in added sugars.

Sugary drinks, such as soda, coffee and tea drinks (with sugar added or blended in), together with desserts and candy, make up about half of the added sugars we consume. After these foods and drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals and granola bars are the next most significant contributors of added sugar in our diets.

To address your added sugar intake, and potentially help you sleep better, consider how often these foods and drinks show up on your menu and take steps to reduce them. If you’re regularly adding sugar to coffee and tea, for instance, try lowering the amount week-by-week until you can get by with little or none. If you’re drinking soda every day, cut the amount you consume each day, and continue to do so until it’s an every-once-in-a-while habit. And take a look at food labels to check for added sugars. In addition to cereals and granola bars, added sugars are in most condiments, breads, yogurt and plant-based milks. Compare labels to find less sweetened versions of foods you buy, and focus on mainly eating whole or minimally processed fruits, veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds. Doing this will help control the sugar levels in your diet.

You're scrolling social media before bed

Any light can interfere with your ability to fall asleep, but your tablet, phone and computer screens emit blue light, a type of light that suppresses melatonin production, the hormone responsible for making you tired. Whether you’re spending time on social media, catching up on the day’s emails or loading up your online grocery cart, exposure to this light can lead to problems sleeping.

Experts recommend shutting off these electronic devices two to three hours before going to bed. If that sounds impossible, an app or setting on your phone that reduces the blue light can help.

The bottom line

It’s recommended that adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or sleeping for that length of time, making some changes to your diet and routines may help.

Get more sleep tips in our Sleep BETTER Today guide.