The list includes some major sleep bandits: caffeine and nicotine.
Caffeine late in the day is a no-no -- that includes items such as chocolate, teas, and sodas. But it's not always obvious where caffeine lurks, says Hunt, so make sure to check food labels.
"Everyone is aware that coffee can keep them awake; what they're not necessarily appreciating is there's caffeine or related items in many other things that they consume," he tells WebMD.
The National Sleep Foundation reports the effects of caffeine can cause problems falling asleep as much as 10-12 hours later in some people.
Nicotine often falls below the radar screen when it comes to sleep interruption, but it, like caffeine, is actually a stimulant. Research shows that nicotine is linked to problems with insomnia. Hunt says smoking within a few hours of bedtime should be avoided; better yet, don't smoke at all.
Spicy and acidic foods can also kill sleep efforts because they cause heartburn. Heartburn is especially problematic for people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux. Why is eating these foods close to bedtime such a concern? Lying down makes heartburn worse, and the discomfort from heartburn hinders sleep.
But what about the old standbys -- such as drinking warm milk or having a nightcap -- to lull us to sleep? Do they truly work?
Milk contains a substance called tryptophan. The body uses this substance to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Serotonin helps control sleep patterns, appetite, pain, and other functions but unfortunately doesn't contain enough tryptophan to change our sleep patterns. However, Hunt says some people say it works and doesn't knock trying it.
Alcohol is a tricky substance: It's an undercover sleep marauder. It's also the most common self-medicated sedative, Hunt tells WebMD. Contrary to popular belief, that seemingly harmless nightcap before bed may be relaxing at first but has a rebound effect and can cause you to wake up in the wee hours of the night. So if you want some quality shut-eye, it's best to just say no.
If worse comes to worst, a sleeping pill could help. Sleeping pills are safe and effective in moderation. But doctors caution they are not a long-term solution for insomnia but merely a Band-Aid for the symptoms. A doctor may prescribe sleeping pills on a short-term basis for patients who are having a stressful period in their life, such as coping with the death of a loved one. Hunt also says natural remedies such as melatonin or valerian (sold in health-food stores) may provide some relief. But check with your doctor first -- some supplements can interfere with your regular prescription medication.