“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”
– Ernest Hemingway
Do you want to get better sleep? Do you want to sleep less and function better?
We all know what it’s like when we get a bad night of sleep. I can remember driving to work most mornings and almost falling asleep at the wheel. It was a horrible feeling because I would either have to pull over and take a nap at a truck stop (which I never did) or just hope I didn’t completely pass out. “Just 20 more minutes.” I would tell myself. I would roll down the windows and crank up the radio.
It wasn’t lack of sleep because I still get the same 6 hours of sleep a night I get now but rather poor quality sleep.
Current research suggests that we sleep for 3 reasons:
- Brain processing and memory consolidation;
- Brain restoration including cell repair and hormonal re-balancing. This not only improves our health but allows us to come up with novel solutions to complex problems;
- Brain detoxification, which may prevent various diseases.
What I Hope to Gain
Luckily, I’ve learned what makes me feel great in the morning so those days are hopefully long gone. But I would like to figure out how I can get better quality sleep in less time. This will give me more time to focus on things that I enjoy without impacting the rest of my day.
What do you hope to gain by hacking your sleep?
Importance of Sleep Quality
Nearly a third of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep a night; the average is 6.5 hours! That’s pretty startling when you consider that for most people, the ideal amount of sleep is 7-9 hours per night, seven being the magic number according to a recent study.
More sleep does not necessarily mean better sleep as this study concluded. For this experiment, we are going to focus on improving the quality of sleep. This includes falling asleep faster, staying asleep through the entire night and increasing the percentage of REM sleep. I’ll also be dipping into a little dream manipulation. 🙂
Due to poor diet, lack of exercise, chronic stress in addition to constant bright lights and over-stimulation, many suffer from inadequate sleep, often waking up feeling groggy throughout the day. Sleep deprivation is associated with depression, systemic inflammation, weight gain, and early mortality. In fact, you will die from lack of sleep before starvation! Even if you do everything else right, if you don’t sleep enough, your health and well-being will still suffer.
On the other hand, if you get a handle on your sleep, you will see better results and recover faster from exercise, have better memory, fewer allergies and significantly less inflammation.
Good sleep is one of the cornerstones of health.
Sleep deprivation prematurely ages you by interfering with your growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep (and during certain types of exercise, such as high intensity interval training). Growth hormones help you look and feel younger. Essential, good quality sleep is the ultimate anti-aging secret.
Factors That Effect Sleep
If you did the Primal experiment, your sleep my have improved. I know mine did. Optimizing your sleep depends heavily on four things:
- Preparation – Build good sleep habits by exercising daily (even a little like my 25 second workout), waking with the sun or using a more mild alarm clock (like this one) and eliminating coffee after 3PM (or earlier if you are caffeine sensitive). Also, get sun exposure throughout the day.
- Environment – Tweak your surroundings for optimal sleep such as sleeping in a room between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (ideal temperature is highly individual so experiment), sleeping in a pitch-black room by blocking all light (including alarm clocks and LEDs) or wearing a sleeping mask (like this one), turning your phone on silent or even off, and using a white noise generator, air purifier or other ambient noise.
- Timing – Getting the sleep you need when you need it like going to bed and waking at the same time every day (including weekends). Have a goal to be in bed by a certain time and stick to it.
- Diet – What you eat has a large impact on the type of sleep you get. A diet similar to the Primal diet works really well for me.
Besides focusing on the factors mentioned above, there are things you can do to hack your sleep (aka small changes to upgrade your sleep.) I went through all the latest research in the biohacking-sphere, reviewed the most forefront biohackers like Tim Ferriss and Ben Greenfield and put together a list of the best sleep hacks.
All the links below are for products I suggest, which have been researched and will provide you the best quality.
Suggested Routine (pick a few and give them a try for a week)
- Expose yourself to outdoor light first thing in the morning. You can place a white light emitter like the NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light within the field of view of your eyes instead. Just 15 minutes first thing in the morning can make a huge difference and might even replace the need for coffee.
- Combining a light emitter and coffee will increase caffeine’s effects.
- Go for a barefoot walk on the grass or sand. This is called grounding or earthing. I’ll get into more detail about this in a future post.
- Eat a high protein breakfast.
- Take a Vitamin D supplement.
- Take a 30 minute walk.
- If needed and convenient, try to get into the habit of napping; ten to twenty minutes in the afternoon, preferably lying down in a darkened room.
- Drink your last cup of coffee (green tea is ok because it contains L-theanine, which can partially counteract the sleep disturbances caused by caffeine.)
- Consume a large fat and protein-dominant meal within 3 hours of sleep.
- Eat most of your carbs at dinner – One study showed that people who ate the fastest-digesting carbs fell asleep faster than the people who ate the slow digesting carbs.
- Eat high glycine foods like animal skin and bone broth. Glycine is an amino acid with sleep-promoting effects.
- Eat leafy greens like spinach, and nuts like almonds for magnesium, and meat/shellfish for zinc.
- Go for another barefoot walk on the grass or sand.
A Few Hours Before Bed
- At night, avoid blue light from things like tablets and computers. I use a free program on my Mac called f.lux which automatically reduces blue light emissions from the monitor. Blue light can cause interruptions in the release of melatonin, the hormone that prepares your body for sleep.
- You can also use orange-lensed glasses at night two hours before bedtime. The cheapest and most popular option is the Uvex brand. They block the melatonin-robbing light coming from your electronic devices so you can fall asleep faster and get better sleep. They look silly, but might be worth trying if nothing else is working.
- Avoid alcohol which can cause poor-quality sleep.
- Don’t do any strenuous exercise 2 hours before bed.
30-60 Minutes Before Bed
Take a warm or ice-cold Epsom salt bath before bedtime. Experiment with each and see what works best.
Take relaxing amino acids, magnesium, potassium, and trace minerals through food or supplements. Here are some of the best options:
- 2 Tbsp of almond or peanut butter with some celery before bed will help with low blood sugar.
- A handful of goji berries (to save money, buy them as lycium berries…same thing, just cheaper)
- Eat a few cherries or drink some tart cherry juice, both of which are a natural source of melatonin, which this study supports.
- Eat 2 kiwis an hour before significantly improved sleep onset, duration, and efficiency, according to this study.
- Mix 2 Tbsp organic apple cider vinegar with 1 Tbsp raw honey in hot water – this works well for me.
- Drink 2 Tbsp whey protein with 1-2 Tbsp MCT oil (avoid the whey protein if you take the honey.) The MCT oil gives your brain the short chain fats is craves to function during the night. The whey protein gives you essential amino acids for repair, and bioactive milk peptides for calming your nervous system.
Optional Supplements (try one or two at a time)
- Magnesium – Take in either liquid or pill form. Be careful – magnesium can have a laxative effect, so start small. Take 400-500mg potassium citrate as well.
- Take an omega-3 like fish oil. It has been linked to improved sleep.
- Huperzine-A – Taking 200mcg (micrograms) 30 minutes before bed can increase total REM. Only use this short-term.
- Melatonin – Use sublingual tablets (to be placed under the tongue and allowed to dissolve); start with 0.3-1mg and you can work your way up to 3mg. To avoid early waking, combine 5mg time-release with 1 mg sublingual. Just keep in mind that it’s a hormone, so don’t overdo it and only use it short-term.
- Valerian Root Extract – Take one to two capsules of a standardized extract of this herb.
- California Poppy Extract – Acts as a mild sedative and may increase deep-wave sleep.
- REM Cap – A combination of melatonin, valerian root, and 5-HTP.
- This is a great sleep hack supplement stack for helping with winding down, alleviating a racing mind or going back to sleep after waking: one dropperful Kava Kava + Valerian Root + Passionflower.
- NightWave Sleep Assistant – Quiets the mind and body by guiding you through a pre-sleep relaxation routine that will change your attitude about falling asleep.
- Practice daily breathing exercises or do at least 5 minutes of Heart Math heart rate variability coherence/breathing exercises with or without the emWave.
- Do some guided meditation like the Moodstream’s podcasts.
- Experiment with wearing socks of different thicknesses. The temperature of your feet can have a large impact on your sleep and may reduce waking. Feet often feel cold before the rest of the body.
- Write/journal AKA Brain Dump before going to bed to clear your thoughts.
- Keep all electronics at least 5 feet from your head and put your phone on airplane mode to avoid EMFs (electromagnetic field) which can disturb sleep.
- According to Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Body, sleeping in a half military crawl position reduces fidgeting resulting in faster sleep. Here’s how he describes it:
Lie on your chest with your head on a pillow and facing to the right. Both arms should be straight by your sides, palms up. Now bring your right arm up until the top of your right hand is under your pillow and under your head. Next bring your right knee out to that side until it is bent at approximately 90 degrees.
If You Wake Up In the Middle of the Night
This is my own personal hack – If I wake up and have to go pee, I only open one eye. I think it tricks your body into remaining half asleep. 🙂
There are some great devices and apps that can help you track your sleep as well as wake you up at the optimal time. Measuring sleep can help you determine the quality of sleep you’re getting and if it’s improving over the 21 days.
Be proactive in using the data to figure out what’s working for you and what isn’t. I recommend you also track what you ate and how you were feeling (headache, stress, etc.) the night before so you can narrow down what is impacting your sleep.
Here are the top six recommendations (per Lifehacker.com):
- Sleepbot for Android and iOS (FREE) – This is what I’ll be using
- Sleep As Droid for Android (2 week free trial, after which $3)
- Sleep Cycle for iOS ($1.99)
- Jawbone Up ($170) – A wireless activity and sleep tracker
- FitBit One ($100) – A wireless activity and sleep tracker
- Zeo Mobile Sleep Manager ($140) – If you don’t mind wearing something on your head while you sleep, this is the most accurate way to measure.
I recommend putting your phone on airplane mode if it’s near your body while you sleep. This will limit the exposure of any potentially harmful WiFi or cellular signals.
Ground Rules for the Experiment
Try one, two or all of these hacks for the next 21 days and see what works. Try a few of them for a week, then try a few more. The important thing is to put in the (minimal) effort to track your sleep and try many different things—even things that may seem irrelevant.
QUESTION: Which hacks are you going to try? Which hacks have you tried that worked for you?
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Now, I want to learn from you – share your questions, thoughts and stories!