Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
4 Jan

17 Ways to Improve Your Sleep

Like last week’s stress post, I’m not going to delve deeply into why sleep is so important. I’ve done it before, and doing so again would simply take up valuable space that’s better used for action items – for actual sleep hacks that you can put into effect immediately. Just rest assured that it’s crucial to health, longevity, immunity, recovery from training, cognition, aptitude while operating vehicles and/or machinery, insulin sensitivity and, well, do I need to go on? If you want to enjoy your limited time on the planet, you better get your Zs.

Despite the long list of health benefits, sleep is one of those things that people skimp on, whether by necessity (work, traffic, kids, busy schedules) or because they figure they can simply “power through it”. The supposed ability to lower our sleep requirements through sheer will is pervasive. “Tough it out” is a popular slogan, as are “Sleep is for the weak” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Then there’s Virgil’s “Death’s brother, Sleep” (or, alternately, Nas’ “Sleep is the cousin of death” – thanks, Worker Bee). What we end up with, then, is a nation of overworked, overly fatigued men, women, students, and even children shambling through days dotted with Starbucks Ventis and ridiculous energy drinks. If you count yourself among their numbers, or perhaps you just want better sleep, read on for some tips and tricks:

Light Issues – The Usual

Our circadian clocks govern our sleepiness, and circadian clocks are extremely responsive to – and even dependent on – environmental light. Managing your exposure to light, especially blue light throughout the day and night can help you get to sleep at a normal time. The hormonal flux that controls our sleep schedule is complex, but sticking to ancestral light exposure norms should take care of most of it:

Sleep in a Dark Room

Total darkness is best. That means turning off the blinking DVR, using a towel to block the light streaming in under the door, flipping your alarm clock around, and drawing the blinds. If these aren’t doable, think about wearing an eye mask or draping a dark cloth over your face. You may find that such drastic measures aren’t totally necessary (the moon’s light doesn’t seem to bother me, for example), but it’s definitely worth pursuing if you feel your sleep is lacking.

Read Before Bed

Instead of reaching for the laptop or the remote, why not grab a book? For one, the blue light streaming from the laptop or LCD screen will suppress your natural melatonin production, and for two, reading is a relaxing activity that nonetheless requires active engagement of your cognitive skills. Working your brain can be tiring, while watching something is usually just passive.

Embrace Candlelit Dinners

Candlelit dinners aren’t just romantic; they actually promoted better sleep and more recovery from workouts for reader JD Moyer, who found that ditching all artificial lighting after dark (including computers and TV) in favor of candles made an enormous difference in both his and his wife’s lives. This is likely due to the fact that fire, especially the tiny flames lighting up a simple candle, emits little to no blue light. You know how candle light is “soft” and somehow soothing? There’s a physiological reason for that.

Get Some Exposure to Blue Light in the Morning and During the Day

When you get up in the morning, head outside and greet the day – and the blue sky overhead (if the season permits). Go for a walk at lunch for a bit more exposure. Thankfully, some offices are beginning to employ blue light-enriched overhead lights, which has been shown to increase worker alertness. This is more about normalizing your circadian rhythm and preparing for the rest of the day, rather than using light to fix sleep deprivation-induced fogginess, but it’ll help there in a pinch.

Install F.lux on Your Computer

F.lux is a free program that, when enabled on your computer, reduces blue light emissions.

Wear Orange Safety Goggles

Orange safety goggles may look silly, but they filter out blue light. Might be worth trying if nothing else is working.

Supplements and Other Hacks

Smart supplementation and the implementation of modern technology can do wonders. It may not be how Grok lived, but we face problems that our ancestors never had to cope with.

Get Your Leptin in Order

Sleep quality and duration are strongly linked to low leptin and leptin resistance. If you recall from my posts on leptin and carb refeeds, I suggested going lower fat and higher carb on leptin refeed days, as carbs have the biggest effect on leptin levels. Avoiding excess omega-6, sugar, and grains should take care of leptin resistance. Just stick to sweet potatoes, squash, and other safe starches for your carb-heavy days, and try to have your carbs an hour or two before bed.

Check Your Thiamine Intake

Thiamine, found in meat, especially pork and animal offal, has a big effect on sleep patterns:  a deficiency can lead to poor sleep. Make sure you’re eating enough thiamine-rich foods. Yes, this means you may have to start eating more bacon. I’m sorry. Pair your pig flesh and chicken liver with sunflower seeds, which are also high in thiamine.

Eat Your (Beef) Heart Out

Taurine is a non-essential amino acid, but dietary taurine is still very useful. New research suggests that it plays an important role in brain function, specifically with regards to the inhibitory  neurotransmitter GABA, activation of which is linked to sleepiness. It’s odd that taurine is included in most energy drinks, since it seems far more likely to sedate than energize. Eat more animal hearts, which are very high in taurine. Whole Foods usually carries frozen boxes of turkey and beef (grass-fed, too) hearts for $1.99/lb, at least in Los Angeles.

Take Magnesium (and/or Zinc)

ZMA is a popular supplement combining zinc and magnesium for workout recovery and sleep improvement. Natural Calm, as popularized by Robb Wolf, is a high quality magnesium supplement that many people use for sleep support. Eating leafy greens like spinach, and nuts like almonds for magnesium, and meat/shellfish for zinc are the best ways to obtain either mineral, of course. If you opt out of nuts and greens and choose supplements, stick to magnesiums and zincs that end in “-ate” (don’t take supplements made strictly of oxide, although blends are fine).

Take Melatonin

Melatonin is the primary sleep hormone. We generally produce it endogenously, but sometimes life gets in the way. If that’s the case, exogenous melatonin taken about 30 minutes before bed can help you get to sleep. Less is more with this stuff, although more has been known to lead to extremely vivid dreams. Just stick to small doses, about 0.3 mg to 1 mg to start, and be cautious: it is a hormone.

Get Cooler

Some people associate warmth with sleepiness, but I’m the opposite. I need crisp, cool air if I’m going to get a good night’s sleep. If I can’t control the ambient temperature, in a pinch I’ll rub an ice pack on my inner wrists or dip my feet in cool water to (seemingly) lower my temperature a bit so I can get sleepy. It works for me. Try making your environment cooler and/or making your body cooler.

Try Guided Meditation

Yeah, yeah, it sounds cheesy, but I’m into it. I just tried it over the weekend right as I was going to sleep and it was fantastic. I tried the Moodstreams podcast, specifically the “Down the River” meditation. You have to listen to him promote his products at the start, but the actual “trip” is totally worth it. It got me into that weird half dream, half awake brain state (which was fun) and I just slipped off to sleep without even realizing it. Highly recommended. Here’s his blog, which contains links to the podcasts on iTunes.

Try Esther Gokhale’s “Long Lying”

This recommendation is buried in my sleep posture post from way back, but it bears repeating. I still make sure to do it every time I lie down for a nap or full on sleep: You touch ground with your sacrum, lay your palms on the ground, and slowly lower yourself back, taking care to actively lengthen your spine – vertebrae by vertebrae – by pushing through your hands. Works like a charm, every single time.

Get a Massage or Foam Roll Yourself

Ideally, we’d all have access to stout Swedish maids with strong butter churning hands for nightly massages, but in the real world, foam rollers will do the trick (when your significant other isn’t up to it). You may not slip off to sleep while foam rolling yourself (if you’re doing it right, you’ll be in pain), but you’ll release a lot of physical and mental tension that should make sleep easier and more satisfying. Do ten minutes of foam rolling before bed, focusing on the legs and upper back.

Have a Sleep Routine

We are creatures of habit, and behavior, not just environmental, external cues, helps set our body’s rhythms. Take all or some of the suggestions in this post and put together a comprehensive pre-sleep ritual that you try to stick to every day. Maybe it’s turning off the lights at 6 and switching to candles, followed by a cup of herbal tea, a quick massage, and a good book before bed. Taken individually, each item might have an effect on your sleep, but taken as a whole, they become a standard ritual that you do every night to prepare your body for sleep and that acts as a cue to your circadian clock.

Fix Your Stress


Everyone knows they need better sleep, but I’m not convinced they actually know it. At least, they don’t act like it. The preceding represent some pretty simple, basic tips, tricks, and hacks that anyone can try without too much investment. Try a few out and see how they affect your sleep, or lack thereof, and be sure to let me know how it goes in the comment section! Also, if I’ve missed anything, let me know. I’m always looking for more ways to improve!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Awesome. Word up to WB for the Nas reference! :)

    (And don’t worry, Mark, I appreciate your knowledge of the Aeneid, too…)

    Alhaddadin wrote on January 5th, 2011
  2. The reason I chose Kindle over other e-readers is because of the light factors. The page looks just like I’m reading a book and I always read before bed…it knocks me out. My daughter and I studied sleep extensively a few years ago and light is such a huge issue. My bedroom is dark, I don’t have anything plugged in except my lamps, no alarm clocks with their bright screens. As a night light for the bathroom, I use a flameless candle keeping everything as dim as possible. When I can’t fall asleep, I “try on clothes” – not literally, but I think about what to pair with what. It may sound silly, but my clothes are decidedly unstressful and they are easy to think about, so that is what I do and viola! I’m asleep in no time. I am pretty excited to try the long lay method. I want to see if that can return me to the days when I was sleeping like the dead within a few deep breaths – like heavy sighs – geez I misss that! Those days are gone, sadly, but now I’m given new hope…less outfits I have to try on! Hahahaha!

    Kim Privette wrote on January 5th, 2011
  3. I bought a king size foam mattress several years ago and its great! It has a firm 8″ slab on bottom and a 6″ softer layer on top. I use 4 pillows-foam head pillow, small knee pillow (20+years old), a front and back pillow. The mattress molds to my body and I’m out in a minute.
    All light is blocked and I have to raise my head to look at the clock.
    I made too many parachute jumps in SF and have two metal knees and more metal in my back. I hurt all the time when up but not in bed now.
    The witch hides on her side of the bed and I have to find her when it’s time to do the wild thing. Since it molds to our body the one on bottom is in a deep depression when finished so has to be pulled out by the other one. Then it’s crash time again.
    We love this mattress and we’ll buy one again if this one dies.
    I only wish I had a couple more wives or concubines to fill up the bed with.

    ww rutland wrote on January 5th, 2011
  4. Sleep is a major issue for me because three days a week I work the night shift. I wish there was a way to get my rhythms back in order for the rest of the week!

    Sonia wrote on January 5th, 2011
    • Lots of people who work night shifts use melatonin to help with their distorted sleep cycles.

      I’ve heard it’s pretty effective.

      thehova wrote on January 5th, 2011
  5. I have been battling sleep problems since menopause but found that if I go to the gym in the evening and spend 10 minutes in the steam room after my workout I will sleep deeply and wake up feeling great. No gym, no sleep though.

    Fiona wrote on January 5th, 2011
  6. Some fun:
    Maybe for some of us this video would help. It’s called “GO TO SLEEP! A special message for Internet insomniacs.” 😀

    hmrf wrote on January 5th, 2011
  7. HOly Basil extract,L-theanine and GABA right before bed is amazing

    Chris wrote on January 6th, 2011
    • What are these things? Elaborate on amazing :)

      Cat wrote on January 6th, 2011
  8. I am planning to start sleeping polyphasically (, basically because I like to try different things.

    Any opinions on doing this?

    Cat wrote on January 6th, 2011
  9. I’ve also read that a small serving of healthy fat before bed can do the trick, i.e. 1 tablespoon natural peanut butter.

    Susan wrote on January 6th, 2011
  10. The reason the moon’s light doesn’t bother you is likely because neuron’s of the suprachiasmatic nuclei have a higher threshold to light intensity than does our classic visual system, and this threshold is higher than that of the intensity of moonlight/starlight. Thus the light we can see is sometimes dim enough that it will not affect our sleep/wake rhythms. I find it fascinating though, that our bodies “know” that it is nighttime, regardless of moon and stars shining. Also cool is that these neuron’s track changes in light intensity, particularly the intensities present in natural dawn and dusk times. I’m thinking that gradually dimming the lights in my apartment would be helpful – telling my body that it’s time to sleep.

    Ceilidh wrote on January 6th, 2011
  11. How do you get a good night sleep with a newborn. Three week old baby girl here no sleep at all

    Tai wrote on January 6th, 2011
    • Have you tried sleeping with the child, allowing the infant to nurse while you are still asleep, or at least groggy? This is how Ms Grok would have done it! And it is how my mother nursed me, she said it was no trouble at all, very peaceful. The idea of banishing an infant to a place separate from Mum is surely ‘cruel and unusual’, and I cannot imagine how it was ever adopted. (Perhaps to copy the very rich, who traditionally banished their children to a distant nursery and a wet-nurse). Could you not trawl the net for safe ways to do this – the correct sleeping-posture – and find an old mid-wife who might advise? Good luck.

      Bronwen wrote on January 6th, 2011
    • Welcome to the club 😉 . With no helpers, there will be only occasional sleep until they grow up. Then health issues eventually catch up…

      Helen wrote on May 22nd, 2013
  12. Get her drunk! This was the answer years ago.

    ww rutland wrote on January 6th, 2011
  13. So what about STAYING asleep? I usually have little trouble falling asleep at a reasonable time in the evening, but wake up about 4-5 hours later and have real problems getting back to slumberland. I obviously haven’t been on-line at that point or had coffee or… Any suggestions for this one?

    evadnefrances wrote on January 7th, 2011
  14. This Flux thing is cool…

    VelocityRD wrote on January 8th, 2011
  15. So I’m late to the show on this post, but hopefully I can get a little clarification. Is a supplement of just Magnesium Oxide just less beneficial than other options? Or is it somehow harmful?

    Or to put it another way, if I just brought home a bottle of the stuff, is it better to discard it and get something else, or can I finish it before moving on to the better stuff?


    Jon wrote on January 17th, 2011
  16. “Lights Out” by TS Wiley is an awesommmmme book!!!! And its in simple speak so it’s not hard to understand!!! Check it out!

    Bettina wrote on January 24th, 2011
  17. I have tried all these methods my self and have improved my sleep disorders.

    MATHEW CANTER wrote on February 14th, 2011
  18. I have the same cat problem! One of mine sleeps ON me at the other at my feet…and I feel bad for moving…even though they come right back! And you are right…they do get to sleep all day anyway!

    shapewear wrote on February 25th, 2011
  19. I do a lot of these already, and it really does help. I’m going to get f.lux installed today. I sleep in a bedroom that is pitch black once I turn out the lights. I have a few windows that are covered with blinds, but I pull them up slightly just to have the windows cracked and let cool air circulate. I have found that this often results in very restful sleep, it’s much better than having a fan pushing air around. This has led to me waking to a sore an dry throat. I have Melatonin on stock usually, but there’s only one brand by NOW that works for me. I’ve tried ZMA in the past and it works pretty good, so I need to look into it again. I definitely want to invest in some blue lights, maybe I can find a nice one for my desk for the mornings.I’m going to buy a foam roller this weekend as well. I know stretching is very beneficial to a good nights rest. I noticed I do sleep better with a good 10 minute stretch, focusing on legs mostly. It’s been said sleep is the number 2 most important factor in keeping healthy and losing fat. Diet being number one for obvious reasons.

    Jonathan wrote on April 1st, 2011
  20. Very good and informative website, i like it. graphics are very friendly.

    Gul Rukh wrote on July 2nd, 2011

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