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

How to Manufacture the Best Night of Sleep in Your Life

sleep2Ah, sleep: is there anything quite like it? So easily discarded and discounted when nighttime attractions present themselves and yet so dearly missed and pined after the next morning. You’ve heard me say it enough, so I’ll keep it short. A good night’s sleep is the foundation for a healthy, happy, productive existence. Good sleep keeps us lean and thinking clearly. And without good, regular sleep, we just go through life in a scattered daze, everything foggy, slightly confusing, and less enjoyable. We’re not really ourselves if we haven’t slept. We desperately need a good night’s sleep, every night.

So how do you get one? What would a day of optimal sleep promotion look like?

Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s start with the morning.

Early Morning

Use a dawn simulator alarm clock. These are alarms with lamps that slowly and gradually brighten as your wake time approaches. It’s not the same as having the majestic sunrise beam into your room and very soul, but these contraptions have been shown to improve sleep quality. Another advantage: waking up won’t be so jarring.

When you wake up, get up. Do not hit snooze, sleep for five minutes, hit it again, sleep for five more, and keep doing that until you can will yourself to rise and stumble off to begin your day. You may think you’re effectively chipping away at sleep debt with those little bits and pieces of “sleep,” but you’re really just fragmenting your sleep (PDF), which leads to “sleepiness-related daytime impairment,” compulsory afternoon caffeine infusions, and less productivity. If you hit snooze today, you’ll probably end up sleeping badly enough to have to hit it again tomorrow.

Upon getting up, you expose yourself to bright light. Ideally, this is the sun. If it’s still dark out, you can use the brightest artificial light you have. 10,000 lux lamps are best (and in fact are used to effectively treat Seasonal Affective Disorder), but anything is better than no light at all. Our bodies, brains, and biological clocks expect bright light during the day, and meeting those expectations has been shown to improve sleep (as well as alertness and productivity during the day), even if the light is artificial.

Before “the day” starts, you get some physical activity. Go for a short walk (great way to get some light, too!) with the dog, do a light stretching or movement routine for five minutes, have sex, dance to your morning playlist as you get ready for work, roughhouse with your kids, swing a light kettlebell for a few minutes, read your email on the treadmill, ride your bike around the block, whatever. You don’t even have to work up a sweat or anything if you don’t want to. Just move a little. There’s some evidence (albeit uneven) that morning activity can improve sleep later on that night.

Brew your coffee, tea, or legal stimulant-containing beverage now if you’re going to have any today. Caffeine has a half life of up to six hours, so having that Americano after lunch could disrupt your sleep tonight.

If you eat breakfast, eat a good portion of animal. Meat (and not just turkey) is a good source of the amino acid tryptophan, and high-tryptophan breakfasts have been shown to improve sleep quality. Steak, eggs, and whey protein, anyone?

If you don’t typically eat breakfast, you probably don’t need to start. Intermittent fasting can also improve sleep. If your sleep is suffering, you might want to try the meat breakfast, though.

Mid-Morning

Work hard, be proactive, and stay focused. Getting as much work done as you can before noon will take the mental load off the rest of your day, allowing you to relax a bit. Procrastination will only make you stressed out, and stress is the enemy of good sleep.

While you’re working, take a minute to install f.lux on your computer. F.lux is a free program that changes your computer’s color spectrum automatically according to the time of day. When it’s dark out, an f.lux-enabled computer gives off very little sleep-disrupting blue light.

Last call for caffeine. If you do go for coffee, grab a cup of good green tea to go with it; green tea contains L-theanine, which can partially counteract the sleep disturbances caused by caffeine. Primal Calm also contains L-theanine, as well as other stress-modulating ingredients, so that’s another option.

Midday

Sometime after lunch, meditate for twenty minutes. Several studies have shown that meditation practice can improve sleep, including cyclic meditation (a kind of yoga-meditation fusion) and mindfulness meditation. There’s even evidence that meditation can decrease the amount of sleep you need to function.

When and if you nap, do it closer to midday than to your bedtime. A nap taken too close to nighttime can interfere with your sleep.

Go for a barefoot stroll in the grass, dirt, sand, or the natural surface of your choice. Even a quick walk on the lawn outside the office works. Though earthing is controversial, its proponents may be overstating its benefits, and the studies connecting it to better sleep may not be the best-designed, who doesn’t feel better and more relaxed after letting the leaves of grass trace their way between your toes, feeling the cool damp earth underneath, or tromping an uneven unsteady path through soft white sand? It certainly doesn’t hurt.

Early Evening

If you plan on drinking, do so around this time. Alcohol too close to bed – even just a couple glasses of wine – can impact sleep. You’ll sleep, but it’ll be poor quality sleep fraught with frequent disturbances. This validates both happy hours and day drinking, in a way.

Eat most of your carbs at dinner. A recent study showed that eating carbs, even high-glycemic ones, at the last meal shortened the sleep onset. In other words, packing your carbs into dinner can help you fall asleep faster.

Eat animal fat and/or olive oil at dinner (and lunch, and breakfast). Both animal fat like lard or beef fat and olive oil (or macadamia nuts, for that matter) are excellent sources of oleic acid, a precursor to the sleep-inducing oleamide.

Dim the lights when darkness falls. If it’s dark outside, your body needs to start winding down, and excessive artificial lighting will get in the way of that.

Turn off the screens an hour or two before bed. Smartphones, laptops, computers, TVs, tablets – they all emit melatonin-disrupting blue light directly into our staring, transfixed eyeballs. If you miss the entertainment factor, play board games. Heck, start a board game night and invite people over.

Use blue blocking goggles after dark. These, coupled with the f.lux you installed earlier, should block out the harmful blue light when you need (or “need”) to use electronics. I like this pair, while this pair fits over glasses.

Bedtime

Drink some bone broth, eat some gelatin, or take glycine. All of those things either contain or are glycine, an amino acid with sleep promoting effects.

Clear your mind. Meditation can work here, again, or you could make a to-do list for the following day so that you don’t lie awake obsessing over everything.

Rub your body down with magnesium oil or lotion. I go for the softest areas, like under my arms or along my rib cage. If it stings, you know it’s working. Bonus: it gives you (or me, at least) really cool, really vivid dreams. Some people are paradoxical responders who actually sleep worse on this stuff, just so you’re aware.

Read some dense fiction in bed, in actual physical book form (nothing against ebooks at any other time, but they represent a light source that can disrupt sleep). Don’t read easily digestible stuff like an old John le Carre spy novel. Instead, go for something like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that has you parsing paragraph-long sentences. Great book, but you’ll be asleep in no time.

Eliminate, remove, or cover up any sources of light in your bedroom, even the tiny blinking ones. Black-out blinds over your windows, duct tape over your blinking lights, and towels under doors may be warranted to achieve true darkness.

Use white/brown noise or nature sounds before bed. Falling rain is a good sound to fall asleep to, as are the somewhat haunting but eerily beautiful whale songs.

Guided meditation can help you get to sleep. Search iTunes for “guided meditation” and a bunch of podcasts will pop up. Just don your blue blocking goggles before using your phone to play one.

Take a tablespoon of honey, preferably raw, right before bed. Seth Roberts has shown through rigorous self-experimentation how it might very well improve sleep, perhaps by keeping liver glycogen full.

Middle of the Night

Improve your aim and reduce your reliance on lights. If you get up in the night to urinate, don’t flip on every light as you pass them. Most people can adjust to the darkness if they let themselves.

Don’t check your email just because you woke up. It’s not that important (if it were, they’d call), and whatever you read is only going to keep you up. Also, blue light!

General Advice

Make sure to eat enough salt throughout the day, since a depletion of bodily sodium stores can trigger overtraining-like symptoms, raise blood pressure, and impair the quality of your sleep. I won’t give an absolute amount, because that will differ based on size, activity level, stress, and many other factors. Just salt your food until it tastes good. So much for total salt avoidance, eh?

Exercise regularly. Regular exercisers report getting better sleep than people who don’t exercise at all, even on the same number of hours. In people with sleep disorders like insomnia, exercise can make things worse in the short term or have no effect at all. Working out once probably won’t help once. It’s over the long term (4 months) that exercise can improve sleep quality in insomnia patients. Exercise also increases sleep quality in sleep apnea patients.

Exercising at night is generally fine. Get it in whenever you can fit it. However, really intense pulse-pounding glycolytic work an hour before bed (like Crossfit or HIIT) might impact your sleep onset, simply because your cortisol is momentarily elevated. Proper cool downs should help get you back to baseline, as should food and a cold shower.

Align your life schedule with your chronotype. This isn’t possible for everyone to do perfectly – we all have to pay the bills, and that often means working on someone else’s schedule – but even small strides in the general direction of our genetic chronotype can help.

Obviously, not everyone needs to do or try every suggestion on here. I just combed through the research and put everything out on the table so you could pick and choose and experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. We’re all different.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know what works for you and what does not work. I can always use better sleep, so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for new tips.

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. Some great tips there and must say I do feel like I’m affected by SAD and this post has just about put me over the edge and swayed me to get a sun lamp clock. Especially @Jess glowing endorsement.

    Just need to run the morning sex and steak for breakfast tips past my wife!!!

    BOb wrote on November 6th, 2013
  2. As a bibliophile I take offense (just a little) in the fact that everyone seems to suggest reading as a way to induce sleep. If I grab a good book at 8 pm, I will still be reading at 6 am, or whenever I finish said book (whatever happens first).

    Reading is fun, and fun does not make you go to sleep. :D

    Erik Erosa wrote on November 6th, 2013
  3. I used to just forget to go to bed. I would start doing something and wouldn’t realize that it was 2 am. I have an alarm set on my fitbit flex that will buzz at me at 11pm so that i can start the process of going to bed. It also monitors my sleep so that i can tell if it was a good night or not so i can look back to what I could have done differently yesterday. Eventually i will set the alarm at 10:30 and then 10.

    I am lucky at work that i can set my own hours. I usually wake up before my alarm in the morning, but it isn’t a big deal if i sleep in a little and go into work a little bit later, I just stay later or balance the time sometime over the week.

    ReggieW wrote on November 6th, 2013
  4. It seems like Grok would occasionally pull some “all-nighters” (that is what I tell myself when I do) – I have been experimenting with 24-36 hrs on and 12-14 off. Since I do not have a regular 9-5 job anymore I am trying to be as productive as possible and this article is really bumming me out. Has Mark posted anything about “all-nighters”?

    Michael wrote on November 6th, 2013
  5. I’ve been using Kavinace Ultra PM by Neuroscience for several months. It’s aminos, tryptophan and melatonin, and it’s been mostly fantastic in combination with a lot of the suggestions from Mark. It’s not cheap though. But when I try to skip a night I don’t sleep as well, so I’ll keep buying it. Melatonin alone didn’t do it for me. I used to wake at night to pee, often more than once and then couldn’t get back to sleep, but now I mostly go right back to sleep.

    Nancy wrote on November 6th, 2013
  6. Good article. I figure if it’s dark at 5:30pm I don’t bother turn the lights down, and just extend my ‘day’ to a more normal/comfortable 12 hr day. I don’t let winter get in the way of me enjoying life. :)

    Zorica Vuletic wrote on November 6th, 2013
  7. I used to have chronic insomnia. Here are the only things that worked for me:

    a) EATING ENOUGH CALORIES. If ever I went below 2,600 per day, I wouldn’t sleep. Even now, if I skip meals too many days in a row, insomnia returns.

    b) EATING ENOUGH CARBS. Gelatin is all well and good. I like it. But the best sleep promoting foods for me are Ben & Jerry’s, white bread toast with jam, pudding, cheese and wheat crackers, cookies, rice, and muffins. (Basically, lots of those foods I always craved whenever I restricted my food intake.)

    c) EATING ENOUGH SALT. Got to have enough of this throughout the day, as Mark says.

    If I follow these rules, I sleep like a baby. And I don’t have to lie in bed awake waiting for it to happen, either. No matter what I’m doing in the evening, my body will let me know when it’s bedtime. I’ve had horrible insomnia for years and years on all kinds of diets, so being able to get sleepy is really, really awesome.

    puddleduck wrote on November 6th, 2013
    • P.S. I eat sugar like a maniac, but my bloodsugar is perfect. Just thought I’d point that out in case anyone speculates about the state of my sugars. I do not have diabetes or hypoglycemia or anything like that. :P

      My insomnia was awful while low-carbing. So if any of you insomniacs on Paleo are low-carbing, perhaps you might look into the possibility that it’s exacerbating sleep issues.

      Maybe try some stewed fruit with honey in it, or creamed sweet potatoes with added sweetener. If you eat white potatoes, try salty oven fries. I know carbs are really limited for you folks, so it takes more effort. But I wholeheartedly offer the suggestion. Insomnia sucks!

      puddleduck wrote on November 6th, 2013
      • Key information concerning “perfect blood sugar levels while eating sugar like a maniac” can be found in Dr. David Perlmutter’s newly released book “Grain Brain”.
        Search term: fasting insulin level.
        Hope this proves helpful in your quest for long-term health!

        skeedaddy wrote on November 7th, 2013
  8. You didn’t mention the fresh air. I experimented with sleeping on the porch when I read about it here. Now I sleep there unless it’s very hot or under 10 degrees. The difference it made in my sleep and my attitude in the morning is AMAZING. Thanks!

    Kathy wrote on November 6th, 2013
    • Hm! I don’t have a porch, but I think I’ll try leaving my window open even in the colder months. My mother used to be really big on leaving windows open, even when it was cold. Her folks came from Finland, where it’s freezing cold much of the year, but they left windows open to sleep. Mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota and she talked about getting up in a freezing house in the morning and all the kids rushing downstairs to the kitchen stove, the only source of heat in the house (besides the body heat they got by sharing beds with siblings).

      DeannaKate wrote on November 7th, 2013
  9. Great work pulling it all together Mark, this has always been a battle for me and it’s rare I find any new stuff.

    You gave me that + some stuff I ha forgotten about.

    Legend.

    JJ wrote on November 6th, 2013
  10. In case no-one has mentioned this yet, there are studies suggesting that a two 4-hour “blocks” of sleep are beneficial to humans.

    When there was no artificial light (save from candles and oil-pits), people would often wake up after 4 hours of sleep, read a bit, or do some housework, and then go to bed again. I usually wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning, go to the bathroom and realize that I’m wide awake. Heck, it would be easier for me to get up at 4 in the morning than at 7! I do fall asleep half an hour or so after that, though.

    The_Introvert_Huntress wrote on November 7th, 2013
    • yeah, this is what I do. they found all these references in olden times diaries of people looking forward to their “2nd sleep” of the night. Better than lying there. I always have a “morning sleep” of short or long duration. I just need to get back to REM and I’m good to go…

      Michael wrote on November 7th, 2013
  11. Great post. I’ve been using f.lux for a few months now. it is awesome. Shame I can’t use it on my iphone since upgrading to ios7 as its just a jailbreak app.

    Gordon wrote on November 7th, 2013
  12. I have restless leg syndrome and it can keep me awake for hours. Any tips people? Thanks in advance.

    xx

    Michelle wrote on November 7th, 2013
    • Restless legs can be caused by deficiency in a number of electrolyte minerals. I get it occasionally, especially in the summer when I’m sweating a lot. My best solution? Blackstrap molasses is full of electrolyte minerals and for some reason, it works better than supplements. If my legs get restless, I take 2 tablespoons a day for a while. Normally, I take one a day.

      DeannaKate wrote on November 7th, 2013
  13. Dr. Stasha Gominak thinks you need to get your vitamin D level up to get that deep healing sleep (60-80 ng/ml?) (I know Paul Jaminet advises 40 ng/ml).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xF24xmJQK1k

    Some other circadian rhythm triggers: lower temperature at night, not looking at faces or hearing voices, not eating in the middle of the night (I’m still trying to get used to it).

    tam wrote on November 7th, 2013
  14. I used to wake up 2-4 times/night and never slept deeply. Three things made the difference:
    1. blue blocking glasses (mentioned in article)
    2. glycine/gelatin (mentioned in article)
    3. ZINC SUPPLEMENTATION (not mentioned).

    Zinc helps your body to use the good stuff in gelatin. The gelatin worked well for a couple months for me and then I started waking up a lot again. Then I tested low in zinc and when I started taking it (and eating oysters), my great sleep returned. I now wake up once to relieve myself and go back to sleep immediately almost every night. Occasionally, I sleep completely through the night. And I sleep deeply.

    DeannaKate wrote on November 7th, 2013
  15. Great srticle. Thorough and entertaining as always. One other suggestion I would make is related to brainwave entrainment. I used to use white noise (as I live in a big city), but have found something that works better for me. The brain exhibits specific brainwave patterns during different activities. Beta waves dominate when we are concentrating, Alpha when we are relaxing, and so forth. Delta waves are associated with deep sleep. The brain will produce more delta waves when exposed to external stimuli that are operating on that frequency (typically light or sound). There are hundreds of recordings with all kinds of brainwaves embedded in the music or nature sounds. Isochronic tones (a fancy, cool-sounding word that just means the duration of the sound is equal to the duration of the space between the sounds) are the ones to use, as other kinds require headphones. Check out isochronic delta on Amazon or iTunes, and give it a shot. I am a believer. Caveat: we know with some certainty that listening to delta wave sounds increases delta activity in the brain. While there is a clear CORRELATION between sleep and delta activity in the brain, we don’t know that inducing delta wave activity CAUSES better sleep, or just causes something that happens to be a symptom of deep sleep.

    HeadDoc wrote on November 7th, 2013
  16. I’ve been living in New York for a year now, and have been ignoring the fact that I have not been sleeping in darkness: something that I had always insisted on. There is a building in front of my building with an office floor which never ever turns off its bright neon lights and has no blinds.
    It took its toll on me: mood, appetite and overall experience… I finally got blinds a couple of days ago (my brain has been so foggy it took me this long to realize what the problem was) and it’s much improved now, though light is still seeping from the sides!
    I hope someone learns from my experience especially if they live in a similar environment. I am dreaming of going somewhere where I can be barefoot in the sand and enjoy natural darkness, as was meant to be…

    Ro wrote on November 7th, 2013
  17. You have no mention of temperature? Isn’t 64-68 degrees Fahrenheit the recommended sleeeping temp? Or is temp not really important and just go with a temp your normally comfortable with?

    Marc J wrote on November 7th, 2013
  18. Please explain the physiology behind your thought on decreased amts of sodium lead to high blood pressure…it seems as though renal output increases when sodium intake increases because your body needs to lower MAP by lower ECF volume…so how do low sodium levels increase BP???

    pokey wrote on November 7th, 2013
  19. What type of high GI carb meals should someone who has chronic insomnia eat for dinner?

    barb wrote on November 7th, 2013
  20. You don’t have to ruin clocks or other light displays by covering them with duct tape. Black felt, available at any craft or fabric store, covers light displays effectively for cheap, and you only need a small piece of tape to hold it in place, or none at all if you drape felt over the item.

    Sara wrote on November 7th, 2013
  21. Thanks Mark

    Amber wrote on November 8th, 2013
  22. All good stuff!! Not sure there is science to it but chewing some liquorice root after dinner helps me – perhaps the non-caffeinated metabolism boosting effect it can have!

    Luke M-Davies wrote on November 11th, 2013
  23. What about during and after menopause? My mom had GREAT sleeps before she went into menopause and now she never gets a good night sleep.

    I want to add that drinking a tbsp of apple cider vinegar with a pinch of baking soda before bed has helped me huge with my sleeping. Something to do with regulating PH levels I read.

    And also finding out if you have any underlying medical problems or nutritional deficiencies. I have anemia and when I’m not careful with my diet and slack on my iron supps my sleep goes to 0. For myself, I need my ferritin levels to be at least over 50-yet my doctor thinks 30 is ‘normal’. Sends me home with chunks of hair falling out of my head and no sleep. So look into that stuff too.

    Heather wrote on November 11th, 2013
  24. This is all awesome and all, but what about those of us who have babies/young children who are frequent nightwakers? We co sleep so it’s less disruptive that it could be, but babies have a 45 minute sleep phase for a loooong time (and even older children still need the comfort of parents in the night at varying intervals) and I’ve had four of them in the last seven years – more than an hour’s uninterrupted sleep is a distant dream right now. Is there anything I can do to mitigate the effects of unavoidable interrupted sleep?

    Katie wrote on November 12th, 2013
  25. A bit point I didn’t see listed was getting to bed before 10pm (or 11pm during Daylight Savings Time). I’ve read evidence — and have found it to be true myself — that if you are still awake after 10pm you body goes into a “second wind” which lasts until about 2am. In general, the earlier to bed, the better the sleep. One study showed that every hour of sleep before 12am is worth 2 hours of sleep after 12am. Makes sense, if you consider we evolved prior to artificial light.

    John C. A. Manley wrote on November 12th, 2013
  26. When I was a little gril, my grandfather an i would drink hot JELL-O at night. It almost scares me though ,becuz of the dye.

    Hydie Johnson wrote on November 22nd, 2013
  27. What do I do if I wear a blindfold? A dawn simulator wouldn’t exactly work very well, but I can’t concentrate on falling asleep unless I’m wearing the blindfold. Interesting tidbit about the magnesium oil – will have to try it since I’m usually out – then up – without any notable dreams.

    D. Arro wrote on January 14th, 2014
  28. Yikes…so did *not* know that about caffeine’s half life. Gonna stop drinking my mid-afternoon espresso.

    Susan wrote on June 1st, 2014
  29. Does it matter how late you got to bed like 1:00 AM BUT getting a good 7 to 9 hours of deep sleep ?

    sootedninjas wrote on September 3rd, 2014

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