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

How to Wake Up and Feel Alert

Have you defeated the fearsome sleep beast that plagues so many of your countrymen?

You might think you have – after all, you installed blackout curtains in the bedroom, disconnected every LED-light before hitting the sack, peer through slitted eyes at a F.lux-altered computer screen, get seven to nine hours a night, and make getting to bed early a priority – but if you’re still waking up groggy, foggy-headed, and in desperate, immediate need of a caffeine infusion… is the beast really slain or has it merely assumed another form? You could even be displaying zero outward signs of sleep deprivation, like insulin resistance, fat gain, or a zombie-like disposition at midday, instead continuing to lean out and enjoy steady energy throughout the workday (once you snap out of the morning doldrums), but that waking grogginess cannot be ignored. It’s annoying and it’s ruining what should be a serene moment of quiet energy before the madness of the day descends. You don’t want to be stumbling through the kitchen for the coffee maker; you want to spring out of bed and greet the morning like the dear old friend it should be.

Okay, so how do you do it? How do you really defeat the sleep beast once and for all?

Self-experiment. Shift some things around, do something differently, and note the effects. I’ll give you some leads, but first, try some Seth Roberts sleep hacks.

Seth is great. I’ve discussed him before, he’ll be speaking at the upcoming Ancestral Health Symposium, and he’s connected with many of your favorite paleo and Primal bloggers. Seth is also big into self-experimentation. And I don’t mean trying things and subjectively assessing their impact. Seth goes all in and quantitatively tracks the impact of a change. Stats, graphs, logs, the whole nine. Years ago, Seth had sleep quality issues. Wasn’t getting enough and the sleep he was getting wasn’t great. He noticed that different variables seemed to improve and/or worsen his sleep, so he got to figuring out exactly how each worked.

Intermittently standing on one leg to exhaustion.

In 1996, Seth noticed that standing up while working, reading, writing, or studying worked well and improved his sleep, but it wasn’t practical. He couldn’t stand for eight hours a day comfortably and still get all his work done. Then, in 2008, he wondered if standing on one leg instead of two would condense the effect and require less time to enact it. It did. Standing on a leg to exhaustion once or twice a day led to more restfulness upon waking the next day. Three times a day was better than one or two, and four was better than three. He eventually settled on three daily sets of two – each leg to exhaustion three times per day with four hours in between sets. When his legs got too strong to reach exhaustion, he upped the ante by slightly bending his knee and “bobbing” up and down. Doing this improved his “sleep efficiency”; he didn’t necessarily sleep any longer or earlier, but he always awoke refreshed, indicating that he was sleeping better in the same amount of time.

Try standing on one leg to exhaustion several times each day. It’s goofy looking, sure, but so are those Vibrams. Who cares?

Skipping breakfast.

Seth also found that he was waking up earlier than he preferred, leading to groggy mornings and less wakefulness during the day. On a friend’s recommendation, he added fruit to his breakfast, which made the problem worse. He removed the fruit and added protein, which was better than fruit but not good enough. Finally, to go back to square one and systematically isolate variables, he stopped eating breakfast altogether. This was the “control.” His goal was to add things in and note their effect without outside noise, but the control setting solved his problem. He began waking up at a normal time feeling extremely refreshed, probably because he was no longer entraining anticipatory behavior in himself. When he ate an early breakfast, he was training himself to wake up in anticipation of feeding. Stopping breakfast solved this. Now, you may not think you’re waking up early, but you may be waking up earlier than is optimum for your body because of anticipated feeding.

Try intermittent fasting instead of eating a daily breakfast. Maybe skip breakfast altogether, or, if you love bacon and eggs as much as I do, push breakfast back to 11:00 (which is when Seth broke his fast).

Eating more animal fat.

Now, I don’t think this one will be a hard sell with the PB crowd, but I’m always happy to tell you to eat more animal fat. After Seth started working his way through a pork belly (which is uncured bacon, essentially, and mostly pork fat) that’d been sitting in his freezer, he immediately slept better. As in, the day after his first pork belly meal, he slept better. This effect persisted.

If you’re still scared of animal fat, don’t be. Don’t shy away from the fattier cuts of meat.

Those are one man’s experiments with sleep, albeit one man with a fair number of readers, many of whom have corroborated his findings. But still – they may not work for you. They certainly won’t hurt, however, so give ’em a shot.

What about some other potential ideas that you may be missing? Well, a few months back I gave you 17 concrete tips to improve your sleep. Go over those, make sure you’ve got them dialed in, and then proceed:

Daytime light.

Don’t just avoid or limit nighttime light exposure, which you’re probably a master at; maximize daytime light exposure as well. It’s easy enough to lower the lights, put on some candles, and install light dampening apps on your laptop, but it’s not always easy to actually get outside during the day and get natural light exposure when you need it. Because it’s true: you need it – at the right times – to maintain proper circadian rhythm.

Go outside right when you wake up. Even if it’s overcast and gray, you’re still getting exposed to natural light. It’s a great way to wake up in the immediate sense, and it ensures your circadian rhythm is on point for the future.

Keep an eating schedule.

Just like eating an early breakfast entrained Seth Roberts to awaken early, eating your other meals at roughly set times might also entrain stable sleeping patterns. Wild variations in eating schedules could be sending your body a confusing message about when to expect bedtime. While I’m not big on eating schedules in general (eat when you’re hungry and don’t when you’re not), if you are waking up groggy this might help.

I don’t think it’s all that important how your schedule is constructed. Just have one.

Eat an earlier dinner.

Maybe all those grandmas and grandpas who wake up at the crack of dawn and eat dinner at four PM know something we don’t. I’m not saying you should sit down for a roast just after noon, but it might be worth eating a little earlier than usual – especially if you’re having trouble with morning grogginess. Melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” is blunted with feeding.

Eat no later than two hours before bed.

Stop caffeine.

I know, I know, it’s sacrilege. Caffeine comes in many delicious packages. It is king. But maybe it’s also affecting the quality of your sleep. We’ve all heard of the people who can’t have a sip of coffee without it preventing them from getting to sleep later that night. What if caffeine isn’t affecting your ability to knock off, but it is reducing the quality, or efficiency, of the sleep you get? It’s certainly worth a (decaf espresso) shot, right?

If you’re a cup-a-day drinker, avoid coffee for a week altogether. If you’re more of the pot-a-day kinda drinker, reduce your daily intake to a cup (I hear caffeine withdrawal headaches are nasty things). The key is to drastically reduce your caffeine intake from present levels.

Eat gelatin.

Animals have traditionally been consumed nose to tail, including all the gelatinous connective tissue that most modern meat eaters trim and toss. Real bone broths are another lost dietary component, replaced by canned “stock” and bouillon cubes. Both are rich sources of gelatin. To whit, most modern eaters don’t get enough gelatin, and modern PB eaters who focus on muscle meats, veggies, and eggs to the exclusion of bone broths and bone-in cuts might be missing out, too. According to Ray Peat, gelatin helps with sleep (of course, he also insists sugar is a prime energy source…) by supplying certain amino acids, like glycine, which are relatively rare in muscle meat. Even if he’s wrong, broth is worth working into your diet.

Incorporate real bone broth into your cooking on a regular basis. Get into the habit of making stock every week. Freeze in ice cube trays. Stock cubes are easy to add to veggies, soups, sauces, or even just alone in a mug. Powdered gelatin also works; this brand is from pastured cattle.

Reading fiction.

Rather than “limit electronics” before bed, eliminate them and read yourself some fiction to sleep instead. Even with F.lux engaged, I’m unconvinced the late-night blog reader is completely in the clear. The smooth, inert pages of a real life novel you can hold in your hand, though? It’s a potent sleep aid. I’m not exactly sure why it works so well. Maybe fiction is similar enough to dreaming that you get halfway there just by opening the book. Maybe immersing oneself in a fictional world takes more mental exertion than reading and understanding nonfiction, and it just tires you out faster. Whatever the mechanism, it’s worth pursuing.

Read some fiction before bed. Ebook readers that use e-ink should work about as well as regular books.

Nearly everything we do has an effect on some seemingly far-flung physiological process. It might be slight, but it’s there. The key, then, is to try lots of different things one by one (so you can deduce cause and effect), note the response, internalize it, and move on to the next one. It may be that caffeine doesn’t affect you, but a lack of morning light does. It may be that skipping breakfast by itself isn’t enough, but standing on one leg and skipping breakfast are sufficient (that does sound odd, doesn’t it?). The cool thing about all these tips is that they are completely safe. Experimenting with any or all of them is not going to put you in harm’s way. Heck, I bet some of you have already been thinking about drinking more bone broth, standing up to work, getting more sunlight during the day, and giving up caffeine without morning grogginess as the impetus. Overall, these are just healthy, net-beneficial practices to incorporate – all the more worth trying if you’re having trouble getting up in the morning.

Now it’s your turn. Give these a shot if you’re having sleep issues, and let us know what’s worked for you if you’ve already slain the beast. Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear from you in the comment section!

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. All these ideas to get to sleep are great, but is there any specific advice on how to recover from a night when you don’t get enough sleep? If I miss an hour or two, my energy is completely shot and my muscles feel like they’ve shrunk overnight!

    John wrote on June 29th, 2013
  2. I recently moved and it is becoming increasingly difficult to wake up in the mornings. And when I do finally get out of bed, I am groggy for hours. After reading this article & comments, I think I found the culprit – chickens! I had chickens at my last place and they helped start my day in 2 ways. 1) the morning clucking was a gentle & gradual alarm and 2) I had to go outside every morning to check on their food & collect eggs. Since I cannot have chickens at my new place, I think I will try a bird feeder outside my bedroom window and remind myself to take a few minutes outside before rushing off to work.

    Vanessa wrote on July 12th, 2013
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  4. A while back I was not happy at all with the quality or the quantity of sleep I was getting. I had changed my diet, was getting into a routine of exercise but my sleep was just awful. So as an experiment I decided to drop all caffeine for a while and see what happens. At that point I was what one might call a heavy coffee drinker – around 4-5 cups of black coffee a day (can’t help it, I love the smell and taste of it). The withdrawals were quite nasty as I jumped in and did it cold turkey (similar to my approach for everything else Primal). The effect it had on sleep was immediate and unbelievable. The first few days I was so tired I went to bed early and slept for 10 hours. I figured it was the withdrawals still and I kept at it. It’s been a few weeks and even though sometimes I still can’t get to sleep as early as I’d wish I wake up much much easier than ever before. I miss the taste and smell of coffee but I’m enjoying the sleep a lot more.

    Andreea wrote on November 1st, 2013

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