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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
F.lux is a free program that, when enabled on your computer, reduces blue light emissions.
Orange safety goggles may look silly, but they filter out blue light. Might be worth trying if nothing else is working.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!