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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 04 2018

Does “Sleep Hacking” Work?

By Mark Sisson
35 Comments

You can “hack” a lot of your health, diet, and lifestyle. You can cook the entire week’s meals ahead of time, buy high-quality prepackaged foods and ready-to-cook meals, cover your nutritional bases with smart supplementation. You can condense your training time by choosing the right exercises and upping the intensity to a sufficient level. You can fast-track your stamina in a fraction of the time with sprints and intervals.

But you can’t hack sleep. There are no shortcuts to sleep. You can’t escape the need for 7-8 hours (perhaps 4-5 if you’re genetically gifted). The human body needs those hours. The human brain needs those hours to pick up trash and clean up around the cranium. And it needs to arrive at them naturally.

Yet, we try to hack it just the same, with terrible results.

Sleeping pills? They’ll knock you out, but throw off your sleep architecture while inducing a ton of nasty side effects.

What about polyphasic sleep—taking a bunch of micronaps throughout the day in lieu of a single block of sleep? Maybe during crunch time you could use it for a short period of time to meet some serious deadlines and command a greater proportion of the day without falling to pieces, but it’s not a sustainable long-term strategy.

Caffeine and prescription stimulants can certainly reduce the performance deficits caused by inadequate sleep, but for how long? And they don’t replace all the important processes—neurological housecleaning, memory retention, tissue repair, muscle growth, workout recovery, to name a few—that occur during adequate sleep.

Sleep hacking doesn’t work without the actual sleep. You can’t hack the amount of sleep you need.

You can, however, hack the timing, quality, and positive effects of your sleep.

General Sleep Strategies

Stop Wasting Time

Why do most people fail to get to bed on time? There’s too much to do, see, read, and watch. Something just happened in the world, and you need to find out about it right away. It can’t wait ’til tomorrow, because tomorrow will bring its own set of happenings. Eliminating the fluff, the useless extracurriculars that impede you in getting to bed. In other words, getting out of your own way is the biggest sleep “hack” you can make.

If that means getting all your work done before dark and turning off your phone at night, so be it. Let this be a strong kick in the pants to motivate you toward more efficiency and less wasted time during the day.

Work Brain and Body

Physical exertion—workouts, hiking, long walks, gardening, playing sports, sex—during the day improves sleep. So does cognitive exertion.

You’ll sleep better after a big day full of hard work and small wins. You won’t have that voice in the back of your mind scolding you for failing to achieve anything, even if that “anything” is a long hike, a few chapters in a hard book, working hard on a complex problem in your job, or cleaning the kitchen. Testing the capacities of the entire organism makes the organism rest easy. Just think how kids come after a couple hours of learning some new physical skill—mental and physical exertion—and totally crash.

Quiet the Mental Chatter

People are finding it harder and harder to be alone with their thoughts. Why would they, when their pockets and purses contain the single most effective attention-grabber of all time? It’s easy to escape. But in bed, when it’s just you and the inky blackness slowly enveloping you, there’s nothing but thought. The worrying, the ruminating, the regretting, the wondering, the mental pacing will keep you up.

Learn how to manage the chatter with meditation (or an alternate method).

Eat Enough Food

One of the most common, yet rarely identified, causes of poor sleep is chronic calorie restriction. That puts us into a stressful state dripping with cortisol, the enemy of good sleep. Make sure you’re eating enough.

Those are a few general ideas. Now, what are some specific ways to optimize your morning, noon, and night to improve sleep?

Specialized Tips For Sleep Optimization

Use a Dawn Simulator Alarm Clock

The next best thing to the sun, 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

You may think you’re effectively chipping away at sleep debt with those little bits and pieces of “snooze,” 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.

Expose Yourself To Bright Light For At Least Half an Hour In the Morning

Ideally, this is the sun. Even a cloudy day is far brighter than anything you’ll see indoors. If you can’t make it outside due to weather, try this lamp. 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. Try to get more light during the day, as much as you can.

Before “The Day” Starts, 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 sexdance 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.

Have Your Caffeine (If You Do Caffeine)

Caffeine has a half life of up to six hours, so having that Americano after lunch could disrupt your sleep tonight.

Eat Animal Protein For Breakfast

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, especially paired with morning light exposure. Eating breakfast in general “activates” your circadian rhythm, making it more likely that you’ll get to bed on time. People who skip breakfast tend to stay up later and get worse sleep, although intermittent fasting can also improve sleep.

Try Meditation

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.

Go For a Barefoot Stroll

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.

Reduce or Eliminate Electronics Usage After Dark

Electronics—phones, TVs, laptops, tables—emit significant amounts of blue light, whose wavelength has the strongest inhibitory effect on melatonin production. Melatonin is the neurotransmitter that kickstarts the sleep process. It lowers body temperature, reduces alertness, gets you feeling sleepy, and makes the bed sound all the more inviting. When we glance at our phones, watch TV at 10 PM, or even curl up with our Kindle, we are getting a strong dose of blue light, inhibiting the production of melatonin, and pushing bedtime that much farther back.

If you have/want to use electronics, wear a pair of blue blocking goggles. Things will look funny (including you) due to the color change, but you’ll be saved from most of the melatonin-blocking blue light. Less expensive but dorky looking option. More expensive but better looking option.

Favor Warm, Dim Lights

Many of the newest artificial lights produce a ton of blue light. Keep things soft and warm—more toward the orange and red side of things. Here’s a good one.

Read Fiction In Bed

If you’re on an eBook reader, dim the screen as much as you can tolerate and wear your blue-blocking safety goggles. If you’re reading a paper book, use a soft, warm, preferably red reading light. Or a candle.

I find fiction perfect for bed. If I want to fall asleep quickly, I’ll pick up something dense that requires close reading. Blood Meridian, Shakespeare, stuff like that. If I want to actually read for more than five minutes, I’ll pick up something snappier. Philip K. Dick short stories, Elmore Leonard novels, Paul Theroux stuff.

Keep Your Goggles Handy

There’s nothing worse than stumbling bleary-eyed into the bathroom at 3 A.M., turning on the bright light, and never falling asleep again.

So, what if you’re not gonna sleep anytime soon? Or you’re facing a poor night’s sleep? There are some good sleep hacks for that.

And Tactics For the Sleep Deprived…

Do a Quick, Hard Interval or Sprint Workout At Night

Sleep loss famously causes insulin resistance the next day (that’s why chronic bad sleep is linked to diabetes). A hard interval training session the night before a bout of bad sleep, however, ameliorates that insulin resistance.

Drink Coffee

Stimulants are a good next-day bandaid. They don’t fix the problem—and can even make it worse if you continue using it as a crutch to justify protracted bouts of poor sleep—but they improve your performance and restore a bit of normalcy.

Avoid All-Nighters, But If You Have to Pull One, Embrace It

If it is crunch time and you have to get something done, and sleep isn’t an option, go all in. Don’t fight it. Don’t lament the injustice of your situation (chances are, you created it). Just do it, get the work done, and get good sleep after. A single night of sleep deprivation is remarkably anti-depressant. That suggests a hormetic effect (a stressor that makes you stronger). I’m talking one night every month or two where you have absolutely no choice. That does not refer to a night spent watching Seinfeld reruns, or pulling all-nighters every week.

Finally, to close, let’s put it all together in a hypothetical day…

You wake up at the same time you woke up the previous few months. Because your circadian rhythm is rock-solid, you don’t need an alarm. You make coffee (or tea) and breakfast—steak and eggs, maybe some melon—and go outside without any shoes on. You stand in the damp grass, making sure to get a real connection between your bare feet and the natural ground, and do some light movement to get the blood flowing. You have a hard workout coming up later, or else you might go a bit harder. You eat your food and drink your coffee (or just drink coffee if you’re skipping breakfast) while enjoying the light. If the weather’s bad, you eat indoors with your 10,000 lux full spectrum light pointed at you.

After the requisite half hour of light exposure, you start your day. A short commute gets you to work, where you immediately launch into the day’s tasks. You’d rather not procrastinate and have to deal with your tasks later or, even worse, toss and turn in bed poring over all the things you neglected and must address. No, it’s much better to just get moving.

Before lunch, you squeeze in a workout. Barbell lunges, Romanian deadlifts, pullups, and weighted pushups, followed by a few sprinting rounds on the rower. This workout leaves you feeling quite ragged, so you make sure to eat a serving of fruit and upgrade to a Really Big Ass Salad with an extra burger patty on top to replenish glycogen, hit your protein requirements, and provide enough calories. You don’t want to head into bedtime with a large caloric deficit and muscles screaming for protein; that would be terrible for sleep quality.

After lunch, you continue working, feeling very productive. The workout has energized you mentally. It’s quite warm and sunny out, so you take your laptop outside and continue killing it with a little extra sun. You feel an additional burst of energy. Thinking back to the study where artificial blue lights were found to increase daytime alertness and work output in office employees, you reckon natural afternoon sunlight has a similar effect. You’re able to wrap up a project you thought would take at least until next week.

You leave work feeling content with your day. You got everything you needed to get done and had a great workout. Nothing else is “required” of you. The rest of the night is yours to do with as you wish. The commute home is pleasant, despite taking longer than usual. You spend the extra 20 minutes on the road practicing mindfulness meditation, and it really seems to help you deal with the otherwise rude drivers. Hopefully, this “traffic meditation” has similarly beneficial effects on sleep quality as normal meditation.

As soon as the sun begins to dip below the horizon, you turn on the warm, dim lights or light some candles. This signals to your circadian clock that nighttime’s approaching and it’s almost time to start pumping out the melatonin.

Dinner is fairly light. You don’t want to overdo it right before bed. You do eat a bit of the sweet potatoes your partner prepared, since they look good and you take this to mean your body could use a few extra carbs. Carbs at night tend to improve sleep rather than hurt it, as long as you actually have a reason to eat them (your hard workout).

Your partner wants to watch an episode of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. This has become a nightly routine of sorts, a signal to your body that it’s almost bedtime. To reduce the negative effects of blue light on melatonin production while being able to watch one of your favorite shows, you both throw on some orange safety goggles to block most of the blue light coming off the TV. You sip on some bone broth and your partner takes some collagen. Each provide the glycine you need to improve sleep quality. You each yawn several times, a good indication that the goggles are doing the trick.

Just before bed, you realize you’re a little thirsty, but the cold water’s in the fridge. You slip the goggles back on before opening the fridge. A flood of blue light escapes, searching for exposed retinas to invade. It finds none, and your circadian clock goes on thinking it’s still nighttime. Phew.

Your phone buzzes. Apple News has sent you an alert; “something” happened. Someone said something outrageous. Someone is offended. You’re tempted, but in the end you turn your phone to airplane mode and continue with your bedtime routine. it’s not worth it. It’s not important.

Something still feels “off.” You eat a small spoon of raw local wildflower honey to make sure you have enough liver glycogen to get you through the night without a wakeup; after all, that workout was pretty damn intense.

Now it’s time for bed. You grab your Kindle and your partner grabs a book. You keep the goggles on to deal with the blue light emitted by the reader; your partner flips on a red reading light beside the bed, as red has no effect on melatonin.

You don’t quite remember falling asleep. All you know is suddenly the room is filled with morning sunlight, you’re wide awake, and the world is ready to be conquered.

That’s it for today, folks. These may not have been the sleep hacks you wanted, but they’re the sleep hacks that actually work. Take care and be sure to leave any questions, comments, or your own personal sleep hacks down below!

TAGS:  mental health

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35 thoughts on “Does “Sleep Hacking” Work?”

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  1. Get some adrenaline and some extra cortisol in the form of a potent Adrenal Glandular if you pull an all-nighter (or if you have adrenal dysfunction). I’m tell’n ya, this stuff really works!

    Mark couldn’t be more right, in my experience, about not eating enough calories… every time I do a 5-day water only fast, my sleep goes to hell by day 2. This is why I spend a full 10 hours in bed when I’m fasting… it’s not perfect, but it sure helps!

    Thanks for another great article.

  2. What do you do when you have to get up well before daylight?

    1. On the contrary! Excess energy intake is associated with poor sleep:

      Chaput, J. P. (2014). Sleep patterns, diet quality and energy balance. Physiology & behavior, 134, 86-91.

    2. And what do you do if you have to go to sleep well before it’s dark (for instance because of too many daylight hours)?

      1. Get a blackout blind! I’ve just bought one from Amazon, it’s the sort that’s aimed at parents of small children, it just sticks to the window with suckers. I already had blackout curtains but they let a lot of light in round the edges; the combination of the two makes the room dark even in the middle of day. I put it up last night and today was the first day in ages I didn’t wake up at sunrise!

    3. I need to be at work at my desk by 4am clocked and working. I have a day mid week that I sleep when I get home @ 2:30pm ish. I’m groggy after the nap but I think it helps.

  3. So is my One Meal a Day routine disrupting my sleep? I’m not doing it for weight-loss, just convenience, so no (deliberate) calorie deficit. I try to have it right after work, around 6-8 PM.
    Both CW and the info here seem to advise against it, don’t you think?

    1. Hi Axel, I am not sure this info is advising against a single meal a day, but since you can be keto due to an ideal fasting length of 20+ hours, you may find, as I have, especially if you’re pretty active like me, that you do great when not restricting carbs too low and even better when also doing a few weekly carb-up days.

      Check out High intensity health interview with Dr. Stasha Gominak on the importance of keto, gut microbe health, vitamins D and B complex for optimal sleep:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74F22bjBmqE

      FYI: I’ve been following cyclic keto one meal a day plan for over a year (transitioned from IF with ~6 hour feeding window to about ~ 2 – 4 hour feeding window) and so far sleep has been the best since I can remember! But this one meal is basically a daily feast, often taking over an hour of steady chewing and typically more time to conclude comfortably. I eat a lot of healthy fats and don’t restrict carbs super low – getting ~ 50 – 80 g gross (including lots of fibrous veggies and nuts), most days. I have also concurrently been biking 10 miles/day and running ~ 8 miles/day along with 2 weekly HIIT power lifting or sprint interval sessions.

      1. Thanks for sharing your experience and for the interesting resource. It’s summer here, but I’ll probably supplement on vitamin D on the days I barely get out.

  4. I can’t say that enough good things about my light alarm clock! If you regularly have to get up before sunrise (which I do for most of fall, winter, and spring), it makes a tremendous difference in my physical and mental health. I’ve been using one for several years and will never go back.

  5. “When You Wake Up, Get Up” have me stressing about how someone can do that. Is it some magical trick that makes you less likely to wake up too early the next day because you are exhausted?

  6. One thing not addressed is waking in the middle of the night and not getting back to sleep. It is a problem that seems to get worse the older you are.

    The best hack I’ve found for that is to throw back the covers until you are actually chilled and uncomfortable. Then cover back up, roll over, and more often than not you’ll be back to sleep in less than a minute.

    1. This is a problem with me, wake up some time between 11 PM and 3 AM…… so if my mind begins the endless loop of stuff that doesn’t matter during the day but seems to be ultra important during those hours….. I put on the blue blockers, turn on the TV to a boring show with no plot (shopping, HGTV, infomercials, etc) and I’m out in a minute. Also, I turn the sound on to roughly my spouse’s snoring but not loud enough to understand the words….. I’m out….. at least this works for now.

  7. Further trick, if you learn\practice Ainslie Meares’ method of meditation then there is a way to apply that so you get some sleep. Sleep is ordinarily not a problem for a person practicing this style of meditation – unless a tooth ache, noisy neighbours, a sick spouse or child are involved. However, you can use Meares’ “sleep trick” and still get some rest.
    You learn to relax the body, relax the mind so deeply that you are conscious but the mind becomes still. To stay awake you do this in very slight discomfort – discomfort is scalable and so later on you can progressily and incrementally increase that for other reasons. Here, the point is that if you relax in the way of Meares meditation then you will inevitably fall asleep if you are in a comfortable situation. How do you relax? No mantras, no chanting, no candle gazing, no need for visualisation or looking at natural sights etc. You learn how to have this simple natural experience. cheers. OB

  8. A couple of extra thoughts and tools for the sleep-deprived or sleep-disrupted (in no particular order):

    1) A dimmer in the bathroom works wonders for keeping the eyes sleep-adjusted in the middle of the night.

    2) One of the “Sleep Stories” from the Calm app or the “Getting Back to Sleep” meditation from the Headspace app are great at helping re-initiate sleep.

    3) Binaural rhythms can also help entrain the brain back towards sleep. There’s a bunch of them available for free with the Amazon Prime membership,

    4) A progressive muscle relaxation exercise will also help relax the body back into sleep.

    5) Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breath is also a great way to relax the mind and body in a hurry. There’s a free instructional video on how to do it on his website and also on YouTube.

    Happy z’s all!

    1. I had never heard of the 4-7-8 breathing method but just looked it up and watched Dr. Weil’s video and it is very intriguing to me. Just out of curiosity, what has been your experience with that? Have you found benefits from it? I personally struggle with anxiety, sometimes sleeping problems.

  9. Hello, my question/comment is around shift work. I work 12 hours, 5 days day shifts, 5 days off, the 5 night shifts. I do this over and over and over. When I work I can only squeak out 4 to 5 hrs and on nights that starts at 6 am. I ask because there is a whole large portion of this country that lives this way and really can change without major consequences!

    1. some thoughts on surviving nightshifts:

      1. try to get to bed as soon as possible after nightshift. 1 or 2 hours before sleep, put on blue-blocking shades (goggles are best to avoid bright light coming in the edges) and wear a hat/hood to just dim the intensity.

      2. take supplementary melatonin on those day-sleeps (as otherwise apparently it won’t be released during day

      3. use a mask+earplugs and/or make your sleep room as dark & quiet as possible

    2. Also, can you wear sunglasses during the last couple of hours of your shift if you can’t wear goggles to help block out the light?

  10. Taking a good sleep is much more important than taking healthy diets. If you are not taking proper sleep then you have to face serious problems in future. Your post describes very well sleeping hacks. Thanks for sharing a valuable post.

    1. With all due respect, sleep is not ‘more’ important than a healthy diet, but it is just as important. Both must be done equally well, including stress reduction and sleep hygiene habits in general. Take care..

  11. Probably the best sleep article I have read in a very long time, and right when I needed it. Thanks, Mark!

  12. Adding my suggestion for the hypothetical day (while at work)

    go to the gym at work and do an extensive foam roller session of 40 minutes. If you don’t have 40 minutes settle for 39, and if you are going to skip the session just do 10 minutes

  13. So many great ideas here. I have a work schedule that is not ideal for sleep, but do the best I can. Morning daylight is so important and I get it every day walking my dog. The orange goggles work when I remember to wear them at night. I have trained myself not to jump if my phone makes a noise…I don’t have to respond to everything immediately (or at all) Now that I have stopped scrolling thru social media before I go to sleep (which was turning into a huge time waster) I pick something to focus on as I fall asleep. Sometimes it’s just listing things I’m grateful for (in my head), sometimes thinking about all the small wins during the day, or sometimes visualizing my ideal day/life…because you need to be clear on what it is in order to get there!

  14. After entering menopause although I had no trouble falling asleep, I had trouble staying asleep. Discovered by accident that half a Zyrtec taken about 3 hr before bedtime pretty much solved that problem. I originally took it before bedtime trying to help allergy symptoms during the night. Cut dose in half after getting “hangover” from it in the mornings. Realized after a few days of this I wasn’t waking up during the night any more or if I did wake up, I had no trouble falling back asleep. Been taking it over 5 years with no apparent ill effects and the only side-effect I noticed is that it seems to cause more vivid dreams on some nights (but never night mares). Walmart generic brand works just as well.

    1. I am so going to try this – thank-you.
      Since menopause arrived about 5 years ago, getting to sleep is not a problem, but I wake up every 2 to 3 hours all night.
      And one of the things that always wakes me up is a blocked nose from allergies and sinus problems – I sometimes wake up flailing as my body decides it’d really like to breathe again soon!
      I’ll report back if I have some success.

  15. Ha ha ha. I have always enjoyed Mark’s “typical day”. For the 90% of us who unfortunately don’t live in Malibu and write columns at home for a living before having an afternoon surf, these are funny. I will let my boss know in the middle of our morning group meeting that I have to nip out for a quick kettleball workout.

  16. Ah ha ha. Sorry you lost me with “your night is yours”. I’ve got elementary school kids.

    But otherwise spot on. Husband bought me “Why we Sleep” book by Matthew walker. Very useful info in there.

  17. “There’s some evidence (albeit uneven) that morning activity can improve sleep later on that night.”

    Interestingly, during my experiment with morning workouts, I found that although they help me feel great during the day, I can’t fall asleep at night if I work out in the morning. Mind you, that was a full-on workout, not a stroll around the block. And I’m genetically a night person to begin with.

  18. To quiet my mind at night while laying in bed, I listen to audiobooks of novels that are imaginative and take me to a dream like state. Most nights I fall asleep before the 15 min sleep timer goes off.