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