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.” 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.
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.
If you’re one of the millions of people in this world who need to improve their sleep, read on for some tips.
Fix Your Light Environment
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.
Sleep in a Dark Room
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.
Read Before Bed
Instead of reaching for the laptop or the remote, why not grab a book? For one, a book doesn’t give off blue light that suppresses 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.
Embrace Candlelit Dinners
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.
Switch to Amber Lights
Many of the newest LED lights produce a ton of blue light. Keep things soft and warm—more toward the orange and red side of things—by using incandescent bulbs or lights that emit little to no blue light at all. These amber book lights are great for reading.
Get Some Exposure to Natural Light in the Morning and During the Day
When you get up in the morning, head outside and greet the day. Ideally, this is the sun, but 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.1 Try to get more light during the day, as much as you can.
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.
Wear Blue Blocking Goggles When You Do Use Electronics After Dark
Wearing glasses that block blue light from hitting your eyes after dark can improve sleep onset and quality. These blue blocking googles are probably my favorite brand.
Engage Red Mode on Your Smartphone After Dark
Red mode blocks almost all blue light from your screen and makes it easier for your circadian rhythm to get aligned with the environment. Here’s how to do it on an iPhone.
Get Your Leptin in Order
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.
If You Eat Breakfast, Make It Animal Protein-Rich
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.2 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.34
Check Your Thiamine Intake
Thiamine, found in meat, especially pork and animal offal, has a big effect on sleep patterns: a deficiency can lead to poor sleep.5 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.
Eat or Take Taurine
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.6 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.
Take Magnesium (and/or Zinc)
ZMA is a popular supplement combining zinc and magnesium for workout recovery and sleep improvement. 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” like magnesium glycinate. T0pical magnesium chloride oil can also help before bed.
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 and, most importantly, align your circadian rhythm. Less is more with this stuff, and it’s not a final fix, but it can help you get your clock in order. Just stick to small doses, about 0.3 mg to 1 mg to start, and use it to support (not replace) healthy sleep and light hygiene.
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. Back in Malibu, our favorite way to prepare for bed was skinny dipping in our unheated pool at night. This brought the body temp down and got us ready for sleep. Try making your environment cooler and/or making your body cooler.
Research shows that grounding yourself—connecting to the Earth—while you sleep can improve sleep quality, reduce cortisol, and help you establish a better 24-hour biological rhythm.7 Although many people consider grounding to be controversial, 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 and I’m quite confident it helps.
Try Esther Gokhale’s “Long Lying”
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.
Get a Massage or Foam Roll Yourself
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.
Have a Sleep Routine
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.
Fix Your Stress
Duh. This is more important than you may thing. Here are some of the best ways to start fighting stress.
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!
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.