Sleep: Hacked. How To Engineer A Deep, Easy Night’s Sleep
Sleep is right up there with eating and breathing and all the other ‘unavoidables’ that are caveated only by their quality. However poor air and low quality nutrition come in a lowly third on the priority list when it comes to premium, future proof health. Sleep is inevitable and compulsory and high quality sleep is critical.
A sleep primer: Why is it so important?
I’m not going to labour this as you only need Google the topic yourself to find a billion documents espousing the virtues of a good night’s kip (here’s my take on the subject last year with a must see video by Doctor Kirk Parsley), but here’s a quick summary of why it should be, not just on your agenda, but arguably on top of it:
Most of us are sleep deprived
Most of us are living with a sleep deficit; that is an inadequate quantity of restorative sleep for the purposes of recharging all of our biological systems. Without appropriate sleep we are depriving both our bodies AND minds of the time we have evolved to repair, refresh, reorder, grow and disease-proof our brains and bodies. Simply put, without the right amount of the right TYPE of sleep you’ll look rubbish, feel awful and perform poorly. On the flipside, if you can nail your sleep (quite literally as you’ll soon discover) you’ll look and feel like a million bucks, your relationships will benefit, you’ll keep your weight under control, lessen your chances of getting a multitude of serious diseases and perform like a tornado. You’ll survive a lot longer without food than you will without sleep – fact.
Why I wanted to hack sleep
With that in mind I want to run you through some the sleep bio-hacks that have worked for me. I’m exactly like you in that I’m a human and although our sleep requirements are unique to each of us (not unlike our precise nutritional requirements are subtly different depending on how our DNA stacks up) we all need the right amount of the right type of sleep to be at our best.
You’ll hear folks saying how they only need 3 hours of sleep a night from time to time and for those with enough time in their lives to facilitate a working polyphasic sleep schedule that might actually work for them. The jury’s out on whether that’s a sustainable lifestyle choice and what, if any, the long term effects of a sleep hack that relies on considerably less time than the typically prescribed 7-8 hours a night might induce.
For most of us polyphasic sleep is a tough trip with more than a little time, effort and patience required to nail it properly and I don’t know about you but I have 2 children so I KNOW how a few night in a row with just a few hours sleep can quickly cause my performance, mood and overall happiness to plummet. I’ve also gone through my fair share of insomnia episodes, nights when all I can do is think about how I’m not sleeping. If you’ve been there you’ll understand just how close to insanity that can feel.
How do you know if you’re getting enough meaningful sleep?
So with my bio-hacking head on I’ve often sought practical solutions to a sleep that makes me feel refreshed. My goal is a regular pattern of sleep that makes me feel refreshed when I wake up, ready to face the day with little or no desire to close my eyes and search for a few more minutes of shut eye. The simplest way to track the effectiveness of your sleeping habits is simply to wake up in the morning and ask yourself how you feel. If you feel great then it’s most probably working out, if you’re feeling cranky, woozy, bowling ball headed and so on, then not so much.
If you want to dig a little deeper (and I ALWAYS want to dig a little deeper) then you can do some sleep monitoring of your own. There are plenty of pretty reliable sleep tracking apps that you can get on a variety of platforms (iphone, android etc) along with various activity trackers with sleep tracking built in that, whilst not 100% sleep lab perfect, will allow you to build a picture of your typical sleeping patterns.
Not all sleep is created equal – Measuring & tracking
As you’re no doubt aware, sleep is broken down into a few core types; light sleep; the majority of your night’s sleep and the transitional state between REM and deep sleep. REM sleep is your brain taking care of itself, filing the information it’s collated during the day, strengthening memories and replenishing your feel-good hormones. This is when you dream (not that you’ll remember all of them). Finally, deep sleep is all about body repair; everything from muscle growth, tissue repair and boosting immunity happens in this phase. Essentially, every part of your sleep is critical and the phases work synergistically to make sure you look, feel and perform at your maximum.
Understanding how well you’re doing with these phases of sleep each night will give you massive insight into whether or not any sleep hacks you’re employing are having any positive (or negative) effect.
I use my Basis Peak watch for this. One of the reasons I went for this activity tracker over many of it’s competitors was it’s highly regarded ability to monitor sleep patterns in pretty good detail (along with it’s equally accurate heart rate monitor – my resting heart rate averages 54 bpm since you’re asking).
The graph below shows my sleep performance from last night (at the time of writing) and you can see how each type of sleep is broken down and displayed as a comparative to my averages so I can see how I’m getting on. This particular sleep performance is right where I want it with a great balance between the types of sleep I’m after and is the direct result of the sleep hacks I’ve been filtering. But remember, you don’t need to monitor your sleep in this much detail, the most effective measure will always be to check in with yourself when you wake up and simply track how good you feel, and how that good feeling progresses or washes out during the day (of course nutrition plays a huge role in how your energy levels play out during the whole day so don’t put it all down to sleep).
My Top Bio Hacks For Amazing Quality Sleep
You don’t need to look very hard to find an awful lot of sleep advice and a lot of it is absolutely correct. What I’ve done here is to distill what I’ve personally found to be most effective so you can take on sleep and win without too much effort. As with all these things, explore, play, monitor your progress and find out what works for you because we’re all sufficiently different enough that whilst core principles might commonly work, subtle nuances can make all the difference to the individual.
The world’s easiest and most effective sleep tweak
Before we get into the hacks proper, there is one little tweak you should aim for that might not sound like an easy win at first glance but I’d urge you to go for: No more caffeine after 2pm. I know this sound scary but you’ll cope. Caffeine stays in your system for a VERY long time and is absolutely not conducive to high quality sleep. If you care about your sleep then you should think about knocking it on the head as early in the afternoon as you can and if you’re an insomniac then this is an absolute must, before everything else.
1: Keep yourself in the dark
Light and dark, those two primal elements that are present at every waking AND sleeping moment of our lives in one form or another. It’s no wonder that we’ve evolved to respond to those differing forms in so many different ways. The bottom line is that the darkness instructs our brains to release sleepy time hormones, like melatonin, and these hormones (melatonin specifically) are responsible for how our circadian rhythms operate. Too much light, too late will stop you falling towards a natural and high quality sleep. And light disturbances during that sleep can wake you up or at the very least significantly alter the quality of any sleep you get.
You can go for amber reading light bulb, blue light blocking glasses, remove all the screens from your bedroom and invest in some solid black-out curtains or blinds – all of that will help, but the best way I’ve found to cover all your bases in one fell swoop is with a good quality sleep mask. I love my Bucky 40 Blinks sleep mask. OK, it looks a bit like a bra but it’s the only one I’ve found that doesn’t feel like it’s strapped to my eyeballs. It’s actually comfy. I don’t always where it all night, maybe just grab it from under my pillow in the early hours just before dawn starts firing it’s anti-sleep lasers at me. It works. It’s also very compact which means you can use it to hack travel and holiday sleep too.
Combine this with a couple of sponge ear plugs and you’re good to go. Barking dogs, snoring partners, kids crashing their way to the toilet and thunderstorms have been known to wreck a good night’s sleep. Even if you only use them occasionally, such as when it’s NOT your turn to get up to feed baby. Otherwise, don’t feel obliged to be aware of what’s going on around you throughout the night for security reasons; being a fully rested and happy parent outweighs the likelihood of any kind of nighttime emergency.
The sleep mask I use: 40 Blinks Navy Blue Sleep Mask
2: Magnesium before bed.
I love magnesium. It’s second in my 3 all time greatest salts (after Himalayan Sea Salt and before Epsom salt in my bath) and is a big double whammy of a supplement. Not only will it’s calming effect help you towards a mega quality sleep, it’ll also ensure you’re not suffering from an all too common magnesium deficiency which can be a big problem. Symptoms include heart arrhythmias, tachycardia, headaches, muscle cramps, nausea, metabolic syndrome, migraines, and a gazillion other things you don’t want. It’s also associated with cardiovascular disease diabetes, asthma, anxiety disorders, and PMS. Not great.
I use this supplement and find the sweet spot is currently 1tsp mixed with water about an hour before bed. I may up my dose to see what happens but I’m pretty happy with the performance so far.
Don’t over do it though, magnesium can have a laxative effect if you take too much, and that won’t help you to get to sleep will it?
What I use: Natural Calm – Superior Magnesium Powder, 8 oz.
3: My Pre-bedtime Super Sleepy Tea.
This is an evolving concoction that sends me into a calm state before I get anywhere near to actual bedtime. There’s no caffeine here, just a gentle cocktail of amazing ingredients that I (perhaps under the sway of a sleepy placebo tree) find zones me out in a most pleasant way. I use a french press (cafetiere) for my tea making, I just find it easier than using a teapot, but cobble it together any way you prefer:
- Organic Chamomile (whole flowers are best, but just tear open an organic tea bag if that’s all you can find)
- Organic Ceylon Cinnamon (not supermarket cassia, but this non irradiated, anti inflammatory, dementia bashing wonder-spice)
- Organic ground vanilla powder (again, probably not in your supermarket, you want the mould toxin free, vitamin C and mineral packed version)
- Sweeten with a dash of raw honey (or Natvia – baring in mind you’ll be having a dessert spoon of honey later anyway)
- Unsweetened almond milk (warmed in the microwave or pan) or boiled, slightly cooled (80 degrees is perfect) water
How much of each depends on how many cups you’re making, experiment! But it’s just so amazingly comforting, mega healthy and downright calm inducing that you’ll enjoy playing with it and making it your own. The secret is in the quality of the ingredients, don’t skimp here, your brain will know the difference. I prefer using just water rather than the almond milk, but that’s just because I like the purity of the spices without the milky intruder.
4: A spoonful of honey is good for your brain
Yes, you can have a spoonful of sugar before bed, that’s right! But honey, specifically raw honey, is not like regular sugar (admittedly it’s affect on blood sugar and insulin is not dissimilar to any other kind of glucose – but we’re only taking a teaspoon and on balance, it’s a good thing). Raw (that is unheated in preparation and therefore still full of the good stuff that typical supermarket honey is not) honey is particularly good at firing energy into your liver’s store of glycogen. Why is this good? This liver glycogen is your brain’s preferred source of energy that it needs to be more efficient at undertaking all of it’s night time tasks such as making you feel awesome when you wake up in the morning fully refreshed.
This is a great read about the healthy potential of Honey and if you want to supercharge your brain for the night’s work ahead of it, this can be an effective hack. Give it a go and see if it works for you. I’d recommend no more than a teaspoon before bed but make sure it’s the raw stuff.
5: A bed of nails. Yes, a bed of nails.
Not exactly an actual bed of nails like the ones you saw being slept on by Indian Yogis on TV, but a similar product none the less and absolutely based on the historical practice. I’ve invested in an acupressure mat. Like a bed of nails has been traditionally used to support meditative practices, yoga and natural healing across many cultures throughout history, an acupressure mat is a modern take.
Similar to acupuncture, acupressure stops just short of puncturing the skin and stimulates blood flow to the back (and other parts of the body depending on what you’re trying to achieve). The pressure from the ‘nails’ (actually precisely engineered pressure ‘flowers’) cause your body to release endorphins, your body’s natural pain killer in response and these endorphins, in turn, release oxytocin which leads to feelings of calm and contentment. In other words, it makes you feel wonderful and puts you in a relaxed state.
Does it hurt? Nope.
In practice, lying on an acupressure mat is a little unusual at first and of course you can feel the sensation of 1000s of tiny pressure points up and down your shoulders and back. I love the feeling and after 5 minutes or so the sensation evolves as your blood flow increases and you feel a warmth spreading around your back. This is then followed by the release of various ‘feel awesome’ hormones that help to unwind and relax you, sending you into the perfect state for the perfect night’s sleep.
After 15-20 minutes or so (sometimes sooner) I get an overwhelming sense of extreme sleepiness, my eyes get mega heavy and I feel wonderfully drowsey. I then roll over, pop in my earplugs and fall asleep within seconds. I can’t tell you just how effective this is, I would defy anybody to follow the above steps, finishing with the acupressure mat and be able to keep their eyes open.
And that’s pretty much it. If I do nothing else, I’m pretty much guaranteed a great night’s sleep if I follow this routine. Sure I may miss something off the list every now and again and I still get a decent night’s kip, and given the unbelievable amount of interruptive variables that modern life throws at us, I’m generally doing well with the whole sleep thing.
There are a few other tips and tricks that you can try, most of which you’ll find on my other post on sleep over here, but I think you’ll find this is all you need.
If you wake up – don’t panic – just breathe
The only other hiccup that can occur is the dreaded ‘wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to return to sleep because thinking takes over’ syndome. I know this can happen and it can be tough, especially once the thoughts become circular and impossible to control or get rid of. This is because thoughts simply are impossible to control and trying to stop them is a fruitless and sometimes upsetting effort.
So if that happens to you remember to acknowledge that, don’t try to control them; try to ‘observe’ them: ‘oh look, that’s me having a thought about work tomorrow’. Examining thoughts like this can make them melt away by themselves, just don’t try to force it or you’ll just get yourself more worked up. Meditative skills are your best bet in this situation (or most other difficult situations to be honest!) and I’ll cover this in a future post in much more detail. In simple terms, just try to focus on your breath and every time a thought pops into your head, acknowledge it, observe it, watch it leave and return to focusing on the breath, you’ll soon drop off. And if you’ve adopted some effective sleep hacks, like the ones above then you’ll find you’re in deep restful, more meaningful sleep more often, meaning you won’t be so prone to waking up in the middle of the night anymore.
If you have any sleep hacks and strategies you’d like to share then please add them in comments below.
Sweet dreams dudes.