“We run on Vampire Hours,” I would explain.
Despite the inquisitive look I would continue, “I’m most effective at night so we tend to be up late, sometimes until 4, 5 or 6am. It’s our circadian rhythm. Humans naturally live on 24 and a half hour days. When we travel West Marla and I get back on a normal schedule, but shortly after returning home we cycle back. Circadian rhythm.”
“4am?!” they’d reply. “I could never do that.”
I wholeheartedly believed that I performed better at night. I knew that we as humans naturally live on a longer than 24 hour day. Little did I know, however, that I was unwittingly performing a long term scientific experiment in our home. It was unfortunately an inadvertent experiment in melatonin suppression.
How Sleep Works
Before I get to the experiment, let’s talk a bit about how sleep works. Built into our physiology we have a natural sleep-wake cycle. One that our bodies naturally wish to maintain. This is called the circadian rhythm, which means around a day.
While circadian rhythm would seem to reference the obnoxious sound during cicada season, it’s actually much less of a nuisance. Well, that is, when we adhere to it.
Throughout human history our sleep-wake cycle has been directly influenced by the day-night cycle of our planet. As a result our genes expect to follow a similar pattern. The problem is our modern disconnect from that cycle.
For most of human history shortly after the sun would rise light would begin to hit our skin and we would begin to awaken. As we wake our core temperature is elevated along with our levels of cortisol and serotonin to ensure we wake up alert and refreshed.
While this natural elevation in cortisol is welcome, the one that we self-impose from blaring alarm clocks is not. The former allows us to gracefully rise from slumber while the latter adversely affects us, inducing our fight or flight response at an inopportune time.
We continue to benefit from light exposure as the day progresses. Then, as the sun sets, our shift from wakefulness to sleep begins with Dim Light Melatonin Onset (DLMO). Throughout human history we would experience the orange-red of sunset followed by the diminished glow of fire or candlelight. This signals to begin converting serotonin to melatonin which relaxes brain waves and muscles and lowers our core body temperature and heart and breathing rates.
Circadian rhythm is not only a characteristic of the sighted. The blind experience a similar sleep-wake cycle that’s surprisingly also influenced by light. This is due to the light sensitive photopigment melanopsin, a receptor that receives only non-visual stimulation and is used to regulate circadian rhythm.
Amount of Sleep
Most of us have accepted that 8 hours of sleep per night is ideal. But is it really?
We’ve all experienced those nights where we’ve had plenty of sleep – 8, 9 or even 10 hours – yet we were exhausted. Many times I’ve awoken thinking that I should have just stayed up all night since I had felt better before I slept. And this was many times despite getting a full 8 hours.
This is because total sleep is less important than the ratio of hours of REM sleep to your total sleep time. This means if we can simply achieve more REM in less time we will feel most refreshed. This is where sleep hacking comes in.
For a very long time I was sleep deprived and I didn’t quite know it. From 2000-2009 I was in a horrid cycle of staying up way too late and rising too early.
In 2000, shortly after starting college, I started my first job. I unloaded the food service deliveries from trucks three times a week, lifting and carrying hundreds of lbs of boxes every workday. At the time it was right up my alley as I was really focused on fitness.
The problem was that the workday started at 7am and I was only 18.
At that age we’re still very resilient. I could deal with less and less sleep and my body adapted. However once sleep deprivation became chronic my body rapidly degraded to a state of sub-optimal performance.
In 2003 I had started my career. I was working a day job alongside finishing my final semester of school. This “real” job started at 8am and felt like a relief. I suddenly had an extra hour to sleep. It wasn’t until seven years later, when I was finally completely immersed in entrepreneurship and making my own schedule, that I realized how sleep deprived I was.
Just like with diet, it’s tough to quantify how you feel until you know what it feels like to feel good. I had been sleep deprived for almost a decade and didn’t know it.
Time flew. I had discovered that I was left with nearly 7 years unaccounted for. To this day I can barely remember anything from my years as a desk jockey. It’s just one unfortunate blur.
I know the thought of starting work at 8am isn’t that far-fetched and many people are capable of successfully navigating life at such a time. I wasn’t. But it may not have been due solely to my seemingly West Coast Circadian Rhythm as I had previously thought.
You see we were performing an experiment in melatonin suppression in our home, yet I was none the wiser. When Marla and I moved into our house I had my first opportunity to outfit our living space as I saw fit. Always liking a more modern feel I discovered that traditional lights just didn’t cut it. But thankfully there was a new type of light on the market, that was even energy efficient – CFL Bulbs.
CFL stands for Compact Fluorescent Light and is essentially a home version of the lights in an office building. While that doesn’t sound appealing the fact that there was a daylight version of the bulb intrigued me. Using daylight bulbs instead of the familiar soft white helped bathe our house in a light that was, to me, more appealing.
Through daylight bulbs I was able to make our house feel much like daytime, even in the middle of the night. This is a big problem.
As I mentioned previously, Dim Light Melatonin Onset is what happens as the sun sets and we approach slumber. As I had adorned our home in a fashion that was bathed in daylight 24/7 we suddenly had a problem.
Even until very recently, I would stay up all hours of the night. I’d felt that I was most productive at night, which was technically true, but not because of my natural circadian rhythm. It was instead because of external stimuli that was confusing the situation.
While you may be thinking, “well I don’t have daylight bulbs so it’s fine” I had to tell you that no matter which bulbs you’re using in fixtures you’re probably doing precisely the same thing and don’t know it.
DLMO of course sets in with dim light. But remember the other cue? It’s also influenced by the orange-red spectrum of light that humans have always experienced after sunset.
I was not only bathing our house in light, but specifically blue light, a color temperature that my body was interpreting as daylight.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re likely doing the same thing. Your TV, your smartphone, your iPad, your laptop, all blue light. In 2014 the inventors of the blue LED were recognized for their outstanding achievement and won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Their technology, created in the early 90’s, has revolutionized our world. All of our devices exist today because of this breakthrough.
But this breakthrough is also contributing to our sleep problem.
Throughout human history man would have never experienced light in the blue spectrum after dark. It simply was not possible. Today, in our always connected world, we are bathed in blue light till the wee hours of the night with our heads buried in our smartphones and tablets.
I’m as guilty as the next. I bring my iPhone to bed and read before falling asleep. While not ideal there are some hacks that I’ll get to in a bit that can counteract what we’re doing with technology.
Just for a brief overview light color temperatures are rated on the Kelvin scale. A daylight bulb, like daylight, is typically rated at 5000K (some may actually be as high as 6500K). Soft white, the color of the traditional incandescent bulb, is typically 2700K. And finally candlelight and the light of a fire is around 1800K.
The closer you can be to dim light in the 1800K part of the spectrum after dark the sooner and better your sleep experience will be.
There’s one more issue that I’m compelled to bring up. CFL bulbs, although touted for their energy efficiency, have introduced a new hazard to our homes.
CFL Bulbs work by exciting mercury with electricity, which emits UV light that is then absorbed by the phosphor coating to produce light.
The problem is then twofold. First, as many know, mercury is toxic. Although there is but a small amount of mercury it’s important to properly dispose of a broken CFL bulb.
The second problem is due to the potential for harmful UV exposure. Due to the compact, spiral design of CFLs even most new bulbs have imperfections in the phosphor coating which leads them to emit UV rays.
While I have no concerns with UV exposure from the sun and I feel we should all attain far more sun exposure than we currently do, the type of UV emitted from CFLs is of concern. Many of us are familiar with UVA and UVB, but there is also UVC, which is completely absorbed by the ozone layer and a type of UV that we’re never exposed to in our atmosphere. (Can Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Damage Skin? – Scientific American)
Seasonal Sleep Patterns
So as I’ve mentioned, as the sun sets our bodies should naturally begin to prepare for slumber. You may have noticed the problem. The sun sets at far different times throughout the year, more dramatically the further you are from the equator.
Preparing to sleep 1-2 hours after sunset is ideal in the summer, but in the winter try to hit the hay 4-5 hours after dark.
Being afforded the benefit of making my own schedule I don’t rise with the sun, but due to career and family obligations many have to. Following a basic formula like this will help.
Hack the Bedroom
Alright now that we’ve gone over how sleep works let’s dig into hacking sleep.
First thing’s first, we have to address the bedroom. With light being such an influence on quality of sleep it’s vitally important to create an environment conducive to great sleep.
First, blackout your bedroom. And when I say blackout I mean complete darkness. Hold your hand 6 inches in front of your face. Can you see it? If so, your room isn’t dark enough.
This will mean purchasing blackout curtains or going the no-budget, inelegant route of covering your windows with aluminum foil. It’s not pretty, but it works.
Next up you’ll want to address the electronics situation. Best case scenario is to remove everything that plugs in that isn’t exclusively a lamp. This includes your TV, your modem and router, and your alarm clock. Before you panic I will give you an alternative.
If for some reason you can’t remove some items, for example when you’re in a hotel, a little roll of opaque electrical tape will come in handy. Simply cover the LEDs. We want compete darkness.
This may sound a little OCD, but a sequence of 2 millisecond imperceptible light flashes while sleeping has been shown to delay salivary melatonin. So if the goal is effective, high performance sleep, ditch all the lights.
Also de-clutter your bedroom. It sounds like a silly proposition, but piles of papers, books, and nicknacks will adversely affect your ability to relax.
Keep your bedroom cool, around 60-68°F. As long as your feet are warm enough this will help provide a deep, restful sleep. If that temperature range seems too cold try wearing socks and see how it goes.
If you’re anything like me your mind is typically racing as you lie in bed, especially on the nights when you need to fall asleep due to a morning engagement. The only way I’ve found to really help clear my mind has been to keep some sort of journal within arms reach. I use my iPhone, but as I’ve mentioned that’s far from ideal.
Simply jot down any ideas, notes, whatever it is that’s racing through your mind.
One other thing you can try if you have trouble with a racing mind is dense fiction. This is a slippery slope because you definitely want to avoid non-fiction that will be engaging your mental faculties, but you also don’t want to be so engrossed in a novel that it keeps you up all night. Dense fiction seems to work for some. I tend to go for easy reading that isn’t filled with cliff hangers. Old James Bond books tend to work for me.
Again, if you’re reading before bed be sure to use a dim warm reading light instead of a bright blue LED. 5 minutes of blue light exposure can delay your melatonin for hours.
Alright now back to the alarm situation. While you don’t want to be bathed in the bright blue light of your smartphone in bed it can come in handy as a smart alarm. I recommend the SleepCycle app. First thing’s first, set your phone to Airplane Mode. Not only do we not want to be disturbed during sleep, but there’s the possibility that Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) may also disturb sleep.
SleepCycle will monitor your movement throughout the night and wake you up in a 30 minute window (prior to your scheduled wake time) when you are in already light sleep, as opposed to abruptly waking you during a deep REM cycle. The strategic timing of a smart alarm will provide a more gentle start to your morning instead of the typical fight or flight response caused by a dumb alarm.
I don’t personally use SleepCycle since I avoid any sort of alarm in an effort to rise naturally, but I do use my phone for another app called Pzizz. Pzizz is essentially guided meditation that will help you relax into slumber.
I’ve used Pzizz every night for about 8 years and the interesting part is that the mere act of thinking about the sounds in my head can be enough to help me quickly drift off to sleep. Pzizz creates a custom sleep sequence each time you run it, but the intro remains mostly the same. After years of use I rarely make it past the intro.
Now of course blacking out your bedroom is the number one rule, but in a pinch a sleep mask is quite effective. I had never been able to successfully sleep on a plane until I picked up a mask on the way out of O’Hare one early morning. That flight I was able to sleep a solid 2 hours and I’ve worn the mask ever since.
Finally don’t beat yourself up if you find that you wake up in the middle of the night. There’s a lot of data pointing to us being predisposed to biphasic sleeping, that is sleeping in two phases. If you wake up in the middle of the night don’t stress about falling back to sleep immediately. Instead take a few minutes to reset, maybe get up and walk to the kitchen, but avoid bright lights and especially all blue light. There’s anecdotal evidence that you will actually achieve a better REM:Total Sleep ratio if you wake 4.5 hours after falling asleep.
And in talking about increasing the REM ratio I’d be remiss not to mention naps. Napping in the middle of the day is a quick way to catch up on REM sleep.
Now that we have your sleep situation under control let’s look at the daily stimuli that affect a good nights sleep.
We’ve already talked about the importance of light, so you know to avoid bathing yourself in artificial, especially blue, light after dark. Instead try winding down your evenings around a fire or candlelight. These are two 100% evolutionarily approved methods for light exposure after dark.
But sure that may not be ideal as a daily practice. Your next best bet is to replace your lighting with warm, dim bulbs. Consider creating pockets of light around focal points of your home. This is not only beneficial for DLMO, but you’ll find that it also ups your interior design game. Two birds!
And of course, you knew it was coming, but avoid all tech after dark. Harsh, I know, but you’ll experience a dramatic improvement in your sleep quality if you’re able to do this.
But I know we live in the modern, connected world, so there are some alternatives. If you just must use your TV, smartphone, or iPad after dark, pick up a pair of Blublockers, yes those sunglasses that were As Seen on TV in the 80’s. They do truly block all light in the blue spectrum.
While they aren’t ideal for wearing during the day, they can do wonders for your DLMO. Not only do they present the world in that warm orange-red tint of night, but being that they’re sunglasses they also ensure that your eyes are only bathed in a dim light.
Alternatively many people swear by Uvex Safety Glasses. They’re far cheaper than BluBlockers, and fall low on the cool factor.
Sliding down the scale of effectiveness, if you must use your computer after dark install F.lux. This app will, based on your location, gradually transition the blue spectrum of light on your computer into a progressively deeper red tone, mimicking sunset. This of course won’t diminish the stress of working until the wee hours of the night, but it will help reduce the blue light exposure when you have to hit that deadline.
Just note that you won’t want to use F.lux while working in a design or photo capacity as the colors will deceive you.
All this talk about sleep and I’ve yet to bring up one of the most important components, diet. For high quality sleep we want a nutrient dense diet that’s low in toxins. By definition that’s paleo, but for anyone averse to that term what we’re talking about here is simply: plants, animals, nuts and seeds (in that order).
It’s a very simple whole, real food approach to eating that will time and again yield dramatic results.
The beauty of science is that it’s always advancing. We recently discovered the glymphatic system, which utilizes mitochondria to remove toxins from the brain. This means if we can keep our toxin load reduced and improve our mitochondrial function, this energy intensive process will be more efficient.
Outside of eating real food there is one supplement you’ll want to consider during the winter months, Vitamin D3. Despite the misnomer, Vitamin D3 is actually a hormone just like melatonin and they are inversely related to one another. This means you’ll only want to supplement D3 early in the day as it can suppress melatonin production. Which makes perfect sense since D3 is synthesized from sunlight.
Just note that not all D supplements are equal. It’s far less common today, but be sure that you’re supplementing Vitamin D3 and not D2.
Finally we can’t forget our good ol’ pal caffeine. While it’s not necessary to be caffeinated once we better optimize our sleep, it can be a nice morning ritual. I personally love starting my day, mindfully making a high quality cup of coffee. I do, however, only drink decaf though after Marla mentioned that my hands were twitching one day when I was chatting with friends. Once I made the switch to decaf the jitters subsided.
You may be someone who binges on half a dozen cups of coffee a day with little effect, but nevertheless you’ll want to consider that the effects of caffeine take around 7 hours to subside. I personally experience every last minute of those 7 hours. I’m not always wired, mind you, but there’s a slim chance I’ll fall asleep within that 7 hour window.
There is a catch, however. You may be able to consume tea, specifically shade grown green tea, and experience feelings of relaxation. Alongside the caffeine in tea there is also an amino acid called L-Theanine that relaxes the mind and reduces stress. It’s essentially the perfect balance for caffeine. I wouldn’t recommend making a cup of green tea a part of your sleep hacking, but if you feel the need for a hot caffeinated drink in the afternoon now and again, matcha green tea (which is typically shade grown) is your best bet.
Diagnosing Poor Sleep
So you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, or you’re in the middle of one. What could be the problem?
As I just mentioned, avoid caffeinated beverage in the 7 hours before sleep.
Along with caffeine, keep your protein intake before bed to a minimum. Protein is more difficult to digest than fat or glucose. Instead of expending your energy on digestion, save it for your brain’s repair and restoration.
Avoid working out within 2 hours of sleep. Exercise is a stressor that raises cortisol and your body temperature, the exact opposite of what our bodies expect to do as we prepare for sleep.
If you experienced a bad night sleep take a good hard look at your alcohol consumption the day before. While many accurately correlate alcohol with sleepiness, it unfortunately is inversely related to high quality REM sleep. Alcohol will increase the onset of sleep, but unfortunately it results in more disrupted REM sleep. And as we’ve discussed if increasing the REM:Total Sleep ratio is our goal for better sleep, alcohol is hindering our sleep performance.
Finally, stay hydrated. This sounds like a random tidbit to throw in there, but recently Marla and I have been walking more, trying to keep up our low level activity. One thing we both accidentally stumbled upon was the heightened incidence of dehydration in frigid temperatures.
On multiple nights after long half day walks we were both up in the middle of the night, lying in bed, unable to get quality sleep. It wasn’t until we both commented on our chapped lips and dry mouths that we made the correlation. A quick trip to the kitchen for 2 big glasses of water and we were miraculously cured of our insomnia. So keep yourself hydrated in the winter, you’d be surprised how dehydration can sneak up on you.
Hacking Sleep with Supplements
While we only take a couple specific supplements – Vitamin D3 in the winter and Fermented Cod Liver Oil year-round – there are some others that I’ll take now and then as I experiment with optimizing sleep.
The first supplement I recommend experimenting with is Magnesium. I like Natural Calm’s Magnesium Citrate. We all generally lack Magnesium, but more importantly for sleep, it’s a relaxation mineral. On most nights I’ll dissolve one teaspoon in water immediately before bed.
One of the most effective supplements I’ve tried is hardly a supplement at all, but simply Raw Honey and MCT Oil. As I mentioned earlier sleep is an energy heavy process. The glymphatic system and general cognitive processing requires a lot of energy. A nice warm drink consisting of 1 teaspoon of Raw Honey (technically no longer raw once added to hot water) and 1 teaspoon of MCT Oil can do wonders for your ratio of REM to Total Sleep by providing that much needed energy throughout the night. Honey’s perfect 50/50 balance of glucose and fructose is what makes this an effective, slow burning fuel for the night.
Swinging back around to the glymphatic system, the waste removal system of the brain, brings us to our next supplement, Glutathione. Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and plays a key role in the removal of toxins. Supplementing with 1ml can help reduce your toxin load, leaving more energy for other vital processes while you sleep.
Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the nootropic AlphaBrain. A nootropic is simply anything that helps your brain work better. With AlphaBrain we’re getting into biohacking territory, so this is only for the most adventurous, but it’s certainly worth a little experimentation. AlphaBrain is specifically for focus, but one of the components is Huperzine A, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. All this means is that it inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine which not only assists with REM sleep, but can also lead to lucid dreaming.
For a stretch when I was in High School I experienced lucid dreaming without knowing it was a thing. Essentially lucid dreaming is when you are aware that you’re dreaming. Many people will then fly or push the boundaries of human experience, but it’s also encompasses simply knowing you’re within a dream. I’ve only experimented with AlphaBrain a few times, but I’ve personally experienced lucid dreaming for 4 days following a single dose.
Hacking Sleep with Tech
Hacking Sleep to Tracking Sleep
If you’re hacking you better be tracking. Without at least a minimal amount of tracking it can be difficult to quantify your results.
Today’s wearables are useful mostly for their inspiration to move through the game-ification of daily activity. That said the simple sleep tracking that they provide (light sleep vs deep sleep) can be beneficial when tracking your hacks. I personally use the Misfit Shine and I really like it, but I’m considering a Basis Peak because it not only tracks sleep based on motion, but using heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration. I’ve read mixed reviews, but it certainly has piqued my curiosity.