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Sleep: Strategies & Tactics
***Matt’s Note: This article is still under construction***
This article is a work-in-progress collection of ideas regarding techniques & strategies for improving sleep. I have tried to group related ideas together, but do not feel obligated to read straight through.
These ideas are a synthesis of what I actually do and/or what I have seen work for a large number of people. The best way to read this list is to find the first thing that you aren’t doing, try it out for a week or two, and see what effect it has on your sleep. As a scientific community, our understanding of sleep is still surprisingly shallow, so it is often necessary to run N=1 experiments to determine what works best for you.
I should also mention from the outset that my view of sleep is strongly influenced by an evolutionary worldview. I take seriously the idea that life has been evolving on this planet for ~3.5 billion years. Consequently, my view of what is reasonable/appropriate regarding sleep is heavily influenced by my understanding of the ancestral environment in which humanity evolved.
Lastly, most of these ideas are targeted towards people without diagnosed circadian rhythm disorders, since CR disorders account for only 10-15% of the population. Circadian rhythm disorders are particularly recalcitrant to traditional “sleep hygiene” techniques and require alternative methods. You will find a couple of resources at the end of this article for further reading on the topic (DSPD/DSPS/non24).
If I could only pick one thing on this list, I think this would be the single point I would hammer home.
Getting great sleep is not a given in today's world. We live in an environment that provides non-stop novelty and distraction. Electric light, Netflix, smartphones, YouTube, computer games, Kindle, online articles, forums, social media...the list goes on and on.
It is not enough to want a good night's sleep - you have to decide. Remember that the root of the word ‘decide’ literally means “to cut-off or to kill”. Deciding that sleep will be a priority in your life necessarily means cutting off other options. The economics acronym TANSTAAFL holds true here: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
Here are a couple of ways to think about sleep:
Think of sleep as an appointment that you hold with yourself. Would you arbitrarily decide to skip appointments with other important clients or stakeholders?
Re-frame sleep as a strategic tool that you use for competitive advantage, whether to be a top-notch businessperson, parent, spouse, athlete, etc. I’ve written other articles talking about the health & performance benefits associated with getting sufficient sleep. I don’t think it is too strong to say that optimal health & performance is impossible if your body does not get the sleep it requires.
This might mean redesigning your life to ensure you get great sleep. Changing a career, shifting meal times, altering the cadence of your social life, changing your physical environment.
Of course, that isn't always possible and sometimes you just have to sacrifice sleep. But more often than not, it comes down to priorities. Do you want to operate at your best or not?
Research seems to suggest that the optimum temperature for sleep is somewhere around 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit (15-20 degrees Celsius). This can vary quite a bit from person to person, but generally speaking, cooler = better.
There are two ways you can cool your sleeping environment: cool the air or cool the bed.
Cooling the air is straightforward: set your thermostat to at least 68 degrees. Personally, I have never lived in a home with central AC, but a portable AC unit works wonders here. You can also use a fan to help dissipate heat, though a fan can only help so much if the air is already warm.
The other option is to cool your bed. There are a number of cooling options available today which fall into two categories: passive technologies (heat-dissipating fabrics, cooling mattress pads, cooling mattress toppers, etc.) and active technologies (water cooling systems, bed air conditioning systems, etc.). Two popular options on the active technology side are chiliPad and Ooler Sleep Systems.
Exercise is helpful because it helps increase sleep pressure. You can read more about the two-factor model of sleep in this article [insert link].
Frankly, I find that most sleep problems are completely fixed if a person simply gets sufficient movement throughout the day.
Aim to finish exercise at least 3 hours before bed to avoid over-arousal and increased body temperature. In particular, cardio (whether high or low intensity) seems to do better earlier in the day, but the most important part is that you move every day.
Blue light blocking glasses
Light exposure is one of the strongest regulators of the circadian rhythm in humans. In particular, blue light wavelengths appear to have the strongest effect on melatonin regulation. This is why it is recommended to get light exposure in the morning and dark exposure at night.
Blue light blocking glasses help mitigate the effects of light pollution. We can’t always control the amount of light in our environment, but wearing blue light blocking glasses shifts the spectrum of light that reaches our eyes. Theoretically, this should help promote more melatonin production and improve healthy circadian rhythm entrainment.
Dim lights after sundown and/or install bulbs that can shift to the redder side of the spectrum
This point is an extension of the blue light concept. I have not experimented with this myself, but it is a logical next step given our current understanding of red light/blue light and melatonin production.
Minimize or avoid electronics 1-2 hours before bed
This one is hard in today's world. Use blue light blocking glasses and f.lux to help minimize the impact of screens if you must be on them.
Perhaps more importantly, avoid like the plague anything that causes you anxiety or emotional arousal (social media, news, disturbing stories/movies, etc.).
f.lux and other programs for electronics to reduce light pollution
Again, this point is an extension of the blue-light concept.
Don’t eat too close to bedtime
There seems to be good evidence that eating too close to bed can affect sleep quality. Anecdotally, most people seem to feel best when food is consumed at least 3 hours before bed.
Note, however, that this probably changes throughout the year. Unless you live near the Equator, seasonal changes mean days are longer in summer & shorter in winter. Sunlight exposure affects melatonin secretion which has effects on glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
I don’t know of great evidence to support this claim, but I suspect that most people would do best with the following:
During the winter: avoid eating within 3-5 hours of bed
During the summer: avoid eating within 2-4 hours of bed
Do the same things before going to bed every time (e.g. brush/floss, wash your face, review calendar for next day, gratitude practice/journal, jot down any final thoughts, lay down, deep breathing). This teaches your brain what to do (called operant conditioning - think Pavlov's dogs).
Follow a relaxation & visualization routine
The magazine Business Insider ran an article a few years back about a sleep technique that allegedly originated with the US Navy.
The basics of the technique are:
Do a head-to-toe body scan, relaxing each muscle as you move progressively down your body. Breath in, focus on a muscle, then breathe out while relaxing the muscle.
Clear your mind
Visualize a calm, stressless environment (pitch-black room, comfy couch, swinging in a hammock, laying in the sun at the beach, etc.). If that doesn’t work, try repeating the mantra “Don’t think” in your mind.
The specifics of this technique may or may not work for you, but I can attest that variations of it seem to work for many people.
In many respects, sleep is a skill, and like any skill, it needs to be practiced.
One variation that I’ve found helpful is to flex your muscles during the head-to-toe scan (credit Scott Adams for this suggestion).
Flex the muscle that you are focusing on as hard as you can for 10-15 seconds
Take a deep breath in and let it out as you relax the muscle
This has a surprisingly relaxing effect.
Same wake/sleep time every day
This is part of the Consistent Routine advice, but it's so important that it deserves its own mention.
Your body runs on a natural circadian rhythm which is influenced by your personal genetics as well as inputs from the environment. There is a natural timeline that your body wants to follow when it comes to sleep, but if you constantly change the time you wake up and go to bed, then you're fighting against your own biology. This will all but guarantee that you feel less refreshed, less creative, less productive, and can even have implications on your health.
Practically speaking, we probably can't shift our circadian rhythm by more than 1 hour per day. In most cases, we should aim to keep differences in wake/sleep time to <30 minutes day-to-day.
Developing a consistent sleep routine lends itself naturally to a two-pronged approach since we can address wake time, sleep time, or both. Personally, I prefer to focus on sleep time. What time I go to bed is essentially 100% within my control, whereas what time I wake up depends on recovery needs, recent sleep trends, morning commitments, and other factors. But feel free to experiment with this one - I’ve seen both approaches work for others.
This deserves a special mention. Sometimes, people struggle to fall asleep because their mind is racing and they feel like they have a hundred things that they need to remember for the next day. Spending 5-10 minutes journaling before bed can help to "brain-dump" those thoughts and create a calmer state of mind. Whether it's journaling, checking your calendar, making a task list, etc., it can be helpful to develop a nightly routine that tells your brain, "I'm in control of my schedule. I won't forget anything. Everything is under control."
Our sleep environment should be dark. If we think about our ancestral environment, the only light at night would have been from (a) the moon/stars, or (b) a campfire. This would have meant that our sleeping environment was very dark most nights.
Some people might respond with, “What does it matter? Our eyes are closed.” It turns out a surprising number of our cells have a special receptor called a photo-receptor. As the name implies, these receptors sense light. Your eyes aren’t the only location for these cells - your skin and even your organs contain photo-receptors.
This means that light pollution in your sleeping environment can signal to the body that it is daytime or that daytime is approaching (i.e. dawn). The body uses light to regulate many internal functions such as alertness, mood, body temperature, circadian rhythm, and a host of other processes. Therefore, if you are exposing your body to unnatural levels of light in the middle of the night, then it may have a detrimental impact on your sleep.
This is related to two other points: dark environment and quiet environment. Personally, I tend to sleep with both of them nearly every night.
Early morning light/sunlight when possible
A great way to combine this step with exercise is to take a morning walk - even 10-15 minutes is a great place to start.
The reason early morning light exposure helps your sleep is that your body uses light as the main calibration tool for setting your circadian rhythm. The sooner you get light exposure after waking up, the quicker your body “sets the clock” for the day.
Monitor caffeine intake
If you are a slow metabolizer, then it's best to avoid caffeine within 12 hours of sleep. Even fast metabolizers of caffeine should likely avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before sleep since it can affect sleep architecture (less REM/NREM).
Cut off alcohol intake at least 2 hours before sleep. Alcohol has a potent suppressive effect on sleep architecture in a dose-dependent fashion. In other words: the more you drink, the worse your sleep becomes.
Do not be fooled by feelings of drowsiness. Like "sleeping aids" (Ambian, Lunestra, etc.), alcohol is negatively correlated with restorative sleep. Just because you "fall asleep fast" does not mean you are getting the benefits of a good night's sleep.
Like marijuana (see below), alcohol is somewhat of a mixed bag. For example, if you drink one glass of a high-quality dry wine with your partner to relax together at night, how do we rate that? Do the social and relaxation benefits outweigh the alcohol intake? Maybe yes, maybe no. Experiment for yourself and be honest with the results.
Marijuana is a little trickier than some of the other recommendations on this list. Blends with high THC content have been shown to have a negative effect on sleep quality, much like alcohol. The role of CBD, however, is less clear.
Additionally, many people use marijuana as a pain-management tool, which can potentially allow the person to get to sleep quicker due to less discomfort. Marijuana can also act as a stress-management tool, allowing the user to quiet their mind before sleep.
If possible, I would recommend avoiding marijuana. In the vast majority of cases, marijuana is only addressing symptoms rather than fixing causes. Strive to fix the underlying challenges - pain, stress, etc. - at the root rather than masking them. Of course, that is far easier to write than it is to do, but I believe it is ultimately the best approach.
For more information about cannabis, see Examine.com’s article.
Circadian rhythm strongly supports a biphasic model of sleep
A biphasic sleep pattern means you have a long block of sleep at night (6-8 hours) and a short mid-day siesta (20-90 minutes). This pattern of sleep/wake is very common across cultures all over the world.
Personally, I tend to just have one long sleep at night (~8.5 hours) and go without a midday nap, but experiment for yourself to see what works best.
Avoid using an alarm clock as much as possible
If absolutely necessary, try to use an alarm that uses light to wake you up or something with very soft sounds. If you require more than that to wake up, that's a strong signal that you are sleep-depriving yourself.
Strategic use of melatonin
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of using sleep aids. In my experience, they tend to mask the underlying issue rather than address the issue.
However, there are times when strategically using supplements/pharmaceuticals can expedite the desired change. I have found that intermittently using melatonin can be a powerful way to shift one's circadian rhythm, particularly when moving it up (i.e. going to bed earlier).
Most melatonin formulas are quite high (1-3+ mg). For best results, I would recommend limiting it to 300 mcg. Melatonin is not something you want to use every night, but if you find your bedtime is slowly creeping later and later, then the occasional use of melatonin can be a powerful way to re-align your sleep schedule.
Sound machine/white noise
Not all noise is created equal when it comes to sleep. For example, the rhythmic sound of rain, or ocean waves, or wind in the trees can be quite calming. Punctuated noise, however, tends to have a strong arousal effect on the brain. If a dog suddenly barks, or a car alarm goes off, or a door slams, your odds of waking up (or exiting deep sleep) become quite high.
Using a sound machine or a fan can help create an ambient level of noise that "softens" other noises in the environment. If you tend to be a light sleeper, then using ambient noise can significantly help.
Red Light Therapy
Remember how we talked about photo-receptors when discussing a “Dark Environment”? It appears that photoreceptors come in many varieties, and some of them seem to be attuned to different wavelengths of light. I know, I know…it sounds like BS. But there is a surprising amount of research backing up the claims.
I don’t have personal experience using red light therapy for sleep, though I have seen it work some impressive magic for tissue repair and wound healing. Anecdotally, many people report that red light exposure (using units like those offered by Joovv) before bed helps them to relax. YMMV.
Most of the supplements on this list can be readily obtained through a nutrient-dense diet. However, in some cases, it can be helpful to supplement a lagging area.
Examine.com is a great resource for checking supplement efficacy (here’s just one of many articles they have on the subject).
The ideal dose is likely around 300 mcg. Note that the dose in most over-the-counter formulas is often on the order of 1-3 mg (3-10x higher).
According to Examine.com, lavender appears to have a relaxing effect and may promote better sleep. The lavender can either be inhaled (in the form of aromatherapy) or ingested.
Modafinil is very context-specific. It was originally developed as a narcolepsy drug. It is NOT one you want to use regularly (at least not for sleep - I may talk about the neurocognitive effects in another post).
Doc Parsley sleeping pills
Dr. Piotr Wozniak
In the presented algorithm:
You try to stick to your optimum bedtime and waking time every day.
You establish a protected zone in the evening to favor phase advance (minimum light, computers, stress, excitement, etc.).
You wake up to bright sunlight and use morning exercise to advance the phase in the morning.
You ingest caffeine only in the morning.
You avoid alcohol in the evening.
If you nap, you nap early.
If your phase keeps shifting, you add more light and exercise in the morning. You also extend your protected zone in the evening.
In an emergency, when you fear falling out of synch, you could occasionally use melatonin in the evening or delicate sounds in the morning as the minimum effective departure from the free-running sleep principle.
Things I’m researching:
The latest working therapy protocol designed by the author, which worked for 2.5 months and reproduced for 4 months (still ongoing) at the time of this writing, is named VLiDACMel, which stands for:
Very long Light therapy at wake-up (after minimal core body temperature), the most important tool of this therapy,
Dark therapy in the evening,
Avoid eating Carbohydrates when Melatonin is high in the blood,
Take exogenous instant-release Melatonin timed before DLMO (measured via core body temperature or approximated via 3 days average of wake-up times).
And always curate a sleep diary to assess changes in the circadian rhythm phase and properly adapt the treatments and assess the conditions to optimally sleep restoratively.