How do you get the best night sleep? There are no magic pills or spells; sleeping well is a skill. You need to practice, learn, and improve. It is easy once you have mastered it. Once you have achieved mastery, you can play with polyphasic sleep, lucid dreaming, and various other fun sleep hacks.
First, though, you must master the basics. Here, we discuss basic sleep hacks: tools, methods, and the raw materials needed to craft a good night’s sleep.
In this article, we’ll cover four main areas:
- The bedroom
- Physical behaviour before sleep
- Your mental space
Sleep: A Summary
A large chunk of our lives is spent asleep and it’s a pretty valuable thing.We know it’s vital for growth, repair, recovery, and maintenance, and if you don’t get enough you get ill and die. We’re not talking about the importance of sleep here, though. This is about how to fall asleep, stay asleep and sleep well.
There are no magic pills or spells; sleeping well is a skill.
We use light to regulate our biology, mostly through our eyes. Our eyes sense blue light and send signals to our brain to tell us what’s going on around us. It helps us prepare for what the environment is throwing at us. As light decreases in our eyes, it starts a chain reaction that ends in us falling asleep. Simply put, this chain reaction involves chemicals that reduce brain activity and make us sleepy. The most important is melatonin (the sleep hormone) and another neurotransmitter, called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
That is an outstandingly simple view of how it works, but we’re going to spend most of our time talking about how to control this process to improve sleep and dispel poor sleep quality and sleeplessness. If you want the deep science, you can find it elsewhere. Here’s, we’re looking at the key players.
Melatonin: The Gatekeeper of Sleep
Melatonin is the trigger necessary for sleep. It’s not enough on its own to send you to sleep, but hugely important in kicking things off. Melatonin decreases adrenal hormone secretion of stress hormones, which function to keep us awake, alert, and alive. We don’t want this while we’re sleeping! Yet, many of us lead busy, stressful lives that result in these hormones pumping around our bodies far longer than they should be, preventing us from sleeping properly.1–4
This also means that we might need more melatonin to fall asleep than our cavemen ancestors. Mix that with deficiency in the building blocks of melatonin and we have a problem. We need more, but we can’t even make it in sufficient amounts!
GABA is a chemical in the brain that, when secreted for sleep purposes, calms the brain down. It tells your thinking brain it’s time to bed down for the night. It provides that pre-sleep grogginess. The science: it’s a neuro-inhibitory transmitter that tells the brain to switch off by reducing the firing of neurones. It can also be used during times of stress to relax and have a calm focus.
There’s a catch, however. If we over-stimulate our brains, we can override the effects of GABA. Ever been really tired after work but convinced to go out, then finding yourself wide-awake? That’s you overriding GABA.
This is why blocking blue light alone is not enough to make you sleep, and why mastering the psychology of sleep is so important.
Sleep Hack 1: The Essentials
Reduce light exposure as much as possible before bed as light will suppress melatonin and prevent you from feeling sleepy. Try and mimic the sun going down.
- Use side lamps rather than overhead lights. One step further is using red LED lights in the evening.
- Use candles when taking a bath.
- Turn the brightness down on your screen.
- Use blue-blocking glasses to reduce blue light entering your eyes.
- Install f.lux on your computer, use Night Shift on your iPhone, or download the Twilight app on your Android.
Optimising your environment can really improve your sleep:
- Sleep in a cool room.
- Sleep in a dark room (use black-out blinds or a sleep mask).
- Sleep in a quiet room (use earplugs).
- Put your phone on airplane mode to avoid sleep disruption from the electromotive forces.
Sleeping between 9–11 pm gives you a more restorative sleep than if you go to bed later. Also, at 10.30–11 pm you have a surge in cortisol, which can keep you awake and override the effects of melatonin if you’re still awake. Of course it’s not the end of the world if you need to stay up late, you’ll just feel more refreshed if you sleep earlier.
Use a sleep cycle alarm clock that wakes you up at the lightest point in your sleep cycle. Very basically, you have light sleep and deep sleep and being woken up from deep sleep can leave you feeling groggy. Normal alarms have jarring noises and are disruptive, often pulling you from deep sleep too early.
Go to sleep early (if possible) and try and wake up without an alarm clock. You’ll be surprised how well and consistently you can do this once in the habit. I set the wake up phase for 1.5 hours on my sleep cycle alarm clock, and usually wake up before it wakes me. Plan your nights to sleep in 1.5 hour periods – the same length as your sleep cycles.
Sleep Hack 2: Let’s Get Physical
We breathe unconsciously for most of the day, but when we need to, we can take control. Taking control of our breath can be extremely powerful, and a tool that can help us fall asleep. If you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, breathing through your diaphragm, it slows down your heart rate and activates your parasympathetic (resting) nervous system. Breathe in for four beats, out for six. Repeat.
Sleep Induction Mat
At first, this seems like a crazy suggestion. Lying on a spiky acupressure mat as you fall asleep?! Surely that can’t help! It does. The little spikes stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and the release of endorphins, which send you into a blissful state. The only thing you must do is to remember to remove it after 5–10 minutes, or you’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a very sore back!
Try to avoid exercising two hours before bed. The high cortisol levels that result from exercise can prevent you from sleeping by suppressing melatonin.
Mobility and Rolling
Mobility involves foam rolling, stretching, and massaging your muscles, joints, and tissues. Rolling your muscles for 15 minutes before bed activates you parasympathetic nervous system – the one that allows you to sleep and relax. There are countless other benefits of stretching and mobility, so it is a staple to a well-maintained, functional human body, regardless of sleep.
Sex and Intimacy
Hormones released during sex and orgasms can be powerful. Oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine flood your system, calming you down, providing some bliss, and relaxing your body.
Taking a 10-minute ice-bath an hour or so before bed can help to knock you out and prepare you for sleep. It might sound a little crazy that a freezing-cold dip might chill you out and prepare you for sleep but it does. We discuss cold exposure more here.
Distract Yourself with Fiction
If you have trouble turing your analytical mind off, then reading some fiction before bed could help. Pick a book and get stuck in. It can help to relax and distract your mind in preparation for sleep.
Sleep Hack 3: Find Your Inner Monk
Have you heard of a ‘growth’ mindset? It’s the opposite of a ‘fixed’ mindset. Relating to sleep, this means you must accept that this is a process, not a god-given gift. If you fail, then you must change the process, understanding that you’re not incapable of falling asleep or sleeping well, you’re just not pressing the right buttons. Optimise. There’s nothing special going on here, you just need to work out what element is missing for you and then change that. If you fight a mental battle every night, a shift in perception will help you come to the realisation that you can fall asleep easily if you let it happen.
We have discussed Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training before, so won’t go into detail here. For sleep, it can be used in two ways:
- To overcome stress that is preventing you from falling asleep
- To mitigate the bad effects of missing a night’s sleep by relaxing and calming your body.
Using something like the Heartmath Sensor to train yourself to activate your parasympathetic nervous system can be very effective at overcoming anxiety that might be preventing you from sleeping.
Fighting vs Acceptance
If you fight falling asleep, you will likely stay awake. Whatever we pay attention to will grow. You must accept whatever niggles are in your mind and body, rather than fighting. Be aware that it doesn’t really matter if you fall asleep. You’ll just be tired the next day, but you won’t die. It’s not the end of the world. Make peace with that. Set a time in the day away from sleep for worrying. Get all the things out of your head and address them. This is linked to, and helped by, the next points: meditation, journaling, gratitude, and affirmations.
Meditation reduces insomnia by 90%. That’s a powerful statistic, and I know from my own experience that meditating before bed makes it easier to sleep and improves sleep quality. If you don’t meditate you’re missing out. Try Headspace, Calm, or Omvana for an easy introduction.
Remember Dumbledore’s Pensieve in Harry Potter? If you’re not familiar, Dumbledore would point his wand to his own head and suck out memories. He would then pour these silvery memories into a basin, which he could then enter to reflect upon them at a later time. This took the memories out of his head and freed up space. This is a powerful analogy for writing things down. Keeping a diary might be perceived as something 14-year-old girls do, but it can be extremely effective at reducing stress, clarifying thoughts, and cultivating a positive attitude. In the context of sleeping, it can clear your mind of the little niggles that are working away in your subconscious, and free up a bit of mental space for peace and tranquility, just like Dumbledore’s Pensieve. The research is there to back it up. I use an app called Write where I write notes into different folders: dream diary, gratitude diary, affirmations, and general. Some people prefer to use a pen. There are many ways to do it: find what works for you. Other apps include the 5-minute journal, Grid Diary and Day One.
If you find yourself lying in bed, preoccupied with work or your to-do list, then writing this list down in the afternoon in anticipation of the day ahead can help to get the worry out of your head.
Having gratitude is an element of the journalling practice. What does ‘gratitude’ mean? Write 3–6 things down that you’re grateful for, and why. Really focusing on them, internalising them. This cultivates a positive view of the world, and reduces stress. What does that mean? Less fight-or-flight activation, lower heart rate, and better sleep.
Sound crazy? You might want to try it first. This is grounded in the principles of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and belief. Whatever you focus your conscious on will grow. This is basically just doing lines, like in school.
I am good at falling asleep.
I am good at falling asleep.
I am good at falling asleep.
I am good at falling asleep.
Write this down 20 times. Say it to yourself 20 times in the mirror. Everyday. You might just become good at falling asleep.
Sleep Hack 4: The Primary Ingredients
Blocking blue light and writing affirmations won’t be enough on their own if you don’t have the raw materials to produce the sleep hormones that make you sleepy. It’s like having an architect draw the blueprints to a house, but no bricks to build. It just won’t work.
There’s a product in America called the Sleep Cocktail. It was formulated by a former Navy SEAL doctor who has worked with some of the worst sleepers: sleep-deprived SEALS. It contains L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, L-theanine, phGABA (phenibut), and melatonin. You can’t get it in the UK, but you can get all the constituent parts, as discussed below.
- Tryptophan and 5-HTP. These are building blocks for your sleep hormone melatonin, which prepares you for sleep at night by making you sleepy. Take with GABA for a more powerful effect.
- L-theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid (protein building block) that helps you relax. Taken with caffeine, it makes the buzz more mellow. Taken before bed, it chills you out. Try 100mg capsules.
- GABA. Discussed above. Supplement with GABA, or the more effective phGABA (phenyl-GABA), which crosses the blood-brain barrier, which means it gets into your brain to do its job. It’s known as phenibut and GABA wave. People have excellent results, but you shouldn’t take it more than a couple of times a week. Start with 500mg and take it away from other protein.
- Melatonin. As discussed above, melatonin is secreted when it gets dark to prepare you for sleep. Don’t overuse it, as it could depress your own (endogenous) production. Aim for once or twice a week, dosing 150mcg for men or 100mcg for women. Most supplements are much stronger than that, so will need splitting up. Take too much and you’ll feel groggy the next day.
- Magnesium. Try up to 400mg. Magnesium is a key player in many things your body does at night, and if you’re deficient (most people are) then you will probably wake up feeling less-well rested. Too much will give you the runs, though, which doesn’t help you sleep! You should be taking this if you want to live a long time anyway. The best forms are the *ates (malate, citrate, aspartate).
- Potassium. Works with magnesium to remove cramps, which can help sleep. Start with 100–200 mg before bed and work up to 400mg. Try potassium citrate or potassium bicarbonate.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to sleep disorders. Take up to 10,000 IU in the morning. Taking it in the evening can disrupt your sleep. Just like magnesium, you’re probably deficient.
- Herbal sleep and stress relief. This Yogi Bedtime Tea contains chamomile and valerian root, both old-faithfuls for sleep. I like to brew a strong cup, then blend it with collagen peptides, MCTs, coconut cream, and stevia for a warm, ketogenic pre-bed tonic. There’s also passionflower extract and kava, both great for stress relief, although a little difficult to find.
- Ornithine. Another amino acid that helps to eliminate ammonia in the gut, which can cause stress. Try 1–5 grams. Some people find it very effective for sleep.
- Collagen. Collagen peptides are the simplest forms of protein. This means your body doesn’t waste energy digesting them, it just absorbs them. Collagen helps your body in its repair processes at night, and you will likely wake up feeling like you had a really deep, refreshing sleep. It also makes you skin and joints more elastic.
Sleep Hack 5: Food
Periodically waking up in the middle of the night can be caused by a drop in blood sugar levels. Eating fats in the evening (and generally being in a ketogenic state) can provide ample energy throughout the night, protect glycogen stores, and help you to sleep soundly. This is why I love a creamy, fatty ketogenic drink before bed, usually with chocolate and stevia.
We just covered a lot, and you’re not going to go and do everything just mentioned. Just do what’s right for you. How do you know what’s right? Work out why you might be having trouble sleeping: is it a tense series you watch on your computer every night before bed? Or do you find it hard to unwind after a stressful day at work? If you don’t actually have any trouble sleeping, great! Use the hacks to optimise your sleep quality. The bottom line with most of the things we have discussed is building resilience to stress and reducing stressful input. Once you’re a master of that, the sleep is inevitable.
Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you implement any of these sleep hacks? Leave a comment below with your experience!
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