How to Biohack Sleep: Vital Lessons From 10+ Years Optimizing Sleep


I rarely talk about my Achilles heel.

Sleep.

I sleep lightly. The faintest whisper, blinking LED, or scent rouses me from my deepest slumber. My Oura Ring records half a dozen such instances every night. My thoughts race when I hit the pillow. I toss and turn. And my well-trained circadian rhythm wakes me at the same time, no matter what time I go to sleep. Even when I get the quantity right, I wake through the night. But sleep has an overlooked side:

Sleep quality is every bit as important as sleep quantity. Click To Tweet

I turned to a sleep study for answers. I wore a clunky wearable around my wrist, a pulse oximeter caged around my finger, and 12-point leads strapped to my chest. Feeling equipped like a Marvel character didn’t produce a great night of sleep. The result of my study?

Acute sleep apnea.

Or so I was told.

I’m still chasing the elusive Oura Ring 90+ sleep score (by a fluke I once hit a 91 in 2018). I care about sleep, and have improved tremendously since my diagnosis. Over the years I’ve methodically tested all kinds of sleep tips, tricks, and hacks. Here’s how I’ve biohacked my sleep. All the popular tips that work and the ones that don’t.

Why Humans Need Sleep

Dr Matthew Walker's Wakefulness Brain Damage Quote
A famous 2017 Matt Walker quote.

I grew up with the notion that sleep would consume eight hours—1/3 of life. Teenage years introduced me to the other camp. The ones espousing “sleep is for the weak”, or “I’ll sleep when I die”. Motivational memes and sensationalist tabloids praise the so-called “sleepless elite”. Society rewards sleep deprivation. Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep [Amazon] shattered my conditioning on sleep.

I could hardly believe my eyes. This researcher audaciously claimed:

In the ensuing pages, he eloquently argued that sleep is the most important thing you do every day for:

  • Repairing damaged tissues
  • Cleaning the brain
  • Detoxifying
  • Processing emotions
  • Balancing hormones
  • Relaxing the mind
  • Preparing for the following day
  • Making sense of events
  • Protecting against disease

And myriad functions science is still uncovering. But we know a few things about the effects of sleep deprivation:

  • People look physically less attractive
  • Increases risk of physical and mental illness
  • Disrupts the activity of 711+ genes
  • Causes weight gain through disruption of hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, and stimulation of the endocannabinoid system
  • Reduces microbiome diversity
  • Hyperactives fear response to life events
  • 200-300% increased risk of calcification of arteries, heart attack, or stroke
  • The body produces fewer antibodies in response to vaccines, making them less effective
  • Disrupts blood sugar levels to the equivalent functionality of a pre-diabetic
  • Reduces HDL, considered the “good cholesterol” (but I’m not convinced LDL is all “bad”)
  • Plummets testosterone levels in just one night
  • Reduces motor coordination and cognition equivalent to heavy drinking

My “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mindset was ruining my current quality of life and capping my potential healthspan.

The nail in the coffin, however, is the detrimental effect on physical fitness. Sleep-deprived weight loss comes primarily from lean body mass. I unknowingly thwarted my hard work in the gym by burning muscle instead of body fat.

Dr. Walker presents thousands of facts in his landmark book Why We Sleep. Despite internet critics griping over a few of his assertions, it’s a must-read for anyone doubting sleep’s necessity.

But I began wondering a common question.

How Much Should I Sleep?

Until I began using the Oura Ring I conflated time in bed with time asleep.

Yet I’m actually asleep 45-60 minutes less every night. Though I don’t really notice, I have “micro-wakeups” throughout the night.

My nightly ~7 hours in bed translated to 6-6.5 hours of time asleep. An amount insufficient for 99.9 percent of the population (according to Dr Walker).

“Only that which is tracked can be improved.”

Peter Drucker

Getting a quality self-quantification wearable like the Oura or Biostrap is the first step to improving sleep. It provides a window into your current baseline.

So how much should you actually sleep?

There’s an easy way to gauge. How you perform in the morning. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Can you wakeup without an alarm clock? Enough sleep.
  • Can you function without caffeine before noon? Enough sleep.
  • Can you go back to sleep after getting up? Insufficient sleep.

Another simple test is to venture off the grid. Go camping and note your natural sleep and wake timings. That’s what you need, despite the distractions of modern life.

Through trial-and-error I settled on my sweet spot of 9 hours “in bed” time for 8 to 8.5 hours of asleep time.

To get more out of my time in bed, I experiment heavily with different sleep hacks.

The Effective Sleep Hacks

Sleep Environment
My ideal sleep environment is free from sensory stimuli.

When it comes to biohacking, I always prioritize basics before adding fancy technologies. I’ve found that the key to good sleep is to start preparing early.

Sleep hacks fall into categories:

  • Environment (temperature, light, sound, smell)
  • Practices & routines
  • Prior physical activity
  • Nutrition and compounds

For the best sleep, optimize each. If it’s too much, I suggest choosing the easiest options from each category.

Environment tips for sleep:

  • Essential oils before bed
  • Cold room (62-68 degrees)
  • Dark shades, eye mask, bright LEDs covered with tape
  • Earplugs or white-noise generator
  • Air filter to allow for easy nose breathing
  • Inclined head of the bed slightly to stimulate glymphatic drainage.
  • Use sleep hacking apps like Sleep Cycle to wake up during the light sleep stage.

Practices & routines for sleep:

  • Cold showers. 15-30 minutes after a cold shower, core body temperature decreases. This preps the body for sleep. I was skeptical at first but quickly felt the effects.
  • Breathwork. An intense practice like the Wim Hof Method an hour or two before bed. Or something relaxing (like 4-7-8 breathing, box breathing, or alternate nostril breathing) once laying down. All help me wind down, calm the mind and release excess energy.
  • Sauna use. 15-30 minutes in hot air puts me right to sleep. I use a homemade near infrared sauna. But when the gyms are open, I’m found combining the traditional sauna with a cold shower is best for sleep.
  • Hot baths. I’m only now re-discovered baths. Hot baths earlier in the night absolutely knock me out. Possibly the #1 sleep hack. Ideally, I finish up around two hours before bed. After a long, hot bath I won’t get anything done, so I plan accordingly.
  • Red light therapy. Red light naturally occurs during sunset. It primes the body for sleep and recovery. Most of us are severely deficient in red and overstimulated by blue. So I use a special device in conjunction with my sauna (see this post to find your ideal red light therapy panel).
  • Mouth taping. I recently wrote about how this strange practice helps me become a nose breather and sleep deeper.
  • Earthing. I don’t feel sleepy from touching the bare ground. But I do wake up better rested from the same amount of sleep. Earthing is a great way to help the body clear inflammation, pain, and common ailments that interfere with recovery.

Movement for sleep:

  • Competitive sports. The more draining the movement, the longer, deeper, and better I sleep. With fewer wakeups too.
  • Low-level movement throughout the day. Not as effective as intense exercise, but still increases sleep duration and reduces wakeups.
  • Strength training. Improves deep sleep and sometimes REM.
  • Yoga or stretching. Not only does it feel good afterward, but it relaxes the mind. Additionally, it prepares the body for a long period of complete stillness.

For sleep purposes, any intense exercise should end at least 2 hours before bed in order to allow for resting heart rate to drop (maximum recovery). Gentle movements like stretching are safe to perform closer to sleep.

Nutrition & compounds for sleep:

  • Full-spectrum hemp. I’ve tried seemingly all sleep supplements. The cannabinoids CBD, and to an even greater extent, CBN put me to sleep. I always go for full-spectrum products whenever possible due to the synergy effect. With cannabinoids, I can sleep a full hour longer than typical (very uncharacteristic of me).
  • Glycine & chamomile. Most nights I drink Dr. Mercola’s tea before bed (get my favorite Autophagy Tea recipes here). While these are only two of the four ingredients, both are well known to promote sleep.
  • Pre-bed snack when keto. Long-term low-carb with exercise can deplete the brain of glucose. When it runs out, it uses the stress hormone cortisol to create more. As a side effect, this wakes you up (often around 3-4 AM). A tablespoon of raw, local honey, a handful of berries, or a teaspoon of MCT oil all keep me asleep longer.
  • Taurine. The same ingredient used to take the edge off energy drinks has great sleep-enhancing properties. A little-known but potent way to increase the brain’s winding-down neurotransmitter called GABA. Taurine is non-habit forming and cheap.
  • PhGABA (occasional). I’m hesitant to list phGABA (phenibut). It’s a supplemental form of GABA that enters the brain. This stuff knocks me out. I can sleep 9+ hours with it. If you can hold yourself to a max of once or twice per week, phenibut is a useful tool. Note that withdrawal from abuse is nasty. Most people are better off avoiding it.

The Ineffective Sleep Hacks

I’m grateful for all the new sleep technologies, supplements, and strategies flooding the market. I constantly vet them and haven’t had good experiences with:

  • Magnesium. Nearly everyone’s deficient. Magnesium is one of my favorite daily supplements. I take four different forms of it. Topical magnesium oil relaxes me within two minutes of application. The biggest benefit is that I’m no longer jolted awake by random cramps. I haven’t noticed much improvement in sleep quality though.
  • Blue blocking glasses. Blue light at night suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin. But I don’t feel more rested from wearing blue blockers. Nor does my Oura show higher sleep scores. Perhaps because I use blue-blocking software called IrisTech on my electronics. I’m also not convinced that blue is the only sleep-disrupting spectrum of light.
  • Pre-bed screen avoidance. I know not to use technology before bed. For at least an hour, preferably two. But I cherish the evening hours to do my creative work, mostly on the computer. Ultimately, I’m unwilling to sacrifice these productive hours for marginal sleep improvements.
  • Hot showers. Shower timing matters. Hot showers improve sleep when taken at least 90 minutes before bed. Since I shower within 30 minutes of sleep, cold showers make a noticeable difference.
  • White or pink noise. These sound-canceling audio tracks drown out loud city noise (sirens and traffic) that induce a subconscious stress response. I tried multiple different tracks, companies, and types. White and pink noise actually disrupted my sleep — waking me more throughout the night. I felt drained each morning I used them.
  • Alcohol. Far from a biohack, but a few drinks as a nightcap wrecks my sleep. It becomes severely fragmented and the idea alchemy stage of sleep called REM is virtually absent. I now turn elsewhere for relaxation and winding down.

Biohacking Sleep Gadgets Wish List

Sleep technology is evolving quickly and I have a few things on my wishlist:

  1. Light alarm clock. Though I usually wake a few minutes ahead of my alarm naturally, I like the idea of a standalone, non-iPhone alarm clock that emits light. As your alarm time approaches, it gradually increases the brightness, simulating the sun. Bonus points for a clocking that emits full-spectrum light.
  2. Ooler. Temperature is one of the primary determinants of sleep quality. Your body only begins repairing after it drops below a certain threshold. Air conditioning helps me maintain an optimal 68-degree ambient room temperature, but that’s not natural. Naturally, temperature should drop throughout the night and rise through morning. Ooler is a water-cooled blanket that fluctuates in accordance with proper biological sleep cycles.
  3. NuCalm. The device’s founder has worked on the technology for decades and finally released his masterpiece. NuCalm is essentially an upgraded version of binaural beats that shifts the body into the parasympathetic recovery state. Causing greater recovery and rejuvenation from sleep. Unlike binaural beats, which stop working over time, you don’t develop tolerance. Their software varies the frequency to prevent the body from easily adjusting to the tones.
  4. Magnolia Bark. A cool supplement has been shown to reduce insomnia, reduce wake-ups throughout the night, and increase REM. Magnolia bark even speeds up the time transitioning between different phases of sleep. It’s believed to work by increasing the rest-promoting GABA(A) activity. If you’re stressed, magnolia helps reduce adrenaline levels. Finally, magnolia bark activates the body’s built-in restorative processes called the endocannabinoid system.
  5. Ecklonia cava. Seawood rarely make lists of top sleep supplements. Ecklonia Cava, however, contains a class of compounds called phlorotannins. One study shows that Ecklonia works on the same sedating GABA receptors as prescription benoz. Investigations of supplement extracts find significantly decreased sleep latency, increased sleep duration, and faster time to fall asleep. As well as increased REM sleep.

Sleep: The Overlooked Foundation of Peak Performance

Ultimately sleep cannot be “hacked” per se. How can we hack something that we don’t understand? And researchers are a long ways from fully understanding sleep.

The two critical facets of sleep are:

  • Quantity
  • Quality.

I know that I need more time in bed. With intense exercise, 7 hours isn’t enough for full recovery. I began working on my sleep when my Oura Ring showed I consistently overestimate my sleep time by 45-60 minutes.

In my college years, I looked for any and every way to shortcut sleep. I realized that If I could function on six hours instead of seven, I’d gain 15 days over the course of a year. I tried crazy polyphasic sleep patterns to success… until I missed one of my five naps spread equally throughout the day. Which caused me to spiral downward. I tried special devices and practices that claimed to reduce the need for sleep. All to no avail.

By no means is sleeping longer easy. I wake up early, excited to take on the day. And go to sleep late, enjoying the final hours of work. But I control the primary factors influencing my sleep.

My overarching pillars of sleep enhancement include:

  1. Creating a sensory stimulus-free environment
  2. Reducing body temperature and heart rate
  3. Supporting inhibitory sleep neurotransmitters
  4. Wake during the lightest phase of sleep.

Even then, the longest slumber does no good if it’s not restorative. If hacking sleep is possible, it’s improving quality (and not quantity). Of the sleep boosters, I found what works for me:

  • Supplements: glycine & chamomile, full-spectrum hemp, and occasional GABA boosters
  • Intense exercise
  • Breathwork
  • Extreme temperatures

On top of creating the perfect sleeping den, I use these basics to sleep better when I travel or am in new environments.

I’m strengthening my Achilles by time boxing my days. I’m prioritizing winding down earlier in the evening. I still test technologies and practices I come across in hopes of uncovering an effective hack to get by with less. But I haven’t yet found anything that’s the cure for bad sleep.

Do you have the secret to deep, high-quality, restorative sleep?

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Nick Urban

Nick Urban is the Founder of Outliyr, an expert biohacker of 10+ years, Data Scientist, Certified CHEK Practitioner, host of the Mind Body Peak Performance Podcast, and a High-Performance Coach.

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