I rarely talk about my Achilles heel. Sleep.
I sleep lightly. The faintest whisper, blinking LED, or scent will rouse me from my deepest slumber. My Oura Ring records dozens of 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.
I turned to a sleep study for answers. I was “just to wear” a clunky wearable strapped to my wrist, a pulse oximeter caged around my finger, and 12-point leads covering my chest. Feeling like a futuristic gear-laden Marvel superhero didn’t produce a great night of sleep. I took my diagnosis of acute sleep apnea in stride.
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 am gradually improving. Over the years I’ve methodically tested all kinds of sleep tips, tricks, and hacks. Here’s my experience of what’s worked and what hasn’t.
Why We Need Sleep
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
- 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
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 actually sleep 45 minutes to 1 hour less every night. I lose the time to hardly perceivable micro-wakeups throughout the night.
My nightly 7 hours in bed translated to 6-6.5 hours of real sleep. An amount insufficient for 99.9 percent of the population (according to Dr Walker).
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?
- Can you function without caffeine before noon?
- Can you go back to sleep after getting up?
Another simple test is to venture off the grid. Go camping and note your natural sleep and wake cycle. That’s what you need despite the distractions of technology-connected modern life.
Through trial-and-error I settled on my sweet spot of 9 hours “in bed” time or 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
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.
- Essential oils before bed.
- Cold room (68 degrees)
- Dark shades and eye mask
Practices & Routines
- 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 more relaxing (like 4-7-8 breathing) once laying down. Both 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.
- Mouth taping. I recently wrote about how this strange practice helps me become a nose breather and sleep deeper.
- 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.
Nutrition & Compounds
- Full-spectrum hemp. I’ve tried almost every sleep supplement under the sun. Quality full-spectrum cannabinoids put me to sleep. I can sleep a full hour later than typical (very uncharacteristic of me).
- Glycine & chamomile. Most nights I drink Dr. Mercola’s Autophagy Tea before bed. While these are only two of the four ingredients, both are well known for promoting 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. 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.
- Phenibut (occasional). I’m hesitant to list 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:
- 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.
- 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 glasses block the other non-blue sleep-disrupting spectrums 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.
Biohacking Sleep Gadgets Wish List
Sleep technology is evolving quickly and I have a few things on my wishlist:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Sleep: The Overlooked Foundation of Peak Performance
The two critical facets of sleep are: quantity & quality.
I know that I need more time in bed. 7 hours on top of physical exertion isn’t enough for full recovery. I began paying more attention when my Oura Ring showed that my actual time asleep is 45-60 minutes less.
In my college years, I looked for any and every way to shortcut sleep. If I could function the same on an hour less sleep every night, I’d reclaim 15 days. I tried crazy polyphasic sleep patterns to success… until I missed one of my five naps spread equally throughout the day. I spiraled downward. I tried special devices and practices that claimed to reduce the need for sleep. 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.
Even then, the longest slumber does no good if it’s not restorative. Sleep quality is where the hacks come in. Of the sleep boosters, I found what works for me:
- Supplements: glycine & chamomile, full-spectrum hemp, and occasional phenibut
- Intense exercise
- 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 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.
What’s your secret to deep, high-quality, restorative sleep?