Sleep. One of the most underrated and over-neglected aspects of our health and wellness. It’s tied to everything. Muscle recovery, decreasing inflammation, healing the body, cognitive repair, sex hormone production, stress (both ways- in that stress affects sleep quality/duration, and sleep quality/duration affects stress), emotional health, digestion, blood pressure, etc.
It’s not just how many hours we get. Sleep timing and quality is HUGE as well. When our circadian rhythm is off, our hormones follow suit. When out of sync, the body can produce stress hormones when it’s time for sleep, and sleepy hormones when it’s time for work. This article from bengreenfieldlife.com takes a super deep dive into all things sleep related. It’s an in-depth read, so here’s some of my basic, tip-of-the-iceberg sleep hygiene tips to get started:
May 22, 2018
Allow me to paint a picture for you of me going to bed.
Within five minutes after crashing into my dual gel-layer mattress, I have two tiny electrodes on either side of my head to gently lull my brain into a state of enhanced serotonin and dopamine production, combined with complete minimization of cortisol. Pumped via noise-blocking headphones into either ear are relaxing sleep beats that lull me into a delta brainwave state, along with artificial intelligence generated sleep sounds that “confuse” my brain into a state of tiredness.
A tiny device on my collarbone sends a pulsed electromagnetic field signal via the nerve plexus near my neck up into my brain to cause a generation of even more relaxing delta brain waves, and after a particularly stressful day, another similar device is placed near the occipital bone on the back of my head.
On the bedside, a lavender-rose-bergamot essential oil blend is diffusing a nebulizing oil diffuser, enveloping me in a relaxing, sleep-inducing aroma. Surging under my body is 55-degree cold water generated by a small box next to the bed. I remove my blue-light blocking glasses and – to complete an extreme state of relaxation – replace them with a luscious, silky wrap around sleep mask, affectionately dubbed by my wife as my “sleep princess” mask.
Perhaps she is right. Perhaps I really am a sleep princess. But I’ll own it, because I attribute the extreme priority I place upon sleep quantity and quality to be crucial to much of my career, relationship, and athletic success. See, as you’re about to discover, sleep is not only crucial for cognitive function, focus, and self-control, but it’s also, when deficient or imbalanced, one of the top causes of everything from poor blood sugar control to inflammation to food cravings to lack of recovery to depression and beyond.
Of course, despite the fact that the seemingly laborious pre-sleep routine outlined above may seem like a stressful flurry of distracting and potentially unnecessary activities to complete prior to sleep, it is instead a series of fully automated, subconscious habits that take me less than five minutes to implement. At the same time, I understand that I’m a relentless self-experimenter and immersive journalist whose job is to actually test what works and what doesn’t when it comes to enhancing relaxation, de-stressing, and deep sleep – so I definitely don’t expect everyone to go to such extreme measures with their own bedtime sleep routine. However, small sleep routine adjustments – such as optimizing a room’s sleep temperature or knowing how to change your brain waves with simple pieces of technology – can add up quite quickly when it comes to changing your life, your health, and your productivity.
And the truth is, since cracking the code on sleep by using even the non-advanced, simple and fast techniques in this article that are very easy to learn, my sleep quality is absolutely shocking – whether I’m curled up in a sleeping bag after a day of bowhunting in the high mountains of Colorado or crashed out on a plane while flying to Dubai to speak to a roomful of anti-aging docs. In other words, you’re about to discover the stuff from the trenches that actually works.
I sleep seven-and-a-half to nine hours every twenty-four hours, usually seven to eight hours at night plus a twenty- to sixty-minute nap during the day. When I hit this targeted amount of sleep, my workouts are better, my heart rate is awesome, my nerves are sharp, and my creativity and memory are at their peaks.
This may seem like a lot of sleep to you, but sleep is pretty darn important. And 99.99 percent of the time, if someone says that he or she needs “less sleep than the average person,” they’re lying to you or to themselves – or both. Granted, not everyone responds the same way to sleep curtailment, and twin studies have uncovered surprising genetic variations that may protect some people from sleep deprivation. For example, the mutations that occur to the p.Tyr362His BHLHE41 gene appears to allow some people to tolerate shorter sleep durations and maintain normal alertness and limited signs of inflammation.
Unfortunately, this genetic variation is extremely uncommon, and even successful celebrities and athletes who don’t sleep very much – the “sleepless elite,” like Barack Obama, Dean Karnazes, Martha Stewart, and Donald Trump, all of whom claim to sleep only four or five hours a night – are probably sacrificing something in some other part of their life to get such lowly amounts of shut-eye.
Somewhere in their life (for reasons that are about to become clear), creativity or memory is suffering. Somewhere in their body, inflammation is running rampant. Somewhere in a muscle or brain cell, regeneration is not occurring. This is the kind of biological damage you invite when you don’t sleep enough, especially when you combine lack of sleep with intense physical or mental activity. As a matter of fact, if you don’t sleep, you will die more quickly.
OK, so this may be a slight exaggeration. After all, nearly everyone has pulled an all-nighter at least once. Although it can be an unpleasant experience, you can pretty much recover completely from it with one single night of a solid eight to nine hours of sleep. But cumulative sleep loss is a different story altogether.
In one study, sleep researchers constructed a cruel contraption that woke up rats as soon as they fell asleep. Using this contraption, it took an average of three weeks to kill a rat by sleep deprivation. Other research has shown demonstrable brain damage in sleep-deprived rats, primarily because of a severe lack of neurogenesis (regrowth or rebuilding of new brain neurons) from rampant levels of sleep-deprivation-induced cortisol.
While sleep deprivation is a well-known form of torture for rats, for ethical reasons researchers could not reproduce these studies in humans. But by looking at sleep disorders, we can get a pretty clear idea of what happens when people don’t sleep enough.
For example, death occurs within a few months in humans who have fatal familial insomnia, a mutation that causes the affected person to suffer from a progressively worsening insomnia that ends in death within a few months. Morvan’s syndrome is another example of lack of sleep causing death: In this case, the autoimmune disease destroys the brain’s potassium channels, which leads to severe insomnia and death.
Because of their ability to cause high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs each year. And that does not include the cost of accidents and lost productivity at work, which in America alone amounts to $150 billion each year. Remember the disaster at Three Mile Island? Chernobyl? The gas leak at Bhopal? The Zeebrugge ferry accident? The Exxon Valdez oil spill? If you do a little research, you’ll find that these and many other major industrial disasters have been directly linked to sleep deprivation.
So why is sleep deprivation fatal? Primarily because depriving the body of sleep is synonymous to speeding up the aging process. There are two primary reasons for this:
1) The brain cleans up cellular garbage while you sleep;
2) The body repairs itself while you sleep.
Let’s begin by looking at the first reason – the need to clean up cellular garbage. One of the most important functions of sleep is the reorganization of neural networks in your brain. All day long – even on the most boring day possible – you are consciously or subconsciously learning new things, memorizing facts or task processes, acquiring skills, establishing new memories through creative associations, meeting new people, and the like. After a long day of these activities, your brain is full of myriad discrete pieces of information that have to be integrated with all the other things you have learned previously in your life.
During a night of sleep, you absorb and process all this information. At the same time, relatively new research shows that toxins are flushed from the brain through lymphatic vessels in the brain, called glymphatics (interestingly, lying on your side when you sleep may be the most efficient position for toxins to flush out of the brain through the glymphatics). If this reorganization and glymphatic drainage isn’t allowed to occur, your mind becomes a chaotic storehouse for cellular garbage, and although you do not actually “run out of space” to store new memories, if new information you have learned is not linked to established memories, it simply gets flushed out in Stage 3 and 4 sleep (which you’ll learn about soon). Once this happens, it affects nearly all functions of your body that are governed by your central nervous system, and your body eventually begins to malfunction, especially with long term sleep deprivation.
These malfunctions typically manifest as:
-Problems with heat or cold regulation
-A decline in immune function
-An increase in cortisol, catecholamines, and other stress hormones
-Imbalances in appetite- and blood-sugar-regulating hormones
-Increased levels of inflammatory hormones, such as interleukin and C-reactive protein
In later stages of sleep deprivation, you experience malnutrition, hallucinations, malfunctions of your autonomic nervous system (e.g. heart arrhythmias or kidney and liver dysfunction), changes in cell-adhesion and cell-clotting abilities, skin lesions, and DNA damage. So that’s the first reason you die a slow death if you don’t sleep: your body basically falls apart.
This is why it can be so freaking hard to do a run, bike, swim, WOD, or race when you’re sleep deprived – much less make it through a day of mentally or physically demanding work. Your body is chock full of inflammation, hormone imbalances, and blood sugar dysregulation and is operating well below peak mental and physical capability. Unfortunately, many people live most of their adult lives in this state, thinking that it is completely normal to feel like a walking zombie.
It’s very important for you to understand that the fix is not simply “an easy day” or a period of time spent putting your feet up. Unlike rest or conservation of energy, the mechanics of neural repair require your brain to be restricted from an environmental input (but not shut off entirely, as if that occurred you’d never hear smoke alarms, babies crying, etc.). This means you must actually be sleeping for the repair magic to happen.
The second reason you’ll die if you don’t sleep is that sleep is the primary anabolic state of the human body. During nighttime sleep, you experience an increase in growth hormone and testosterone—two crucial muscle-repairing hormones that also significantly affect your neural growth and the way you feel during the day. One study describes these nighttime hormonal surges as playing a “crucial role in consolidating and enhancing waking experience.” And it’s why you feel so damn good after a solid night of sleep. It’s also why your body can take two to three times longer to repair and recover from physical exercise when you’re not sleeping.
Not only do your muscles get a chance to fully repair and recover when you’re sleeping, but the same can be said for the restoration of your adrenal glands, the detoxification of your body by your liver, and the rebuilding of your immune system. As a matter of fact, one of the leading causes of death in those rats that underwent sleep deprivation was opportunistic bacterial infections resulting from a decline in immune function.
So when you don’t sleep enough, your body is in a continuous hormonally depleted, catabolic state and gets sicker and sicker.
And this is why I shake my head and laugh at people who brag about how little they sleep. They’re shrinking their brains, shrinking their muscles, and making themselves sick.
Your Night Of Sleep: Decoded
If you don’t want to die before your time and you want to optimize your performance, it’s essential that you understand the basics of your circadian rhythm. Everything else you are going to learn in this article will make much better sense if you have a basic understanding of what a typical twenty-four-hour cycle looks like. As you read through this section on circadian rhythm, you’ll also discover many of my practical tips sprinkled throughout, so don’t skim over this section because you “don’t like science”. It’s important, and I promise to make it simple to understand.
Starting at about 6 a.m., you experience a surge of cortisol. This surge of morning cortisol is what turns on your brain and body. It also coincides with the release of the very important hormone vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, fittingly called VIP. VIP causes a variety of important wake-up actions, such as increased contractility in your heart, vasodilation (widening of your blood vessels), and liver glycogenolysis (breakdown of your liver’s glycogen to naturally bring your blood sugar up).
VIP relaxes the smooth muscle of your trachea, stomach, and gallbladder, which means that, within two hours of waking, it’s a good time for a bowel movement. I’ve personally found that with about a half-teaspoon of the ayurvedic herb Triphala at night, combined with about 400mg of magnesium and a piping hot cup of morning black coffee, I can poo like clockwork right around 8:30 am every morning, which is exactly two hours after I typically wake. VIP also results in a natural surge of ghrelin, a hunger hormone, which can make you feel like eating breakfast. If you happen to have hunger-hormone imbalances, which often manifest as cravings throughout the day, this is why it is very important to eat a meal in the morning at some point in the two hours after waking—this regularly timed morning breakfast resets your circadian clock and begins to get your hormones in rhythm. In other words, skipping breakfast or “defying morning hunger” by fasting until lunch is not a good idea if you have hormone imbalances or trouble sleeping late at night.
Decent exposure to morning sunlight helps maximize the effect of this cortisol release by giving your body a little kick start to get your circadian rhythm normalized. That morning sun can help your cortisol levels naturally decline later at night, and can create a normalized circadian rhythm, so if you miss the sun in the morning, it can be bad news for your sleep! If you can’t step outside in the morning to get at least five, and preferably up to twenty minutes of morning sunlight, you can still maximize this natural release of cortisol with small to moderate amounts of coffee, green tea, adaptogenic herbs, or even fancy light–producing devices such as the HumanCharger in-ear light device and the Re-Timer glasses. However, nothing is quite as effective as natural sunlight; this is why you may find that you need very little or no coffee in the summer, but you’re a complete bear if you don’t get your morning cup in the dark winter months. In an ideal scenario, while sipping my morning coffee, I use the Human Charger and Re-Timer simultaneously for about twenty minutes, then use the bathroom, and proceed to head outside into the morning sunlight for a 20-30 minute aerobic exercise session (more on exercise timing later in this article).
At about 9 or 10 a.m., sex hormone secretion peaks. This is helpful information if you want to know the best time of day for a “quickie,” or if your libido is flagging and you want to give it some help. Interestingly, sex at this time of day may also help reset your circadian rhythm if you’re having difficulty sleeping at night. So morning movement, morning light, a morning meal, and a morning romp in the bedroom can all encourage a normal circadian rhythm.
At about 2:30 p.m., you experience a peak in muscle coordination and reaction time. So this can be one good time to exercise or play sports. However, at around 5 p.m., your cardiovascular efficiency, body temperature, muscle repair, protein synthesis, and workout-recovery capability peak, so this is an even better time of day to exercise, especially if your workout is intense. For this reason, whenever I have the luxury of choosing when I can perform a hard workout, I usually do it in the later afternoon to early evening, finishing up around 4 hours prior to bedtime. This means not only that I’m exercising hard when my body is most able to do so, but also that I’m eating my post-exercise dinner during a time of peak protein synthesis and muscle repair. This is also why I encourage folks to do any easy, aerobic exercise earlier in the morning and harder interval training or weight training later in the day. If you’re eating the majority of your carbohydrates late in the day, as I do, a hard later day exercise routine also ensures that you’re very insulin and carbohydrate “sensitive”, and far less likely to experience large spikes in blood glucose or insulin from evening carbohydrate intake.
Next comes sunset, which is obviously going to depend on the time of year and where you’re living. At this point, your blood pressure peaks. Interestingly, this is also a time when body temperature can peak again, which is why an early-evening cold shower or cold soak can help you get to sleep a bit better by lowering your core temperature. Around sunset, the hormone leptin is released from your fat stores. If your circadian rhythm is in sync and leptin is able to do its job properly, leptin can actually shift your body into fatty-acid utilization, suppress your appetite, and control any late-night food cravings. But excessive nighttime light exposure and enormous evening meals can actually inhibit leptin release, so limiting large amounts of late-night snacking and smartphone tapping is a good idea if you want to normalize your circadian rhythm.
From sunset until bedtime, leptin continues to rise to control your appetite. Adiponectin, another hormone that can assist with fatty-acid metabolism, also tends to rise during this time (interestingly, taking 300–500 milligrams of magnesium before bed can enhance adiponectin release even more). Unfortunately, high levels of insulin can hamper adiponectin production, so if you’ve constantly got high levels of insulin circulating from a high-calorie evening meal or lack of activity in the later afternoon or early evening, your nighttime fatty-acid utilization can be suppressed. This is why it’s very important to limit snacking—especially on carbohydrates or protein-laden foods—in the evening. Incidentally, some forms of calories, such as coconut oil, MCT oil, nut butter, seeds and nuts and even fructose from a source such as raw honeyin moderation do not actually spike insulin significantly and would be an acceptable evening calorie source.
Assuming that you haven’t been drowning in artificial light from televisions, movie screens, computer screens, smartphones, e-readers, and bright household light bulbs, and that you’ve equipped your sleep environment with light-blocking devices such as a sleep mask and blackout curtains, your body starts secreting the hormone melatonin at around 10 p.m. Melatonin allows your body to sleep and recuperate, turns off waking brain activity to allow for neuronal repair, pulls oxygen and needed hormones away from muscle tissue and other cells, and generally makes it difficult to be physically active and easy to sleep.
The other thing that happens at around 10 p.m. is that a protein called agouti peaks, which can stimulate your appetite the same way the hunger hormone ghrelin does—unless leptin is there to play bouncer, keeping the door shut on agouti protein. So you can see how you set yourself up for a vicious cycle of poor sleep, fat gain and a nighttime explosion of cravings if you snack from sunset to bedtime, because snacking causes blood glucose fluctuations and high insulin levels, which causes a drop in leptin and leptin sensitivity and subsequent suppression of leptin. That means leptin won’t be around to counteract agouti protein, so you get massively hungry when you’re supposed to be falling asleep! Sound familiar?
Gastrointestinal activity begins to quiet down at around 11, so you should not need to use the bathroom until you wake up, which is yet another reason to train your body to take one giant glorious morning dump. At around midnight, melatonin peaks, and that’s when leptin is able to enter an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This is very important from a metabolic and weight-control or fat-loss standpoint because when leptin enters your hypothalamus, your fat reserves are released and your thyroid receives a signal to upregulate thyroid function.
When leptin enters the hypothalamus, it also induces changes in your mitochondria to help them produce heat. When you are asleep, your core temperature falls, and your body has to maintain a set point of warmth, which can’t be generated from running or lifting weights. In the same way that cold thermogenesis allows you to create brown adipose tissue that then produces heat from calories, a good sleep cycle also allows your mitochondria to produce heat from calories. So, in an ideal world, you mobilize and burn your fat stores while you sleep. Starting to get an idea of why obesity is linked to lack of sleep?
It is also around this midnight point in the cycle that melatonin enters an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, and when it does, it decreases your neuron-firing rate. Basically, melatonin slows down your brain and allows your neurons and nervous system to heal while cementing learning and memory and allowing you to feel a lot sharper when you wake up in the morning.
The other nice thing that happens when melatonin peaks at around midnight is that you get a release of prolactin, which is an incredibly important hormone. A deficiency in prolactin (often found in postmenopausal women) can cause a decline in brain activity, a propensity to gain weight, and high levels of inflammatory cytokine molecules associated with lack of recovery and chronic pain. Meanwhile, balanced prolactin levels increase the recycling of cells, the renewal of cells, and the creation of new cells. It also promotes the release of growth hormone.
If not much prolactin is released while you sleep, you tend to produce less growth hormone, which can cause low levels of DHEA, another very important hormone. Low levels of these hormones result in reduced cardiac function and reduced skeletal muscle function. You can now understand that, if melatonin doesn’t enter the suprachiasmatic nucleus or leptin doesn’t enter the hypothalamus, there will be some serious repercussions, especially for heart health, muscle repair, full-body recovery, and daily physical performance.
Interestingly, adequate levels of DHEA and growth hormone maintain a woman’s reproductive cycle: Without adequate levels of them, women begin menopause earlier. In menopause, the body no longer produces the corpus luteum, an endocrine structure that is essential to the female sexual reproductive function. The corpus luteum causes a monthly surge of progesterone, which is necessary to balance estrogen levels. When estrogen is out of balance because progesterone is low from low levels of growth hormone and DHEA, women end up with issues like cognitive decline, loss of bone density, and weight gain. And a lot of women bring on these issues purely with a lack of sleep.
Between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., your core temperature falls the most drastically, allowing for more neuron and nervous system repair, neuron growth, an upregulation of circulating T cells (the killer cells of your immune system), and a decrease in inflammation. If you can get solid sleep during this phase, you’ll have a stronger immune system and less inflammation. But in order for your core temperature to drop like this, you need to have been asleep for up to six hours already. So unless you’re genetically programmed to be a night owl (more on that later) if you’re going to sleep at, say, midnight, your body is going to get less rebuilding and repair done between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. In addition, I personally support this drop in temperature by sleeping on a device called a Chilipad, which circulates cool water at my chosen temperature of 55 degrees below my body during the entire night of sleep. I also keep my home at about 63-65 degrees during the night.
Interestingly, that drop in temperature signals your body to begin producing cortisol at about 6 a.m., which restarts the entire cycle. At that point, you rinse, wash and repeat the entire cycle, healing your body, building new neurons, and strengthening your immune system along the way. Pretty cool, huh? Are you convinced yet that sleep is important?
How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
So how much sleep do you really need? This is a big can of worms. Because of age, genetics, environment, and individual differences in daily physical and mental strain, which are all elements of each person’s unique “chronobiology”, there can be huge variations in ideal necessary sleep times.
Granted, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has established decent guidelines based on their relatively up-to-date sleep research but even those guidelines do not take into account the significant chronobiological variations that exist from person to person.
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School-Age Children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Young Adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
- Older Adults (65+): 7-8 hours
However, you can at least get a basic idea of sleep needs from the NSF guidelines. For example, if you’re reading this article, you probably fall into the category of “Adults.” In most adults, sleeping fewer than seven hours a night is associated with decreased alertness and increased risk of chronic disease, while sleeping more than nine hours a night is associated with a shorter life and an increased risk of chronic disease (that’s right: more sleep is not necessarily better, and some studies indicate that in the average population, more than nine hours of sleep per night may be associated with decreased health).
In addition to unique chronobiological needs, physical activity also plays a huge role in sleep requirements. The more active you are, the more sleep you likely need.
The importance of extra sleep for athletes and exercise enthusiasts can be highlighted by the fact that:
-Maximum bench press drops twenty pounds after four days of restricted sleep.
-With proper sleep, tennis players see a 42 percent increase in hitting accuracy.
-Sleep loss means an 11 percent reduction in time to exhaustion.
-Perceived exertion increases 17–19 percent after thirty hours of sleep deprivation.
There are also proven effects of restricting sleep on different performance indicators, including:
- A reduction in cardio-respiratory capacity and potentially negative effect on maximum strength levels.
- Interference of the recovery processes that take place during sleep.
- Increase in symptoms such as depression, confusion, anger, fatigue, and reduced vigor.
- Increase in levels of catabolic hormones such as cortisol in rest…
- Reduction of anabolic hormones such as GH, IGF-1, and testosterone.
- Increased probability of acquiring an injury due to reduced cognitive performance and proprioceptive and neuromuscular alternation.
- The decrease in the immune function may make the athlete more vulnerable to the possibility of suffering from infections, especially of the upper airways.
- A reduction of lean muscle mass due to an unfavorable anabolic setting.
Are you getting the idea that athletes and physically active people may need to sleep more? In my experience speaking with Ironman triathletes, UFC fighters, NBA athletes and other professional athletes, performers who place a big emphasis on having peak physical capacity tend to prioritize getting ten to twelve hours of sleep per 24 hour time period, and the typical Ironman triathlete, hard-core CrossFitter, marathoner, cyclist, or exercise fanatic needs seven-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep per 24 hour time period.
In addition, athletes and very active individuals require more time to fall asleep (around 45 minutes), and can have significant difficulties achieving the daily sleep requirements (8 hours), even with naps, especially when going through states of overtraining and on days leading up to a competition. For example, a study with 632 high-performance athletes showed that over 65% of them presented sleep alterations the day before a competition, and other studies have found that figure to be as high as 80%.
Especially among athletes, sleep restriction is also a pretty big injury risk factor, and poor sleep is accompanied by significant decreases in proprioception and neuromuscular control, which is a significant cause of high rate of injuries in athletes and active individuals who sleep for less than 8 hours each day. Sleep restriction is also associated with an increase of the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines, affecting immune function and probably explaining the greater rate of upper airway infections in athletes with sleep restriction. It should also be noted that sleep restriction is accompanied by an increase of catabolic hormones such as cortisol and a reduction of anabolic hormones such as GH, IGF-1, and testosterone, which drastically affects performance and body composition, along with longevity. Long-term sleep restriction entails a progressive reduction in the levels of maximum and sub-maximum strength in a host of different exercises, and restricting sleep can also reduce the respiratory rate and the time to exhaustion in maximum incremental exercise tests. In other words, the more active you are, the more poor sleep is going to hurt you.
When I interviewed renowned sleep coach Nick Littlehales, who has been working in the field of sleep for more than 30 years with professional athletes and sports teams, including the soccer stars of Manchester United and Real Madrid, he explained how he has developed a different and somewhat unorthodox approach to ensuring that hard-charging, high-achievers, shift workers, and extremely physically active people get enough sleep. Rather than tracking a total number of hours slept per 24 hours, Littlehales and his athletes instead focus on achieving a certain number of 90-minute sleep stages.
What’s a sleep stage, anyways?
When you’re asleep, you progress through five distinct stages:
-Stage 1 is called “transition” or light sleep. This is when your eye movement and muscle activity slow down. If you’ve ever felt an arm or a leg suddenly jerk or twitch while you were drifting off, it likely happened during this stage.
-Stage 2 is when your eyes stop moving and brain waves slow.
-Stage 3 is when you’ve entered deep sleep. If you were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, it would reveal large, slow, undulating brain waves known as delta waves. Delta sleep is the farthest from being awake your brain can get, and if someone were to try and wake you during delta sleep, they’d usually have a hard time doing so.
-Stage 4 is very similar to Stage 3, except by this point in your sleep cycle, the majority of your brain waves are now delta waves. Stages 3 and 4 are now often combined together and called S3 sleep.
-Stage 5 is also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. While your eyes can indeed move rapidly during this sleep cycle, the rest of the muscles in your body are mostly paralyzed. This is also the stage at which dreams occur (dreams can occur in any stage of sleep but more likely in stage REM).
The total time required to pass through all five of the sleep stages is about 90 minutes.
In Littlehales’ system, which he details in his excellent book Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind, each 90-minute sleep stage is equal to one sleep cycle. So, two sleep cycles would require three hours of sleep, three cycles would require four and a half hours of sleep, and so on. Even if you can’t get a strict 7-9 hours of sleep per night, you should try to get 35 cycles (or five cycles per night, on average) in a given week, and try not to get any fewer than 30 cycles. I’ve found this system to come in pretty handy when I’m traveling, working hard, or have a period of time in which I can only get, say, 4-5 hours of sleep from a Monday through a Friday. By tossing in a few extra naps and a slightly longer night of sleep on Saturday and Sunday, I can still achieve at least 30 sleep cycles for a 7 day period. You self-quantifying geeks out there can actually quantify your sleep cycles using a device and app such as the Oura ring, which is what I personally use.
So when it comes to how much sleep you need, it turns out that most people do best on 7-9 hours of sleep per 24-hour cycle, and if that’s difficult to maintain based on your life schedule, you should instead shoot for 30-35 sleep cycles for any 7 day period. Furthermore, there’s no magical rule that your sleep must occur between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, and it’s instead best to use Dr. Michael Breus’ quizzes (more on him below) along with Dr. Satchin Panda’s circadian research (more on him below as well) to identify the sleep and wake cycle that works best for you.
Now that you know why you’ll die if you don’t sleep, what a normal circadian rhythm looks like, and how much sleep you really need, let’s talk about how your exercise, your food, and your supplements affect your sleep.
Exercise, Food, Supplements & Your Sleep
Over the past decade, I’ve had the privilege to interview some of the world’s top sleep researchers, sleep doctors and sleep experts on my podcast, and I’ve learned a host of practical, scientifically proven tips to enhance a night of sleep, especially when it comes to timing and the nature of your exercise, food, and supplements prior to sleep. In this section, you’re going to discover some of my biggest takeaways for each.
Let’s begin with food, which is a more fundamental element of sleep than most people realize. Here are the most important takeaways for you:
-Upon a review of the available research, it is incredibly clear how nutritional manipulation via different foods can influence the improvement of sleep in athletes. For example, foods such as fatty, coldwater fish constitute an excellent source of vitamin D and omega-3, which are important nutrients in regulating serotonin and therefore in regulating sleep. Other studies have observed the consumption of fruit in the promotion of sleep, likely due to the slow energy release from the fructose and the satiating effect of the water and fiber. For example, consuming two kiwis one hour before going to sleep for 4 weeks increased the efficiency of sleep (via increased serotonin production)try and the total time sleeping measured via actigraphy in adults with sleep disorders. Other fruits such as tart cherries have been shown to improve sleep in multiple studies, most likely due to their ability to increase melatonin. Can’t sleep or want to improve sleep? It looks like a nice, wild-caught salmon with a tart cherry sauce could be right up your alley (turns out that the higher the fiber content of your evening meal, the better you sleep as well, so don’t forget the veggies!)
-Consider consuming any high-glycemic index carbohydrates, especially any that spike the blood sugar, at least four hours before bed if you have trouble falling asleep as fast as you’d like. This means that if your sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep) is poor, then you should avoid any post-dinner desserts, and instead consider having that bar of dark chocolate or bowl of coconut ice cream after your afternoon workout instead.
-Do not consume an excessively large meal right before bed. Period. Push yourself away from the table when 80% full, and consider a 5-15 minute post-dinner walk to assist digestion. If you do eat a large meal, take a cold or lukewarm shower to cool the body’s core temperature before bed so you eliminate the risk of the pesky “meat sweats”.
-Higher protein intake (>0.7g/lb) may help sleep in the case of energy deficits. This means that if you’re dieting, you may want to up your daily protein intake on the lower calorie days. This doesn’t need to be all consumed at dinner and can be spread throughout the day.
-A high-carbohydrate diet may shorten wake times. Yep, you read right. If you wake up frequently during the night, you may simply be one of those folks who are so active that you need more carbohydrate. On any very active day, I personally do a nightly carbohydrate “refeed” of 100-200 grams of “slow-bleed” carbohydrates such as legumes, amaranth, quinoa, millet and even sweet potato, and sleep like a baby afterward.
-Keep saturated fat intake at dinner low to moderate. If you have difficulty sleeping because you feel like you have a food brick in your stomach, then don’t overdo the marbled meat fat, butter, coconut oil, etc. Keep total fat intake relatively low at dinner and later in the evening. Hence another reason for a nightly carbohydrate refeed and saving the majority of carbohydrates until the end of the day.
-I’ve discovered another potent sleep snack for a slow release of energy while you sleep, along with enough minerals to keep your blood pressure and cortisol regulated, is a giant spoonful of coconut oil, topped with a dab of almond butter, a pinch of sea salt and a drizzle of raw honey!
Next, although there are hundreds of “sleep supplements” on the market, certain compounds have actually been studied and proven to drastically improve sleep indicators. For example, serotonin and melatonin are the two primary molecules responsible for sleep regulation. Given that a diverse array of nutrients can have a direct or indirect influence on the synthesis of melatonin and serotonin, nutritional supplementation can have impressive effects on the quantity and quality of sleep.
Supplements that research has proven to assist with sleep, and supplements that you can experiment with solo or in combination to see how they affect your sleep quality and quantity include:
–Tryptophan. Yes, the “turkey dinner” amino acid really does make you sleepy. When an increase occurs in the levels of free tryptophan, whether due to a reduction of the branched-chain amino acids or to an increase of the availability of tryptophan, this amino acid crosses the blood-brain barrier and is transformed into a precursor of serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT). One of the functions of 5-HT is to cause lethargy and drowsiness, due to the fact that it acts as a precursor to melatonin in the pineal gland. The intake of proteins rich in tryptophan such as α-lactalbumin present in whey protein increases tryptophan by up to 130%, increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. Carbohydrates also increase the plasma concentration of tryptophan, which is another good reason to save the majority of your carbohydrate intake for dinner. In terms of the necessary dose of tryptophan supplementation, it has been researched that 1 gram is sufficient to improve both the quantity and the quality of sleep.
-B-complex vitamins. Niacin (Vitamin B3) can be produced endogenously from tryptophan. A sufficient amount of this vitamin means a smaller amount of tryptophan will be relegated towards forming niacin, resulting in a greater amount of tryptophan available to synthesize serotonin. Folate and pyridoxine (vitamin B6) also play a crucial role in the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. Cobalamin (vitamin B12) also contributes to the synthesis of melatonin, and is especially important for vegetarian sleep enthusiasts, due to the fact that they may have deficiencies since this vitamin is only found in food sources of animal origin. Most good multivitamins contain a complex of B vitamins, and I currently prefer the Thorne multivitamin, which includes “PM version” that contains both the B-complex and a variety of other relaxing compounds. Warning: Vitamin B can make some people more energetic at night, so be sure to experiment with this on a non-crucial sleep night!
–Magnesium. The mineral magnesium is important for the enzyme N-acetyltransferase to convert 5-Hydroxytryptamine into N-Acetyl-5-Hydroxytryptamine, which is then transformed into N-Acetyl-5-methoxy tryptamine. Want to know another word for N-Acetyl-5-methoxy tryptamine? Melatonin. So there. The most absorbable forms of magnesium are magnesium citrate, glycinate taurate, or aspartate, although magnesium that is bound to Kreb cycle chelates (malate, succinate, fumarate) is also good. Avoid magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate, and oxide. They are poorly absorbed (and the cheapest and most common forms found in supplements). Dosages are around 200-500mg, and too much magnesium can result in loose stool and disaster pants (or in this case, blankets) so proceed with caution.
–Zinc. Various studies have shown a relationship between zinc and melatonin. A zinc deficiency can reduce levels of melatonin, at least in rats. Perhaps this is why so many athletes, a population that often happens to be zinc deficient, swear by the 1-2-3 compound found in many supplements called ZMA (Zinc Monomethionine Aspartate, Magnesium Aspartate, and Vitamin B6).
–Melatonin. As you’ve already discovered, melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland (provided you are in darkness), and produces, especially in high amounts of supplementation, a sedating or hypnotic effect. In higher doses of up to 80 mg, it is often used as an alternative to sleep disorder treatments, or in my case, as a potent full body “reset” for jet lag (warning: I am not a physician, this is a very high amount of melatonin far in excess of recommended doses, this dosage is not for the faint of heart and should only be used the first night after crossing multiple time zones or traveling internationally). But you don’t need to jam tens of milligrams of melatonin down your throat on a consistent basis, and in most studies, effective doses of melatonin fall between 3-12 mg. The possible side effects of heavy, chronic use of this supplement should be taken into account, and include headaches, nausea, drowsiness during the day and even nightmares. A more natural way to increase melatonin can be via manipulation of tryptophan levels via some of the other methods above, or simply “microdosing” with melatonin at an intake of around 0.3 mg per night.
–L-Theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid most commonly found in green tea leaves and can cause a significant reduction in stress and increase in relaxation without causing drowsiness. It has been proven to cause a state of mental relaxation (without a loss of alertness) through a direct influence on the central nervous system. It crosses the blood-brain barrier in about 30 minutes and lowers activation of the sympathetic nervous system, improves post-stress relaxation, attenuates increases in cortisol levels, reduces anxiety and results in a mitigated increase in high blood pressure in response to stress. It can also counteract the reduction of slow sleep waves induced by caffeine.
–Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency (25-hydroxyvitamin D lower than 20 ng/mL) is common among people complaining of nonspecific musculoskeletal pain, hormone deficiencies, and chronic pain, but chronically low vitamin D levels are also related to symptoms of poor sleep and may also be a cofactor for the development of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and OSA-associated cardiovascular disease. Risk factors for chronically low vitamin D include dark skin tone, obesity, limited natural sunlight exposure, pregnancy, chronic anticonvulsant use, chronic steroid use, and intestinal malabsorption syndromes. Typical Vitamin D dosages are in the range of 2000-4000IU/day, and it should always be accompanied by 100-150 mcg Vitamin K2 to limit any risk of high blood calcium due to excessive Vitamin D intake.
Finally, when it comes to exercise, the duration of sleep and the time it takes to fall asleep both improve in exercising populations, as long as the following basic, research-proven rules are followed:
-Exercise has the ability to induce circadian phase-shifting effects perhaps as potent as bright light, so include some form of exercise prior to breakfast – preferably something easy, aerobic, and relatively short (e.g. 20-45 minutes) so that you don’t amplify the already naturally high cortisol that occurs in the morning, and so that you “leave gas in the tank” for a harder workout later in the day, which enhances sleep even more.
-Training hard in the early morning hours can be detrimental, so if you must perform a difficult or intense morning workout, employ strategic napping during the day (e.g. a 20-minute post-lunch siesta, correct sleep hygiene practices at night (low artificial light exposure, a cool room, and low amounts of work and stress).
-30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at 65% of heart rate attained at VO2 peak performed in the morning before breakfast seems to be highly beneficial for enhancing sleep later in the evening.
-Longer afternoon exercise sessions (up to 2.5 hours long!) between 2:00-6: 00 pm at 50-80% VO2max can drastically improve sleep, so save any hard, voluminous workouts for the afternoon. The most positive effects occur with exercise taking place 4 to 8 hours before bedtime, so try to wrap up your session by 6:30 if you want to go to bed at, say, 10:30. As a matter of fact, 30 min of high-intensity exercise at 85–90% of max HR to exhaustion, 3–4 hours prior to bedtime can actually result in better sleep, increased sleep efficiency and lower sleep latency.
-Long-duration, aerobic exercise can partially alleviate sleepiness during periods of sleep restriction, as can short bouts (~10 minutes) of exercise every 2 hours over a sleep-deprived day. In other words, if you’re sleep deprived go “long and slow” or “short and fast”
-As well as increasing the body temperature, which has a direct inverse relationship with sleep, exercise is accompanied by an increase of the activity of sympathetic nervous system activity, characterized by an increase in excitatory catecholamine levels19 that can last for hours after exercise. Perhaps this is why a bout of deep, relaxing breathwork and/or a lukewarm or cold shower following a later day exercise session can also enhance sleep.
I personally sleep like a baby and have a very normal and rhythmic circadian cycle when I perform 20-30 minutes of easy morning exercise in as much natural light as possible in a fasted state prior to breakfast, and then perform a 30-60 minute hard exercise later in the day, such as the late afternoon, early evening, or any other time at least three hours prior to bedtime (always followed by a quick cold shower). In my experience, this is an incredibly effective, research-backed, one-two exercise combo for enhancing sleep.
What’s My Chronobiology?
My friend Dr. Michael Breus – the man who authored the book “Power Of When” and who is dubbed appropriately enough “America’s Sleep Doctor” – is now famous for making quite popular the previously little-known fact that not everybody really does operate at 100% physical and cognitive capacity with the stereotypically recommended 10pm-ish to 6am-ish sleep habit.
Sure, I personally feel like a rockstar when I’m in bed at or slightly before 10:30 pm and awake at some point between 6 and 6:30 am, but that is because I am, in the words of Dr. Breus a “Bear” chronotype (about 50% of the population share this same chronotype). What’s this mean, exactly?
Here’s how it works: every person has an internal biological clock that impacts different aspects of our lives, like sleeping, waking, thinking, learning, digestion and many others. The scientific term for this clock “primary circadian pacemaker”, and it is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) area of your brain. Though you can control when you choose to sleep, wake and eat, your internal biological clock has a built-in preset for when you should do so, based on your unique genetics, neurotransmitters, and hormones. This means that there’s a perfect timing for everything from exercise to sex to creative work, and when what you do is synchronized with your biological clock, your entire life flows better.
Not everyone’s biological clock keeps the same time, which you probably already know if you’ve heard of types such as “early birds” or “night owls”. Traditionally, psychologists and sleep doctors can determine a person’s chronotype using a morningness-eveningness questionnaire, but after over a decade of working as a sleep doctor and recognizing the high variance in ideal sleep-wake patterns in his patients, Dr. Breus developed a far more comprehensive and accurate questionnaire at ThePowerOfWhenQuiz.com.
He named each of the four chronotypes he developed after mammals: dolphin (tend to be light sleepers who are often diagnosed with insomnia), lion (tend to wake up early with lots of energy. By early evening, they’re exhausted), bear (bears’ internal clocks track the rise & fall of the sun. They need a full 8 hours of sleep a night), and wolf (wolves have a hard time waking up early and are most energetic in the evenings).
You can learn more about the four chronotypes on my podcast with Dr. Breus, “The Best Time Of Day To Exercise, Have Sex, Take Supplements, Read A Book, Take A Nap & More!”
If you think about it, this variation in chronotypes seems to make sense from an ancestral survival standpoint. Since our ancestors lived in groups, having different people with different sleep and wake times meant that there would be sufficient and effective ability to ensure security for all hours in the day. It’s also quite interesting to note the chronotype distribution in the average population:
Since the majority of people are Bears, that would explain why we keep the current socially acceptable office and school hours, along with somewhat regular breakfast, lunch and dinner times and – from Reader’s Digest to Prevention Magazine to Men’s and Women’s Health Magazines – the so oft-recommended “bed by 10, up by 6” recommendation. It’s society’s norm because the majority of society are Bears – which could obviously be pretty damn frustrating if you’re not a Bear, especially when you consider the fact that you can’t really change your chronotype. Your chronotype is genetic, determined by a gene called your “PER3” gene. A longer PER3 gene means you tend to be an early riser, and a shorter one means you tend to be a late riser.
So the classic advice that everyone should wake up early to be successful is just not true, and neither is the all-too-common recommendation to go to bed before midnight (I’ve personally been at fault for recommending just that to folks who are obvious Dolphins or Wolfs). Rather than forcing yourself to adhere to the recommended sleep, wake, productivity and creativity times dished out by books written for a broad, general market, perhaps it’s better to determine your own unique chronotype and achieve life flow based on that instead.
Should this seem like you’ll have a miserable life going to bed at 8pm while your friends are just heading out to dinner, or leave you sleeping in until 10 am each day and getting fired from your job, please know that although your chronotype is genetic, you can indeed make some shifts in some of your activities to move it around just a bit.
In other words, if you were born a Lion, you will never naturally be able to stay up as late as a born Wolf. But by adjusting the timing of meals, exercise, caffeine, and exposure to artificial and natural light, each chronotype can make microadjustments to thrive in whatever society they happen to have been born in. Furthermore, your chronotype changes naturally as you age through different stages of life, such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood (21-65) and old age (and thus my grandmother who used to go to bed at 11 pm and rise at 7 am to serve bagels with cream cheese now goes to bed at 1 am and sleeps in until 10 am).
Finally, if you want to determine your ideal circadian rhythm activities and chronobiology using an even more precise, quantified, and somewhat scientific alternative to Dr. Breus’s quiz, then you may be interested in the app designed by Dr. Satchin Panda. At “myCircadianClock.org”, you can download a free app that is part of Dr. Panda’s research project to use smartphones to advance research into biological rhythms in the real world, and help you understand your body’s unique rhythms.
The myCircadianClock app helps you keep track of daily behaviors important for maintaining a healthy life, such as eating, sleeping, moving, and taking supplements and medications. Data that you share through the app as part of a research study will help researchers understand how daily timing of the behaviors influence health and the app provides personalized insights into your daily rhythms. Just don’t use it in bed without donning your blue-light blocking glasses.
Sounding & Grounding
Proper sleep hygiene involves commonly known practices such as sleeping in a dark room, not playing with your electronic light-producing device in bed and keeping the room somewhat cold. However, two important but often underemphasized aspects of good sleep hygiene have been big wins for me in the sleep department: the sound and the ground.
Take sound, for example. If you live in a noisy neighborhood or a train passes by your house at midnight, 2 a.m., and 5 a.m. like clockwork, then you may need some help blocking out the noise.
In this case, you can:
-Use a white noise app such as SleepStream (which “silences” barking dogs, crying kids, sirens, airplanes, and the like).
-Use a wraparound sleep mask combined with earplugs to block light and sound.
-Use soft, side-sleeper friendly, sleep headphones such as “Sleepphones” to pump relaxing music into your ears (or, if you are like my mother, the sounds of whales calling, which I’ve never quite understood).
But sounds can go way beyond simple white noise and earplugs. If you understand how sound and music affect your brain waves, you can use this knowledge to alter your mental and physical performance states with laserlike accuracy. It sounds geeky, but I’m going to explain how.
Your brain is made up of billions of cells. These are your neurons, and they (like the rest of your body) use electricity to communicate with one another. As you can probably imagine, billions of neurons sending signals at the same time produces an enormous amount of electrical activity in your brain, which can be measured with electroencephalography (EEG).
When you graph the electrical activity of your brain using EEG, you can see a brain-wave pattern (called a “wave” pattern because of its cyclic nature.
Many people spend their lives primarily in a beta-brain-wave state—aroused, alert, concentrated, but also somewhat stressed. But when we lower the brain-wave frequency to alpha, we put ourselves in an ideal state to learn new information, perform more elaborate tasks, learn languages, analyze complex situations, and even be in what sports psychologists call “the zone,” which is a state of heightened focus and performance. This is partly because the slightly decreased electrical activity in the brain can lead to significant increases in feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
You can also lull your brain into producing delta or theta waves. For example, when you meditate, you are focusing on something, whether it’s a candle flame, your breath, a mantra, or a prayer. When you focus like that, the electrical patterns in your brain slow down, and the amplitude of your brain waves generally stabilizes into a relaxed range. But it turns out that you don’t need to be a monk to achieve this state.
Instead, you can use what’s called “brain-wave entrainment” to get the same effect. Brain-wave entrainment is any method that brings your brain-wave frequencies into step with a specific frequency. It’s based on the concept that the human brain has a tendency to shift its dominant EEG frequency toward the frequency of a dominant external stimulus (such as that of music or other sounds).
The type of sound frequencies that are typically used in brain-wave entrainment are called “binaural” beats. The way this works is that two tones close in frequency generate a beat frequency at the difference of the frequencies.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. For example, a 495-hertz audio tone and a 505-hertz audio tone (whether overlaid in music or in a sound frequency) produce a 10-hertz beat, which is roughly in the middle of the alpha-brain-wave range.
So how can you use binaural beats to help you sleep? I’d recommend the Pzizz app or the Sleepstream app, both of which produce relaxing sounds combined with binaural beats. Alternatively, you can use the artificially intelligence produced sounds on the Brain.fm app, which does not produce binaural beats per se, but instead “confuses” the brain into a state of delta brainwave production (this app, as well as the Sleepstream app, can also be used for focus, creativity, etc. depending on the chosen setting).
You can also use Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s Delta Sleep System CDs/MP3 downloads or Michael Tyrell’s Love & Lullaby tracks, which you can play as background music in your bedroom to lull you to sleep. For these, I’d recommend a speaker placed on either side of the bed so that your brain is exposed to a more balanced sound from both left and right, or the use of a sound furniture such as HUMU sound conducting pillow.
Then there’s grounding. I spend about 90 percent of my time barefoot or wearing grounded shoes or sandals, sleeping with a grounding device under my mattress, and wearing a grounding wristband. This may seem strange, but grounding is one of the best sleep–hacking strategies I know.
The idea behind grounding, also known as earthing, is that the surface of the Earth emits a natural magnetic frequency that assists with circadian rhythm, hormonal cycles, and absorption of negatively charged free electrons (which can mitigate oxidation, stress, etc.). Since most of us spend a lot of time indoors wearing shoes, not touching the ground or grass, we are missing the benefit of the Earth’s frequency. Using a mattress or mat wired to the Earth through an outlet is one way to tap into it and become “grounded.” These devices are called “grounding mats”, and have been used by professional athletes – including Tour De France riders between grueling stages – to enhance sleep and recovery.
Another even more powerful way to ground is through small devices or large beds that emit the same magnetic frequency as the Earth. Two portable, user-friendly devices that can be placed on or near the body, or under the mattress during sleep, are the “Flexpulse” and the “Earthpulse”. Then there’s the BioMat mattress, which will set you back several thousand dollars but beats the pants off a grounding or earthing mat since it produces infrared heating light as well. Finally, for the “Cadillac” of PEMF units, there are the larger Bemer mats and PulseCenter beds, both of which can be used for injuries, recovery, hormone production, headache elimination and a host of other very useful health-enhancing effects.
And what about those grounding shoes or sandals? I wear a brand called Earth Runners. Here’s how grounding shoes work: Black plugs made from a carbon-and-rubber compound are placed in the soles under a weight-bearing part of the feet, ensuring electrical contact between the wearer and the Earth. The plugs, designed to conduct a flow of free electrons from the Earth to your body, allow you to become grounded when you walk on grass, sand, soil—or even concrete. These can also be quite effective for jet lag.
For more on grounding, you can watch the amazing documentary titled fittingly enough “Grounded”, which tells the story of an entire town—Haines, Alaska—where lives were changed and health dramatically improved after people became grounded. I highly recommend that you add this film to your must-see list. Dr. James Oschman, the scientist behind much of the research in the film, says that grounding is “probably the most important discovery since penicillin.” You can watch the entire film for free at GroundedFilm.com.
My Simple 5 Step Airplane Sleep System
Let’s face it: from dry air to enormous doses of “dirty electricity”, to cabin pressure, circadian rhythm disruption, poor food and water and beyond, flying frequently on airplanes is about one of the worst things you can do for your sleep (and overall health).
I get plenty of complaints from folks about how hard they find it to sleep on airplanes, but I personally sleep like a baby on just about every flight. How? Here’s my airplane sleep system:
- Request a window seat. It’s far easier to sleep when you can lean your head against the side of the airplane wall. Also, check out SeatGuru.com to learn more about the ideal seat on your flight.
- Use a J-hook travel pillow. These inflatable pillows are amazing, and the top-ranked travel pillow on Amazon. They work especially well for side sleepers in combination with the window seat trick but also work when you’re stuck in an aisle or center seat.
- Use earplugs combined with Sony or Bose noise blocking headphones
- Use a full wraparound sleep mask
- Prior to putting on headphones, sleep mask and pillow, consume a few teaspoons of Reishi extract (I recommend the FourSigmatic blend), which allows you to sleep without waking up drowsy, combined with a good CBD source (20-40mg does the trick).
And that’s it. Now go forth and sleep like a baby on your next flight (for anyone who has sat next to a baby on an airplane, I apologize for the poor analogy). Want even more travel sleep and jet lag tips? Keep reading.
How To Manage Jet Lag Like A Champion
Jet lag sucks, as anyone who frequently travels intimately knows. The symptoms include trouble falling asleep (especially if you’re flying east); early waking (especially if you’re flying west); interrupted sleep with multiple periods of wakefulness; trouble staying asleep; poor concentration and performance on mental tasks; increased fatigue, headaches, and irritability; and problems with digestion, including indigestion, constipation, and even reduced interest in and enjoyment of food.
Similar to the types of sleep problems caused by shift work, jet lag is a “chronobiological” issue that occurs when you travel across many time zones. Your body clock isn’t in sync with the destination time because you’ve experienced daylight and darkness that are contrary to the rhythms to which you’ve grown accustomed. This upsets your body’s natural rhythm, and the problem becomes compounded because the times for eating, sleeping, hormone regulation, and body-temperature variations no longer correspond to what you’re used to.
So not much beats airplane travel for radiation exposure, full-body inflammation, production of free radicals, wrenches in your recovery process, and an inhibition of important biological processes, from muscle-building protein synthesis to muscle-repairing circadian rhythm.
It doesn’t matter how fancy your compression socks are or how many bodyweight squats and calf raises you do in the back of the airplane. When you’re on that plane, you’re inside a tiny metal tube bombarded by solar radiation and completely disconnected from the Earth’s natural magnetic field.
This is compounded by Wi-Fi signals bouncing around the cabin (which are often available during the entire flight), people talking on their phones and checking e-mail inside that metal tube (which happens for the entire gate-to-takeoff and landing-to-gate phases), dehydration from altitude, extremely dry filtered air, toxin-laden airplane food, bad water, germs and airborne pathogens in tight spaces, and—if you’re traveling across multiple time zones—a disruption of the natural circadian rhythm you’ve learned about.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling and have to perform at peak capabilities, often just hours after my flight touches down, I simply can’t afford the loss of fitness, cellular oxidation, dehydration, and total body damage that can occur every time I hop on a flight to a race. So what can you do about it? Here are eleven ways that peak performers can beat jet lag.
Jet Lag Fix #1: Grounding or Earthing
Grounding (also known as earthing) involves exposing your body to the natural magnetic frequencies released by the Earth. At no time does grounding become a more effective destination strategy than when you’re traveling in an airplane, since hurtling through space in a metal tube 40,000 feet above the planet is about as disconnected from the Earth as you can get. The basic idea is that you aren’t able to discharge all the positive ions that build up via cellular metabolism, you aren’t able to absorb the negative ions you’d normally get if you were touching the ground, and this ion imbalance decreases the natural electrochemical gradient across your cell membranes, so you get disrupted cellular metabolism and inflammation.
So how do you actually earth or ground? As soon as I land at my destination, I make it a point to either (1) put on a pair of special shoes called Pluggz or sandals called Earth Runners, both of which have carbon plugs in them that allow for grounding without being barefoot or (2) go outside in my bare feet (yes, I’m the guy in spandex or a Speedo doing barefoot yoga in the grassy lot behind the hotel). I also use a device called the Flexpulse or the Earthpulse, which can be placed underneath the mattress or on the body to ground during sleep.
Jet Lag Fix #2: Exercise
Multiple studies have shown that exercise can regulate circadian rhythms. So as lousy and miserable as you may feel training after a long day of travel or a long few days of international travel, the sooner you can vigorously move after arriving at your final destination, the sooner you’ll bounce back from jet lag and normalize your circadian rhythm and sleep. But this doesn’t mean you have to do a killer WOD or an epic run when you get to your destination. My top three choices, if I’m feeling a bit blah after travel, are walking (barefoot if possible) in the sunshine or on a beach, swimming (preferably in relatively cool water, as you’ll learn about later), and, as mentioned in Fix #1, outdoor barefoot yoga. Finally, for each hour that I’m sedentary on an airplane, I do fifty air squats near the back of the plane or in any other open space I can find.
Jet Lag Fix #3: Avoid Caffeine
It’s a relatively common recommendation for managing jet lag to discourage the consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants, and because of their overstimulation of the central nervous system and their potential for disrupting circadian rhythm even more, I absolutely agree and simply do not go near caffeine or any other central nervous system stimulant while en route to my final destination.
Jet Lag Fix #4: Melatonin
For travel across more than three time zones, I consume 60-80mg (yep, that’s a lot!) of melatonin prior to bed for rebooting my circadian rhythm upon arrival at my final destination. Melatonin is also a natural anti-inflammatory, which will help decrease inflammation that builds up during air travel. This is admittedly a huge amount of melatonin, so proceed at your own risk.
Jet Lag Fix #5: Water
You’ve no doubt heard that you lose more water due to the dehydration that occurs while flying in the dry air at altitude—so you obviously need to drink more water to stay hydrated and beat jet lag. But I’ve been going beyond the normal recommendations and experimenting with very high water intake—and finding that it helps out quite a bit compared with the standard disappointingly tiny cup of water handed to me by the flight attendant every couple of hours. Instead, I’ve been drinking closer to 12–16 ounces of water (nearly a full bottle) each hour and feeling a distinct difference in sleep, mood, and energy upon landing. Just make sure to book an aisle seat or, if you’re in a window seat, make sure that your aisle-based airline partner is spry and willing to move every time you need to pee—or just politely ask to switch spots. Find water boring? Travel with a small bottle of organic stevia and add it to club soda or sparkling water to create a “cream soda esque” experience.
Jet Lag Fix #6: Cold Showers
Cold showers decrease inflammatory cytokines, assist with the activation of brown adipose tissue for fat burning, and cause a rebound hormone response in the form of a release of adrenaline. I’ve been going so far as to actually go into an airline lounge in the airport for a ten- to fifteen-minute cold shower if I have a long layover. I also take a two- to five-minute cold shower in the hotel when I arrive at my final destination.
Splashing lots of cold water in your face is OK, but not quite as effective as cold water immersion or showering. Cold showers also have very good blood-vessel-expanding properties because they release more nitric oxide into your blood vessels, and the subsequent increase in glucose and oxygen uptake can dramatically reduce jet lag.
Jet Lag Fix #7: Curcumin
Curcumin—which is found in turmeric and curries—is a powerful antioxidant that helps tremendously when taken on an empty stomach both before and after flying. Because of its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and shut down inflammatory cytokines in neural tissue, it is a potent brain anti-inflammatory and may also boost testosterone and growth hormone. I’ve used about 1,000 milligrams of curcumin from a highly absorbable source, such as “Meriva” form, which is found in many supplements, including the Thorne multivitamin.
Jet Lag Fix #8: Sulfur
Sulfur-containing foods are very good antioxidant precursors, especially for the type of inflammation that can occur when you’re on an airplane. These include foods like broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, onions, and Brussels sprouts. Supplements containing glutathione, N-acetyl-cysteine, MSM, or DMSO are also effective but can induce nausea, so be careful with them—I don’t recommend more than a teaspoon. Of course, if you opt for the preflight sautéed garlic and onions, you may need to brush your teeth afterward (unless you plan on creating enemies on the plane). But if you squeeze in a few meals containing these foods in the days leading up to the flight, you’ll feel much better when you land.
Jet Lag Fix #9: Oxytocin
Finally, oxytocin is an extremely powerful hormone that acts to lift your mood and also acts as a potent antioxidant, antidepressant, and anti-inflammatory. Although it’s most commonly known as a hormone that is released after sex in adults and during breastfeeding in babies, you can get your oxytocin hormone fix anywhere and at any time—including while you’re traveling. All you need to do is hug someone or (slightly less effective) warmly shake another person’s hand. The simple act of bodily contact will cause your brain to release low levels of anti-inflammatory, mood-boosting oxytocin. So find the first person who’s OK with it when you get to your destination and give her a big, loving bear hug. Or do some partner carries up the stairs at the hotel (incidentally, that’s a great travel workout). Just brush your teeth first if you used the garlic trick.
Want a few more tips to hop off the airplane feeling amazing?
-Stand up and stretch for about every hour you’re sitting. My favorite stretch is called the “Core Coil”, invented by my friend David Weck.
-Bring your own food. I prefer EnergyBits or RecoveryBits spirulina and chlorella tablets combined with macadamia nuts and a good coarse sea salt such as Colima salt.
-Travel with Omica Organics vanilla stevia to add to club soda for added flavor and appetite satiation.
-Smear the inside of your nostrils with sesame oil or olive oil to maintain lubrication of nasal passages in the dry cabin air.
The Top 10 Tips For Conquering The Nap
Following sleep restriction, it has been proven that a 30-minute nap improves athletes’ performance in speed trials. It has also been shown that naps can improve the cognitive processes so dramatically affected by sleep restriction, which may have a positive effect on learning new motor skills or carrying out highly complex motor skills, as well as preventing the appearance of injuries. For this reason, naps are one of the most potent ways to combat accumulated sleep loss or, in my case, to act like a booster-shot of energy in the middle of the day.
I nap for twenty to forty minutes nearly every day, usually by curling up on my Biomat and pulling on my Normatec compression boots (yep, that’s a fully biohacked nap) for a post-lunch siesta. This nap makes a huge difference in my afternoon work productivity and quality and ultimately gives me “two separate days” of productivity squeezed into one day.
Research on napping has shown that siestas tend to be very rich in non-rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is why a nap yields a significant increase in alertness, creativity, recall, and memory in the second half of the day. Naps also help reduce waking blood pressure and significantly improve cardiovascular health. Well-timed napping can also significantly combat sleep deprivation. So when you miss a good night of sleep for one reason or another, napping can help you dig out of a sleep-deprivation hole. On the flip side, poorly timed naps (in the late afternoon or evening) can actually worsen insomnia and decrease alertness later in the day, which is why curling up for a nap before dinner is usually not a good idea.
What are some other napping dos and don’ts? Here are my top ten tips for conquering the nap:
1. Don’t use an alarm clock unless you absolutely have to. Once you begin a healthy napping habit, your body will naturally wake in twenty to sixty minutes. Why shouldn’t you use an alarm clock? I’m a fan of the disk and RAM metaphor used by SuperMemo. We can compare the brain and its NREM-REM sleep cycles to an ordinary PC. During the day, while learning and experiencing new things, you store your new data in RAM memory. During the night, while first in NREM, you write the data down to the hard disk. During REM, which follows NREM in the night, you do the disk defragmentation, i.e. you organize data, sort them, build new connections, etc. Overnight, you repeat the write-and-defragment cycle until all RAM data is neatly written to the disk (for long-term use), and your RAM is clear and ready for a new day of learning. Upon waking up, you reboot the computer. If you reboot early with the use of an alarm clock, you often leave your disk fragmented. Your data access is slow, and your thinking is confused. Even worse, some of the data may not even get written to the disk. It is as if you have never stored it in RAM in the first place. In conclusion, if you use an alarm clock, you endanger your data. There are also biological implications from using an alarm clock. Just like a slap in the face or a bucket of cold water, an alarm clock quickly wakes you up and gives you an immediate, unnatural injection of stressful adrenaline and cortisol. If you must use an alarm clock, use the type that gradually wakes you up, such as the Sunrise Alarm Clock, the Sleep Time by AzumioiPhone app, or the Sleep as Android app.
2. Do time your nap. You should ideally take your nap when you are the least alert, which is typically seven to eight hours after you wake. For example, I wake at 6 a.m. and generally have my best naps at around 1 p.m. Based on sleep lab research, two other very good times for a nap are 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
3. Don’t drink coffee or caffeinated drinks before your nap. It’s a myth that if you drink these beverages before a nap, the caffeine will hit your bloodstream as you’re waking up. Even tiny amounts of caffeine in your system can significantly mess with sleep quality, especially if you are a “fast caffeine responder,” which you can test with genetic testing via a company like 23andme.
4. Do sleep more if you find yourself taking long naps. If you nap for more than about an hour and a half, you probably are not getting enough sleep at night, or you have some adrenal fatigue that you need to address.
5. Do avoid stress for an hour or two before napping. I try to schedule my lowest-stress activities right before my nap. For me, this typically means office and household duties, like rearranging my desk or cleaning the garage, reading, and writing, or eating lunch—definitely not doing phone consults or responding to e-mail.
6. Don’t exercise immediately before your nap. Naps can assist with exercise recovery, but try to finish working out at least forty-five minutes before your nap.
7. Do eat before your nap. Don’t go down for a nap hungry, as hypoglycemia can disrupt sleep. This is why a post-lunch siesta can be so effective.
8. Don’t force it. If you try for a month and you simply can’t nap no matter what you do, don’t force it or fret about it. Just go back to your regular routine, and pay attention to what you’ll learn about free-running sleep below.
9. Do have a napping ritual. Whenever possible, nap at the same time of day, and focus on a similar pre-nap sequence each day (for example, work, exercise, shower, eat, nap).
10. Don’t use alcohol or sedatives to initiate a nap. In other words, having a couple glasses of wine at lunchtime is not a good pre-nap idea; it can cause you to wake feeling very sluggish and fatigued. I’ve found a couple packets of FourSigmatic Reishi or a very small amount of CBD to do the trick.
In addition, no discussion of napping would be complete without mentioning the concept of “free running sleep”. I do not personally use “polyphasic” sleep (which I’ll explain in a moment) or any fancy timed-sleep patterns that seem to be becoming common among biohackers. I’ve experimented with those techniques and sleep hacks and found them to be rigid and unnatural. Instead, I simply sleep when I am tired. For me, this means that I go to bed at around 10, wake up at around 6, and nap after lunch. My personal sleep patterns are based on a concept called free-running sleep, and no discussion of sleeping and napping would be complete without mentioning it.
Free-running sleep is simply sleep that is not artificially controlled to accommodate strict schedules and that does not require alarm clocks or sleeping pills. From an ancestral standpoint, free-running sleep is far more natural: until the advent of electricity and rigid post-industrial work and school start times, humans were free to sleep when they were tired.
Although your lifestyle and work obligations may prevent you from experiencing 100 percent free-running sleep, the formula is fairly simple and is one you should adhere to whenever possible. For healthy and refreshing sleep during the day or night, go to sleep only when you are tired, not earlier or later, and wake naturally without an alarm clock. Of course, your sleep cycles and periods of tiredness, sleeping, and waking will vary with the seasons, travel, diet, and daily activity levels, so just listen to your body and sleep when you are tired.
If you combine free-running sleep with (1) eliminating artificial lighting after sunset and (2) avoiding excessive nighttime eating, 99 percent of your sleep problems could be eliminated. And what about polyphasic sleep, a trendy concept that has cropped up in several blogs and books on biohacking? The idea behind polyphasic sleep (in contrast to biphasic sleep of twice per day or monophasic sleep of once per day) is that you can gain productive waking hours by sleeping a total of just three hours per twenty-four-hour daily cycle, split into six sleeping spurts interspersed throughout the day. There are many other variants of polyphasic sleep, but with what you’ve already learned about the body’s natural circadian rhythm, you can probably imagine how disruptive polyphasic sleep can be – especially because of the nearly complete loss of deep, healing, restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
So while I certainly agree that polyphasic sleep can help you get through a short period of sleep deprivation, such as finals week, a project deadline, temporary travel or relationship stress, or any other life equivalent of a Navy SEAL’s Hell Week, the cons definitely outweigh the pros when it comes to making polyphasic sleep a consistent lifestyle choice. If you want to learn more about the dangers of polyphasic sleep, I recommend this article.
I’ll admit it: sleep is incredibly important, and the host of options, tools, hacks, and strategies for optimizing sleep can be dizzying and confusing. But in this article, I’ve made a concerted effort to distill into one resource the best-of-the-best of sleep optimizing strategies for you. Should you want to take an even deeper dive into the science of sleep, and other fascinating and somewhat fringe sleep strategies, may I recommend to you a gold mine of a website that I spent nearly a month poring over to give me many well-researched ideas for this article.
It includes everything from advanced sleep hacks to timing naps strategically to perfecting free-running sleep. Although it’s quite a lot of information, it will surely satisfy the sleep geek in you and fill in any holes in your understanding of the science of sleep. It’s called SuperMemo.
Each morning this week, preferably within a couple hours after waking, figure out a way to expose your eyes, ears, skin or entire body to as much natural sunlight or as much blue light as possible (just 10-20 minutes counts!). Then, at night, figure out a way to eliminate as much artificial light exposure as possible, including wearing blue-light blocking glasses (or in a pinch, sunglasses), limiting screen-time or installing blue light blocking software on your electronic devices (TV, phone, e-reader, computer), or reading a paper book instead of watching a movie.
And here are a few extra podcast and article resources for you: