Whether you’re a workout enthusiast, an elite athlete, or just an average Joe or Jane, getting better sleep is the key to great health.
Sleep is the most important yet underutilized recovery mechanism that humans have. In addition to being the time that the human body repairs itself repairing from the workouts and general wear and tear that it acquires daily, sleep is when the incredibly important for the brain.
According to Simon Wegerif, a contributing author to the TrainingPeaks.com “Good sleep is needed to maintain the performance of thinking and problem solving” (Wegerif, 2019). The brain files its memories while sleeping which allows you to achieve long term learning. In fact, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School “Sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information” (Sleep, 2007).
Even with all these important things happening while we sleep, most high achievers have an “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality, or they get up at 4:00am to crush a workout before going to a mentally grueling day.
That’s all well and good, but I’m here to argue that if you were to optimize your sleep, you would be able to perform at a higher level and feel better while doing it.
This can be done by looking at these five categories:
When to do what
Your caffeine window
Your sleep habitat
What to eat
As always, please do not misconstrue this as medical advice, as I am not a doctor.
With that medical disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump right in and get you sleeping better than ever before!
When to do What
Optimizing sleep is all about timing. According to Dr. Michael Brues, there is an ideal time to do anything. He has a test that I recommend to anyone that is looking for a better night’s sleep that will categorize you into one of four chronotypes, defined as “the behavioral manifestation of your biological clock” (Munsey, 2017). You could be a lion, bear, wolf or dolphin.
Upon taking the test, I found out that I am a bear, which means that I function best when I “tend to rise and sleep with the sun” (Munsey, 2017). Under ideal conditions, bears should be asleep from 11:00pm to 7:00am, getting a full eight hours of sleep and working out around 6:00pm. Working out at this time will allow time for important metrics to lower such as your heart rate and stress hormones before bed time, allowing you to fall and stay asleep easier.
This test can help you to find out how to schedule your day in order to get your best results, including when to send emails and have important conversations, and most importantly, when and how long you should sleep. This is powerful information, so, go find out your chronotype!
It is also important to make a habit out of going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, including weekends. This may sound boring, but it allows your body to get into a rhythm, avoid social jetlag and know when to expect to be asleep and when to be awake.
Getting into a sleeping vs. waking rhythm allows you to start getting tired before your sleep window starts and be alert during your waking hours. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “Results show that social jet lag, which occurs when you go to bed and wake up later on the weekend than during the week, is associated with poorer health, worse mood, and increased sleepiness and fatigue. Each hour of social jet lag also is associated with an 11-percent increase in the likelihood of heart disease. These effects are independent of sleep duration and insomnia symptoms, which are related to both social jet lag and health” (American, 2017). All the abovementioned things being the case, I feel as though it is imperative to avoid social jet lag.
Now that we know when and for how long you should be asleep, the next step is to expose yourself to natural sunlight as early in the day as possible. This tells our body and brain that it is daytime, and we should be awake and alert.
According to Health Coach Alex Fergus, direct morning sunlight helps us to regulate our Serotonin, Melatonin and Cortisol. “Every morning, if your body, face and eyes are exposed to sunlight your body will increase its production of serotonin” (Fergus, no date). Serotonin helps to regulate mood, appetite, memory and sleep. It is a precursor to melatonin, which helps to regulate your sleep and wake cycles. And cortisol, which also incurs an increase in production when you expose yourself to bright, natural lights in the morning. furthers our ability to be awake in the morning.
All things considered, if we get outside in the morning, our serotonin and cortisol level will rise allowing us to be alert and help our release of melatonin later in the day to allow us to get ready to sleep.
Your Caffeine Window
The next thing that we need to consider while working to optimize your sleep is finding your caffeine window. As I described in detail in my article, Your Leanest Life Decoded, you should not consume caffeine until about 90 minutes after waking. This is because your adrenaline and cortisol levels are starting to naturally fall during this part of your daily cycle, thus making it the most productive time to consume caffeine.
It would be beneficial for you to figure out if you are a fast or slow caffeine metabolizer. According to the article Caffeine Metabolism DNA Testing: CaffeineGEN™ “Individuals who have two copies of the fast CYP1A2*1A allele are fast caffeine metabolizers; whereas people who have at least one copy of the slow CYP1A2*1F allele are slow caffeine metabolizers” (Consumer, no date). You could learn this about yourself through DNA testing; however, you can simply track how long you feel alert after ingesting caffeine.
The article goes on to state that the half-life of caffeine in a healthy adult is 3–4 hours. If you are a bear, you probably should not consume caffeine after 7:00pm so that you can go to sleep at 11:00pm. Thus, your caffeine window would be 8:30am (90 minutes after waking) to 7:00pm.
Now let’s consider your sleep habitat. First things first, your sleeping environment should be dark and cool. Think about this: For most of history, humans slept outside. This means they slept in an environment that was naturally darker and cooler than it was in the daytime since the sun had gone down and the only light and heat that they had was produced by fire, so, our bodies are hard wired to sleep in that environment. This can easily be simulated even in today’s modern society.
Here’s how I would suggest making your room dark. First, get curtains. If you want to take it a step further than that, install blackout curtains. If you want to take making your room dark to an even higher-level, Ben Greenfield suggests, covering all lights from televisions, laptop chargers, printers or anything else you may have with black electrical tape.
Now to keep it cool, you could easily set the temperature to a lower level. But I a like to take it a step further by sleeping with a ceiling fan on, with just a light sheet over me, nearly nude, almost always just in a pair of underwear.
Now let’s consider lighting. Specifically, blue light.
According to the father of Biohacking Dave Asprey “Blue light has a short wavelength, so it produces more energy than lights with longer wavelengths, like red light, do.” He goes on to say “Blue light messes with your circadian rhythm by suppressing melatonin, the hormone that tells your brain when it’s time to sleep. It tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime (Asprey, 2019).”
This is a huge problem because anything with a screen emits blue light. That includes (but is not limited to) televisions, laptops, computers and cell phones.
The good news is phone companies are starting to catch on to this problem and have nighttime modes that you can set to turn on and off at a certain time. The nighttime mode reduces the amount of blue light that your phone emits. I have the nighttime mode on my phone set to come on at 9:00pm and turn off at 15 minutes after I resume phone use in the morning.
If you want to take this a step further, Ben Greenfield recommends that you download the iris tech app to your laptop and phone as this does a better job of minimizing blue light. There are also special blue light blocking glasses you can use while operating anything with a screen to help mitigate the blue light exposure. Thaddeus Owen of Primal Hacker recommends the brand Ra Optics.
All things considered, in order to mitigate the extent to which blue light effects your circadian rhythm — and thus ruins your night’s sleep — I suggest limiting the use of anything with a screen before bed. Experts suggest no screen time for the hour or even two leading up to bed, depending on who you ask. Some people take it so far as to just go by candlelight after the sun goes down. I know that this is not practical advice for almost anyone. So, here is a quick outline of what I do:
I don’t keep a tv in my room. This forces me to not be able to watch tv in bed. If watch tv before I go to sleep, I must turn it off and leave the room. If I happen to work on my laptop or check my phone once I’m in bed, I make sure that it is not the last thing that I look at. I do this by reading in bed before turning out the light. I find this to be a great way to unwind from the day and allow me sometime without screens before going to sleep.
Is this the most optimized way to deal with blue light? No.
Is it the most practical for me? Yes, it is!
What You Eat
The fourth topic that we need to consider regarding optimizing your sleep is how you are eating in the evenings.
If you are following my overall advice of doing daily intermittent fasting, this is easy: simply do not eat after you have entered your fasting window. However, if you are in a feasting or a heavy training cycle, I would recommend consuming a protein source roughly an hour before bed. The reason for this is that the body does nearly all its repairs and recovery while we sleep, and protein is the macro nutrient primarily responsible for muscle growth and repair.
As Dr. McClain, Physical Therapist and owner Body Rejuvenation puts it, we need to consider newborn children. What do babies do? They feed and fall directly asleep so that the protein that they just consumed can go to work to repair and restore their bodies for their next day.
We can and should do the same.
I would recommend a lean protein or protein shake for your pre-bedtime meal. I always recommend eating real foods if you can, however I will not deny the certain level of convenience that comes with mixing a protein shake.
The best and simplest advice for protein selection that I have ever come across comes from Dr. Ramee, a Dietician for the Minnesota Vikings — she says the fewer legs the better. For example, beef and pork is okay, as cows and pigs have four legs. Chicken and turkey are good because they have two legs each, fish and eggs are best because they have zero legs.
If you choose to utilize a protein shake, I would recommend a whey protein source as it takes longer for the body to metabolize whey protein so you can utilize the sleeping window to digest, repair the body and decrease the likelihood of you waking up hungry.
And if you want to take things to another level above a protein shake, I would suggest Kion Aminos (affiliate link). I take Kion Aminos post-workout as it contains the perfect ratio of the essential amino acids that your body needs to function optimally and repair muscle damage but cannot produce on its own. What’s more is Aminos has a 99% absorption rate, which far exceeds any other protein source available.
The last aspect to consider in this topic would be additional supplementation. Please keep in mind that supplements should be considered a backup source of help and not something that you should rely on in order to fall asleep. The only sleep supplement that I personally use and recommend is melatonin. As described above, melatonin is the hormone that is responsible for helping you regulate your sleep and wake cycles. So, when you supplement with melatonin, it supports your natural ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
However, there are some things to consider when you are deciding if you would like to supplement with melatonin. According to Ujwal Deshmukh, a contributor to the website Psycogenie, there is a decent sized list of potential side effects including; “nausea, sleepwalking, dizziness, abdominal cramps, sexual disorders, daytime sleepiness, headaches, irritability, depression, confusion, and even nightmares” (Deshmukh, no date).
Although that’s an admittedly large and somewhat intimidating list of potential issues, the problem that I have experienced is daytime sleepiness the day after supplementing with melatonin. I have found that if I only use melatonin on nights that I can devote eight or more hours to sleeping and feel like I could use a deeper sleep than I typically get, this is a nonissue for me.
You can easily buy melatonin supplementation over the counter at your local drug or super store.
I am a fan of this app for a few reasons. First of all, it allows you to track your sleep over time so you can see treads. All you have to do is start the app and set it on your bed. I just slide mine under my pillow, so that I am not bothered by the blue light. This will let you see what is working and allowing you to sleep well, or what is not working, that you may need to change.
The second great feature on Sleep by Android is the half an hour wake up zone. For example, if I were to set my alarm for 7:15am, the alarm will go off anywhere between 6:45am and 7:15am. The app tracks your sleep cycles, categorized as light sleep, deep sleep or REM sleep. The alarm will go off within that 30-minute time frame at a time in which you are in a light sleep cycle, when you are already closest to waking up. This allows you to have a gentle start to the day rather than being jolted awake and sending your adrenaline and cortisol levels through the roof.
The final thing that I love about this app is that it does all this while in airplane mode. This allows you to get all the benefits I outlined above without getting any sort of notification that will disturb your sleep throughout the night. It also protects you from harmful EMF (Electromagnetic Field) that your phone emits. According to Antonio M., a contributor to the website emfshieldprotect.com; When you absorb too much EMF, you may start experiencing physical changes such as headaches, a decrease in focus capabilities, depression, and even more serious conditions such as digestive problems or heart issues (M, 2018).”
A lot of top biohackers will get an old school alarm clock and leave their phone in another room, I personally would rather have the information and gentle wake up.
The next suggestion would be to get an app that plays binaural beats. Binaural beats are a special type of music that play two different beats at the same time. This is designed to help your brain produce an altered level of brain waves.
The app that I like best for this is brain.fm (affiliate link), which is another free app (at least to try for the first five sessions). Brain.fm has five different settings, focus, meditate, sleep, recharge and relax. The sleep setting can be used for six, seven or eight hours. Simply put your headphones on, turn on the app and let it guide you to sleep. I do use the brain.fm app daily, but it’s a great addition on nights that I am struggling a bit to fall asleep.
The last piece of equipment that I would recommend is a wrap around sleep mask. The one that I personally use is the Sleep Master. I find sleep masks to be helpful for two main reasons. They help with keeping the room dark and quiet and they can easily block any remaining lights in your bedroom as well as blocking out any distracting noise. This is especially beneficial if you share a bed with a partner. Just as with Brain.fm, I do not use my Sleep Master nightly, only when I am struggling to fall asleep quickly.
If you choose to use a binaural beats app at the same time as a wrap around sleep mask, for an ultimate sleep stack, I would suggest putting your headphones on first, start the app and then warp the sleep mask around your headphones. This will allow you to cover up any lights that come from your headphones as well increase the likelihood of them staying in place while you drift off to sleep.
Finally, here are my thoughts on pillows. I know that a lot of people have multiple pillows scattered across their beds, however, I firmly believe that you should only use one pillow at a time. Sure, I use a second pillow to prop my head up while I read a chapter or two before bed, but before I go to sleep, I always drop the extra one to the floor. The reason for this is that having even just one pillow, much less, multiple pillows puts you at a much greater risk of forward head posture, leaving your neck is out of ideal alignment for hours at a time. As I described in great length in my article, Sitting is the New Smoking, people spend hours a day in a hunched over position, which puts your entire kinetic chain in a compromised position, so why would you want to spend all night furthering that compromised position?
The pillow that I personally use on a nightly basis is a My Pillow, it’s interlocking fill cradles my head and neck to keep me supported and comfortable all night long.
So there you have it, when you carefully consider when you do what, your caffeine window, your sleep habitat, what you eat before bed, and what equipment you use, you can easily optimize your sleep, speed your recovery, perform at a higher level and feel better while doing it.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Social jet lag is associated with worse mood, poorer health and heart disease: Delaying your sleep schedule on weekends has health consequences.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170605085326.htm>.
Asprey, Dave. “Why Blue Light Is Messing With Your Sleep — And What to Do About It.” Bulletproof, 31 Oct. 2019, https://blog.bulletproof.com/blue-light-glasses-sleep/.
“Consumer Genetics: Caffeine Metabolism DNA Testing Services.” Consumer Genetics: Retail DNA Testing, http://www.consumergenetics.com/DNA-Tests/Caffeine-Metabolism-Test.php.
Deshmukh, Ujwal. “Melatonin Side Effects.” PsycholoGenie, PsycholoGenie, https://psychologenie.com/melatonin-side-effects.
Fergus, Alex. How to Improve Your Sleep With Morning Sunlight. https://www.alexfergus.com/blog/how-to-improve-your-sleep-with-morning-sunlight.
M., Antonio. “What Does EMF Stand For? — QUANTHOR Official — Best Emf Protection Devices: Cell Phone Radiation Protection for Your Family.” QUANTHOR Official — Best Emf Protection Devices | Cell Phone Radiation Protection for Your Family, 7 May 2018, https://emfshieldprotect.com/blog/what-does-emf-stand-for-29264.
Munsey, Ryan. “What Is Your Chronotype? Discover Your Best Time To Do Everything.” Natural Stacks, 29 June 2017, https://www.naturalstacks.com/blogs/news/dr-michael-breus-what-is-your-chronotype.
“Sleep, Learning, and Memory.” Sleep, Learning, and Memory | Healthy Sleep, December 18, 2007 http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory.
Wegerif, Simon. “The Whole Picture: Recovery Through Sleep.” TrainingPeaks, TrainingPeaks, 11 July 2019, https://www.trainingpeaks.com/coach-blog/the-whole-picture-recovery-through-sleep/?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign_713114&templateIdfirstname.lastname@example.org&listId=&coach_userType=5.