The Ultimate Guide to Sleep Biohacking
For years, waking up every morning with a head thumping like I had gone 12 rounds with Floyd Mayweather the previous night was my daily reality.
And no, it had nothing to do with alcohol.
My issue was one of quality sleep, or rather…..the lack of it.
While I usually got the recommended 7-9 hours, I would frequently wake during the night, have difficulty getting sufficient deep sleep or just trouble getting to sleep in the first place.
I was constantly tired, unable to focus – and unsurprisingly my work suffered as a result.
But I always believed my situation was normal. I thought going life tired and under-slept was the default because my experience had taught me so.
Everywhere I looked I saw people waking up every morning groggy and grumpy, not able to function until they had at least two cups of coffee.
Turns out that while it may indeed be “normal”, it certainly shouldn’t be.
Which became instantly apparent to me when I stumbled across a random health blog one day.
In one post the writer casually mentioned mentioned how he woke up every morning refreshed and full of vitality, ready to attack the day ahead.
Which was completely at odds with how I felt every morning.
And that prompted me to do some digging.
I discovered the default is to sleep soundly, but because of our late night love of electronic devices, stressful lives, poor diets, allergies and bad sleeping habits meant your average person’s sleep wasn’t quite what it should be.
It brought me on a voyage of discovery where I learned a myriad of different tips, tricks, strategies and dietary changes which allowed me to consistently get a minimum of 7 hours quality, deep sleep every night.
How did I do it?
Read on, dear reader..
Why You Might Need Sleep Hacking
Yes, there are certain people who apparently don’t need much sleep.
One study of an extended family of early risers found their usual routine of going to sleep at 11pm and rising at around 4:30am every morning showed no ill health effects.
On analysis of their DNA, it was found the family shared a small “point mutation” in one of their genes known as hDEC2, which is thought to be responsible for the control of sleeping patterns in mammals.
However as this gene is extremely rare, chances are you’re not one of those people – statistically it’s not unlikely you’re one of the many people out there who are simply not getting enough sleep.
But with glaring laptop screens and grueling work schedules keeping us awake, sleepless nights aren’t going away anytime soon.
So with that in mind, let’s explore how you can use “sleep hacking” to get the quality sleep you need…but first let’s examine just why sleep is so important.
Why is Sleep Important?
Good Sleep Can Maximize Athletic Performance
If you’re not getting enough sleep it could mean your efforts in the gym could count for little.
A lack of proper deep, restorative sleep makes your hormones go haywire and sends your testosterone and growth hormone levels plummeting.
This in turn puts the breaks on your ability to synthesise protein, meaning you’ll have a hard time building muscle from that punishing personal-best beating deadlift session, or recovering adequately from that intense HIIT workout.
And you don’t need to be a fitness fanatic to feel the harmful health effects of a lack of sleep either….
Poor Sleepers Have a Greater Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease and Stroke
The evidence is overwhelming – not getting enough sleep is going to kill you younger. Whether you succumb to a heart attack or stroke or perhaps diabetes – not getting enough sleep is on average going to increase your risk of death by almost 25%.
And it’s not just a question of quantity but quality too.
A 2008 study conducted found those exposed to “light at night on a regular basis experience biological rhythm (i.e. circadian) disruption” and had a 200% higher risk of cancer compared with those who regularly slept in blacked out, light-restricted environments.
Poor sleep can destroy gut health
It takes just two nights of consecutive insufficient sleep to wreak havoc on your body’s gut health, making your microbiome resemble that of an obese individual.
A recent Swedish study from 2016 found that two nights severe sleep deprivation reduced the levels of beneficial bacterial strains in the participants digestive tracts by up to 50%, and reduced their resistance to insulin by almost 20% too.
Poor Sleep Reduces Brain Function
I’m sure you’ve felt the effects on your brain of a poor night’s sleep at some point in your life.
Perhaps you’ve had to pull an “all-nighter” for a work project or for studying towards an important exam.
But staying awake that long comes at a price.
Just 19 hours of sleep deprivation will reduce your attention span, cognitive abilities and reaction time significantly.
And after 24 hours without sleep your concentration and focus will be dramatically reduced, your problem solving skills impaired and your memory will be diminished, meaning you will perform as if you are “legally” drunk.
Contrast that with the restorative powers of a night of deep sleep, which allows your brain to regenerate itself by clearing out old and damaged brain cells.
So unless you have no other option, it’s always a better idea to get a good night’s sleep (and enjoy the improved cognitive and learning benefits it provides – and attack that project in the morning rather than the wee hours of the night.
Poor Sleep can cause weight gain
While not exclusively responsible, poor sleep can contribute to weight gain.
One comprehensive study of children and adults found that in those sleep deprived individuals, they were 89% (children) and 55% (adults) more likely to be overweight.
To summarise – good quality restorative sleep isn’t a luxury, it should be an essential pillar of anyone who is looking to keep their health on track.
Your workouts will be better, your mind will be crisper, nerves are sharper, mental health will be better, you are less likely to severely injure yourself while working, and you will be less susceptible to cancer, heart disease and obesity.
So let’s examine how we can use “biohacking” to improve our sleep.
But before we do that, we need to establish exactly what “biohacking” is..
What is Biohacking?
Well, the definition depends on who you ask, but it can range from using yourself as a human guinea pig to test out the latest in technological advances to improve your health, to simply taking a more “DIY” approach to your health and wellness.
Personally, I tend to agree with the latter – I like to think of “biohacking” broadly as taking your health into your own hands using science, biology and technology via self-experimentation, with the end goal of making your body function better and more efficiently.
In real terms terms it can mean something as simple as employing a piece of tape to shut your mouth during sleep……or using different supplements and finding what works best via trial and error…..to more extreme measures like implanting yourself with RFID chips to monitor health indicators like heart rate etc
Using Biohacking To Establish A Sleep Baseline
Before we even begin to use any kind of sleep biohacks, we need to establish some kind of baseline for our sleep to know just how good (or bad) it is.
And this is where the availability of modern technology really comes into its own.
Whether you choose to use one of the many smartphone apps like Sleep Cycle or other devices like the Oura ring or FitBit, you don’t lack options when it comes to tracking your sleep..
The Undisputed Rolls Royce of sleep tracking tools, The Oura Ring (v2) is a stylish and comfortable ring focused on providing the most accurate and actionable data on your sleep available, short of booking yourself into a sleep lab for a few weeks.
And this is where it differs from the other health tracking apps in that it makes sleep it’s primary focus – the level of granularity and depth of information the device provides is simply breathtaking.
During the day the Oura Ring tracks how many steps you’ve taken, and lets you factor in activities like exercise too.
It’s infrared heart-rate tracks everything from the color of your skin…..your heart rate and your body temperature and uses this data to determine precisely when you fall asleep….how long you spend in each different sleep phase….when you wake in the night….and all other relevant information you need to get an accurate baseline of your sleep quality, and what it ideally should be based upon all the information it’s able to obtain.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The Oura Ring is able to tell whether you are running at an overall sleep “debt” and whether you need to perhaps catch up with some much needed shut-eye.
Feeling tired but all your sleep indicators are on point? Perhaps you’re overdoing it in the gym and you don’t realise it – Oura’s recovery insights will help you determine whether it’s time to amp up it a little in the gym, or dial it down a bit for a while.
And all of this information is broken down via the smartphone app, which provides a detailed breakdown of not just your activities during the day, but your time in light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep.
Running with the tagline “A Good Night’s Sleep Isn’t a Luxury…It’s a Necessity”, Sleep Score is a bedside sleep-monitoring smartphone app that tracks your sleep using six different sleep parameters, presenting you with an easy to understand overall “Sleep Score” upon waking.
This “Sleep Score” is in turn an average of two different scores, your “Mind Score” and your ‘“BodyScore.”
Your “Mind Score” is based upon the amount of REM sleep you achieve the previous night, while your “BodyScore” measures your deep sleep time.
Combined, they provide your overall Sleep Score.
The basic version of the app is free and while you can upgrade to a premium version which provides more granular information on things like sleep history, recommendations and other insights, the basic version will provide enough information to give you a baseline on how good your sleep may be.
Learn more about Sleep Score app here
Sleep Cycle App
Similar to the Sleep Score app, Sleep Cycle app uses your smartphone’s microphone and accelerometer to gauge how you breath and move during your sleep, using this information to track your level of deep sleep, REM sleep and when you are awake.
You program an approximate time to wake up, and the app will attempt to awaken you during this time with the proviso you’re in your lightest sleep phase, and not in a sleep phase where you’re enjoying deeper sleep.
Just like Sleep Score app, there is a premium version which provides extra features such as snoring detection and heart rate tracking – but for establishing a sleep baseline to help improve your sleep, the “freemium” edition is more than adequate.
Learn more about Sleep Cycle app here
Easy Wins to Improve Your Sleep
Just like if you are trying to lose weight then giving up gorging on Krispy Kremes and Pizza washed down with Coca Cola is a good start, there’s similar low hanging fruit you can grab to improve your sleep.
Limit your caffeine consumption to before 1pm
As the world’s most widely used drug, it’s no secret caffeine will help you stay awake.
And while there’s little harm in having one or two cups of coffee every morning to kick start your day, you should limit them to just the morning time (1pm at the very latest.)
Caffeine blocks your brain’s adenosine receptors preventing you from falling asleep and boosting your ability to focus. It also gives your dopamine levels a boost, enhancing your mood and brain function too.
Caffeine will remain in your system for about 12 hours, so ideally you should be drinking it ideally no later than midday if you’re serious about getting to bed before 12, and certainly no later than 1pm.
Exercise in the Morning and/or the Afternoon
Aside from avoiding the sweaty masses hogging the treadmill and squat rack at your gym, getting better sleep is another reason to schedule your workouts earlier in the day.
An intense workout amounts to all out assault on your nervous system, speeding up your heart rate, raising your body temperature, not to mention the kick it gives to your serotonin and dopamine levels too.
All great things to start your day with, but not necessarily a good idea when you’re winding down for the evening.
If you must engage in physical activity, then limit it to some calming yoga, stretching or sex.
And while the latter can certainly count as “strenuous physical activity”, the endorphins released during intercourse can serve to ease anxiety and relax you into a deep sleep.
Lights Out at 10pm!
While prison for the most part isn’t a barrel of laughs, an interesting side “benefit” to prison life is the sleep quality afforded to the inmates.Not necessarily because prisons provide comfortable sleeping conditions, but because of the predictable regularity of when a prisoner goes to bed, and when they wake up.
Meaning the prisoner’s bodies are naturally attuned for wake and sleep.
And of all the “low hanging fruit” sleep hacks, this one is arguably the easiest to implement, and it’s one I’ve found personally to have the greatest impact too.
When your circadian rhythm gets disrupted (eg flying to a new time zone, or staying up past your normal bedtime) it leads to your body releasing melatonin (the sleep responsible for sleep) at the wrong time of the day (either too late, or too early)
However, implementation of this isn’t always easy, so I schedule a reminder on my phone to remind me of when it’s my own “lights out!” time.
At 10pm each night I receive a command in the form of a reminder on my phone to “shut the laptop, or else my sleep will be disrupted.”
And with that I slam the laptop shut, and go about my nightly bedtime routine….
Meditation and Gratitude Journaling
If you’re serious about getting a night of good quality, deep sleep, then reducing mental arousal before bedtime is essential.
A handy “hack” to help yourself drift off to sleep is to read some “boring” literature; books like books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Moby Dick will certainly do the job, or my own personal favourite, the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Or even just reading in general, provided it’s something light hearted and won’t stir the blood.
Aside from reading, meditation before bedtime is extremely effective at reducing nightly mental “arousal.”
That, coupled with the act of nightly “gratitude” journaling promotes “physiologically restorative behaviors” which help facilitate better sleep.
Which when you think about it makes perfect sense – someone who is grateful for what they have and is aware of it, is less likely to have anxious thoughts at bedtime that can keep us awake tossing and turning at night.
I must admit – gratitude journaling is something I was very skeptical of when I first encountered it.
But the act of getting my thoughts down on paper (even for as little as 5 minutes) about what was good in my life (even when I had a bad day) was not just beneficial for my sleep, but transformative for my life in general.
Hacking Your Sleeping Environment
Ever notice you find it impossible to sleep on a hot summer’s night? Turns out there’s a solid biological reason for it – your body temperature needs to drop a few degrees in order to properly enter deep sleep.
To that end, keeping your sleeping environment cool (recommended temp of 68F/20C) is helpful if you want to give yourself every advantage when it comes to falling (and staying) asleep.
Light Hacking with Blackout Curtains
Another problematic aspect of long, hot summer nights is the amount of daylight one has to contend with.
While enjoying daylight long into the evening is no doubt life-affirming, it can be detrimental to your sleep because the moment light hits your skin it has the effect of producing cortisol, the stress hormone which causes you to be awake.
Luckily – you can “hack” the amount of sleep that enters your bedroom using blackout curtains.
Perhaps a pair of pitch black curtains won’t win your pad any interior design awards, but you’ll have the last laugh when it comes to your improved quality of sleep, and the benefits that go with it.
Weighted blankets might be the last thing you need when you’re drowning in sweat trying to sleep on a hot summer’s night, but they’re a neat sleeping environment hack for the colder months of the year.
Weighing anything up to 30 pounds, these heavy blankets help to decrease nocturnal unease by imitating the experience provided by a warm hug, mimicking the cocooning effect of deep pressure therapy (DPT) which in turn calms the nervous system and allows you to enjoy a night deeper sleep.
Blue Light Blocking Glasses and Software
Perhaps you’ve seen a photo of Dave Asprey (of Bulletproof Coffee fame) looking like he just stepped out of a dodgy 1990s warehouse rave, wearing a pair of orange shades.
Well, turns out there’s a good reason for his odd sartorial choices.
From evening time onwards he wears these glasses to block what’s known as ‘blue light” – artificial light emitted from everything from TV screens, lamps to smartphones.
Exposure to this junk “blue light” late at night sends a signal to the receptors in your retina, which relay the message to your brain it’s daylight, which in turn suppresses melatonin secretion by your pineal gland.
And when melatonin isn’t produced in your brain for whatever reason (e.g. jet lag or exposure to “blue light”) then your brain doesn’t prepare adequately for sleep.
As I alluded to earlier, arguably the greatest sleep hack of all is simply making the decision to cut out all forms of blue light after a certain time each night.
But if you do need to work late into the night, then you should consider using a pair of blue light blocking glasses to minimise the melatonin suppressing effects of blue light emitting devices such as your computer, TV and smartphone.
And then there’s f.lux – the free app which gradually reduces the amount of blue light emitted by your device as the evening wanes.
With f.lux you set your timezone, your typical waking time and bedtime…and the app decides a suitable time to begin reducing the amount of blue light emitted by your screen, changing the screen shade to a decidedly warmer colour (think 1970’s British period drama rather than futuristic sci-fi shoot ‘em up), significantly reducing the impact blue light has on melatonin production suppression.
Get All Prickly With a Sleep Induction Mat
The theory behind the sleep induction mat is similar to acupuncture – by lying on a mat consisting of acupressure nodules – acupressure meridians on your back, spine and shoulders are stimulated which helps your body ease into deep relaxation.
Endorphins and hormones are released; blood circulation is increased to induce a feeling of deep restfulness which helps you to sleep easier.
Supplementation and Sleep Remedies
Apple Cider Vinegar and Raw Honey
My go-to sleep supplementation hack of Apple Cider Vinegar and raw honey is a rather simple one that more sounds like an old-wives remedy and comes courtesy of none other lifehacker extraordinaire, Tim Ferris.
Believe it or not, your brain uses a lot of energy (in the form of glycogen) while sleeping. Those vivid dreams need to be powered somehow, right?
It first looks to the liver to find this glycogen, which can be built up by a tablespoon of raw honey an hour before bedtime. With this extra energy, brain function is improved during the night and the likelihood of a decent night’s sleep is increased.
Quick tip: use raw honey (as opposed to the common or garden variety in your local supermarket, it’s more effective at synthesising liver glycogen)
Apple Cider Vinegar has long been known as a health powerhouse – packing a punch not just from it’s strong, bitter taste but also from the plethora of great health benefits such as weight loss, normalising blood sugar, relief from acid reflux and healthy skin.
But it also shines as a remedy for insomnia too.
It has an amino acid profile that helps beat fatigue and balance your mouth’s microbiome (preventing “morning breath”) into the bargain.
So combined with raw honey, this nocturnal concoction makes a potent “tranquilising” powerhouse to help you drift off into a deep sleep and stay asleep until the morning time.
And if you can’t stomach the harsh unforgiving taste of Apple Cider Vinegar (and who could blame you?) then a worthy alternative is MCT oil. Working on the same principles as the previous combo, a tablespoon of MCT oil before bedtime keeps your blood sugar steady throughout the night improving brain function, helping you ease into (and stay in) deep sleep during the night.
Sleep supplementation doesn’t stop there. Instead of reaching for the sleeping pills next time you need to grab some shut eye, here’s a few others to consider..
The hormone your body produces to regulate it’s circadian rhythm, melatonin is produced in the pineal gland and is found naturally in meat, grains and some fruits and vegetables.
When it’s bright out and we’re awake, melatonin production stops, and when it’s darker and later it starts to ramp up again.
However, the normal melatonin production cycle can become disrupted due to jet lag, or when your sleep schedule gets out of whack for whatever reason (eg shift work, or even simply staying up later than you normally would for a period of time)
And should that happen, supplementing with melatonin can be an effective hack for getting your sleep cycle back on track.
A warning though – while melatonin is great as a quick fix for sleeping your sleep issues, it’s easy to develop a dependence on it. While the side-effects of melatonin usage are benign compared to sleeping aids like Ambien, it’s best to use melatonin just as a band aid to fix your sleeping cycle when it becomes out of sync (e.g. due to jet lag), rather than being dependant on it for a prolonged period of time.
An amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine boosts levels of GABA, serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that regulate focus, emotional state and sleep.
It’s also a powerful nootropic, working by enhancing alpha brain waves.
So paradoxically, it can help with focusing during the day because alpha brain wave activity is responsible for enhancing concentration and creativity, but also can help with sleep as it aids alpha wave generation during REM sleep,
It also helps to promote sleep by increasing relaxation and lowering anxiety. It’s important to note it doesn’t work as a sedative, but by promoting relaxation by lower levels of the stress hormone corticosterone.
A mineral we could probably all do with getting more of, magnesium’s role in regulating healthy enzyme function can’t be understated as it’s responsible for around 300 different enzyme related reactions throughout your body.
And activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps your mind and body relax) is one of these functions.
It’s also important when it comes to regulating melatonin and GABA, the neurotransmitter responsible for relaxing nerve activity which in turn helps promote sleep.
So in short, it’s not just crucial for a healthy nervous system, but for good quality sleep too.
Another piece of the melatonin production puzzle is having sufficient zinc in your diet.
Like magnesium, it plays an important role in neurotransmitter function and is a crucial precursor in the metabolism of melatonin.
This study found Zinc and Magnesium had a positive effect on the restorative value of sleep, vividness of dreams and was also found to reduce the number of wake-ups in the night, along with having an anxiety-reducing effect.
While you can supplement with Zinc if you chose to, it’s also found in a variety of food sources.
Gorging on oysters is your best bet if you want to keep your zinc levels topped up nicely, while other varieties of seafood like lobster and crab are great sources too.
In addition it’s also found in abundance in red meat and poultry too, with nuts, legumes and beans being your go-to if you happen to be vegetarian.
It’s 2am and you’ve spent the last couple of hours tossing and turning like a rough night at sea, and your brain seems intent on doing it’s level best to rob you of some much needed shut eye.
Sometimes you can do everything right with your sleep routine at night, but for whatever reason your brain just will not switch off.
If that’s the case, then perhaps GABA might be worth trying.
It’s a neuro-inhibitory transmitter your brain uses to “shut down” for the night, or even during the day when you just need to relax.
If “switching off” at night is something you repeatedly have problems with, then perhaps trying GABA supplement could be worthwhile. Start with 500mg and see how it works for you.
Dozing off after Christmas dinner is something that’s often attributed to turkey, and the amino acid it contains named L-Tryptophan.
And while your Christmas day post meal slumber is more likely to be caused by an excess of mulled wine and general over-indulgence, there is some truth to the notion.
Turns out L-Tryptophan is an important precursor to serotonin, which in turn increases melatonin – which, as we’ve discussed earlier is the neurotransmitter responsible for letting your body know when it’s time to sleep for the night.
So while L-Tryptophan isn’t present in sufficient doses in Turkey to make any meaningful difference (except perhaps as a placebo), it can be taken in supplement form to provide extra sleep-inducing amino acids, should your serotonin or melatonin production become disrupted.
Reduce Your Alcohol Intake
More of an “anti-hack” this one but regardless – one that genuinely seems to surprise some people because of how widely it’s used as a “sleeping aid”.
Just like taking Amblin or other types of sedatives, alcohol can be effective at knocking you out but that doesn’t translate into good quality, deep, restorative sleep.
Which is why after a heavy night of drinking the intoxicating effects of alcohol are amplified by the fact you’ve had a poor night’s sleep to boot. You don’t just feel like you’ve poisoned, you feel tired too.
So while the odd glass of wine as a nightcap once in a while won’t impact your health too much you, using alcohol as a long term sleeping aid, will.
Biohacking Snoring and Mouth Breathing for Deeper Sleep
For years I was aware of the fact I snored but never thought of it as something that was detrimental to my health, apart from perhaps being throttled one night out of sheer exasperation by whomever was unfortunate enough to be dating me.
Until I moved to Thailand and one morning over coffee I got talking to a bloke who lived in my apartment complex one morning.
I had noticed him around the complex for a while before I actually got talking to them, and he came across as one of those chirpy “morning people” I had always loved to hate.
Well, during our conversation he told me he wasn’t always like that.
And he only was able to “tap into” this “boundless energy” after an important discovery about his snoring.
In his case his snoring was caused by chronic mouth breathing, which caused him to breathe like Homer Simpson after a night of drinking Duff down at Moe’s.
Which in turn caused his throat to compress, making his tongue fall back into his airway, resulting in snoring.
While snoring like a drooling zombie certainly wasn’t a good look, it also meant his energy levels were all over the place too.
Just like mine were.
Turns out your nose produces nitric oxide which helps the lungs ability to absorb oxygen, along with facilitating oxygen’s transport through the body too.
And when this process is disrupted, your sleep becomes disrupted too.
In addition to being a heavy snorer, my new friend told me he always woke up every morning with a dry mouth and had suffered from asthma since he was a small boy.
All of which disappeared when he made the simple switch from breathing through his mouth to breathing through his nose while he slept.
Best of all?
Changing this habit is as simple as applying a piece of cheap micropore tape to your mouth while you sleep to keep it shut.
Or else using anti-snoring “chin strap” which stops your mouth from opening while you sleep.
These days I use both whenever possible, and it’s no exaggeration these simple sleep hacks (in addition to the others mentioned above) have revolutionised my life.
Every single day I bounce out of bed with enthusiasm, brimming with energy ready to attack the day.
While previously I would frequently struggle to get out of bed, and relied on coffee to function in any productive way whatsoever.
And all it took was a simple adjustment to how I breathe whilst I slept to have an enormous effect on my sleep, and ergo my energy levels.
In a rational, sane world the arguments for getting better, deeper sleep shouldn’t be too hard to make.
But I guess we don’t live in such a world anymore.
Of all the “instant wins” you can do for their health, none have bigger bang for your buck than getting a decent night’s sleep on the regular.
But because of the frenetic nature of our lives today, it seems many of us have banished sleep to something that’s more of an afterthought, rather than an outright necessity.
Good sleep isn’t really non-negotiable – if you’re looking to achieve anything in life, attempting it without good quality deep, restorative sleep is exponentially more difficult.
The good news is you don’t need to resort to sleeping drugs or anything drastic to achieve a solid 7-8 hours of deep, restorative sleep every night.
Unless you’re suffering from medical issues like sleep apnea (which may require surgery or other kinds of medical intervention) for the most part getting better sleep is something which is entirely within your hands.
Often just a case of lifestyle or dietary change or else adopting certain habits like using a chin strap and or mouth taping, regular meditation or else making a solid commitment to yourself to cease using all electronic devices after a certain time every evening.
And hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought as to how you can employ “sleep hacking” to improve your sleep, and in doing so – improve your life.