I’m a sleep nerd. There, I said it. I genuinely believe that a good night’s sleep is a foundation of a highly productive and happy life. It’s great to see the trend of using sleep deprivation as a badge of honor is finally getting the bad reputation it deserves.
It wasn’t always this way, and I struggled with sleep most of my life. I would lie in bed, not able to fall asleep for hours, wake up in the middle of the night for no reason, and snooze the alarm countless times every morning.
Now, I’m falling asleep in 5 minutes, waking up without the alarm, and my sleep score is almost always above 85.
Here are the things that worked for me after years of continuous experimentation to optimize my sleep.
1. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule.
Going to sleep within the same one-hour window every day has had the most impact on my sleep, bar none.
The exact time usually doesn’t work because life happens, and “being late to bed” just gives you anxiety, which will, ironically, ruin your sleep. For me, the perfect window is from 10 pm to 11 pm. You’ll have to find your own “perfect window” because everyone has a different circadian rhythm, and by sticking to the same sleep schedule, you’ll normalize yours.
Your brain and body will know when they are supposed to shut down and relax, which will allow you to fall asleep quickly every day.
2. No wake-up alarm clock.
I try to use an alarm to wake up as little as possible. If you need an alarm, you’re, by definition, sleep-deprived. You’ll never need it if you consistently sleep enough. Try to use the alarm only as a backup, and when you do, use the wake-up light alarm clock with sunrise simulation instead of the standard sound-based ones (they shock you into waking up, leading to sleep inertia).
3. Blue light blocking glasses and f.lux after sunset.
There’s an ongoing debate whether blue light has a negative impact or not, but blocking it before sleep seems to work for me. I wear these glasses one hour before bed; they’re not fancy-looking but do the job and block 98% of blue light. f.lux makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day – warm at night and like sunlight during the day. I’ve been using it for years, and love it.
4. No screens for at least an hour before sleep and no screens in the bedroom.
My bedroom is a strictly screen-free zone. No phones, tablets, laptops, or TVs allowed at all times.
The first apparent reason is that blue light from the screens may restrain the production of melatonin and have a negative impact on your circadian rhythm.
But more importantly, the constant influx of information that you get from your devices is keeping your mind engaged and tricking your brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. Not to mention social media apps that are designed to give you a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx, which, again, directly inhibits the production and release of melatonin and makes it much harder to unwind.
Make your bedroom a place for sleep and sex only, and watch the quality of your life improves.
5. Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
That’s highly individual because people with a specific variation of the gene PDSS2 (also CYP1A2, AHR17, ULK3, and NRCAM, but that’s beyond the scope of this article) process caffeine more slowly than others.
You can determine your caffeine sensitivity by taking a DNA test (23andMe or similar ones).
You should also know that the caffeine molecule is similar in shape to the adenosine molecule, which is a neurotransmitter. It plays a significant role in the sleep-wake cycle. When adenosine binds to enough receptors, it signals the brain that it is time for rest. Caffeine doesn’t replace the need for sleep, but masks tiredness since adenosine can no longer do what it is intended to do.
The average half-life of caffeine in healthy adults is 4-6 hours, so if you go to sleep at 10 pm, a general rule of thumb is to avoid caffeine consumption after 4 pm.
6. Cardio at any time during the day but at least a few hours before bed.
I’ve found that any type of cardio (running in my case) during the day does wonders for my HRV score. But you should avoid very late high-intensity exercise simply because it’s perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), and your body needs some time to return the cortisol level back to normal.
7. Read a fiction book (physical copy) before falling asleep.
Reading a fiction book in bed before sleep has become one of my favorite rituals. My thinking is that non-fiction business books before bed stimulate your thought process, and you are ending up dwelling on your day-time problems. In contrast, fiction books invite you to a new world where you can actually “turn off,” stop thinking about what “you should’ve said or done,” and easily fall asleep.
8. 20-minute meditation before going to bed.
I meditate with Headspace for 20 minutes before going to bed. I’ve been doing that for so long that Andy Puddicombe’s (founder of the app) voice now works as a trigger for my brain to wind down and get ready to sleep.
9. Chamomile tea with honey and apple cider vinegar.
I got this recipe from Tim Ferris (although he uses a different tea), and I’m also not sure about the biochemistry behind why this works, but it does work as a tranquilizer for me.
10. 200mg of magnesium 30 minutes before sleep.
I take all of my supplements in the morning except for magnesium, which I’ve found is to be better taken in the evening before sleep. Sometimes I’d also take L-theanine after a particularly stressful day.
11. Healthy diet and no food after 7 pm.
Nutritionists will usually tell you to wait two to three hours between your last meal and bedtime. This allows digestion to happen and the contents of your stomach to move into your small intestine, which may prevent problems like heartburn and insomnia. Eating also prompts the release of insulin, which plays a huge role in shifting your circadian rhythm.
I’m assuming that if you read this blog, then it goes without saying, but nothing from this list would work without a healthy diet. That is, at a minimum, no processed sugars, no soda, no alcohol, and no junk food. So if, for some reason, you’re reading this while drinking Coca-Cola, start there.
12. Optimal room temperature.
You’ll find lots of people saying that keeping the room temperature at 60-68°F (15.5-20℃) is optimal for your sleep.
I find this a bit misleading. There is no universal optimal because it depends on your sheets, body fat, clothing, body temperature, and humidity. The more natural rule of thumb is that you’re not supposed to be too cold (not shivering) or too hot (not sweat). One empirically-validated ‘hack’ is to wear socks – keeping your feet and hands warm prevents blood from shunting too much to the extremities, and keeps your core body temperature better regulated.
13. Fixing the underlying problem.
Many people recommend using weighted blankets and CBD oil because they help with anxiety, which helps to fall asleep easier. I haven’t used them because they address the symptom – anxiety – instead of fixing the underlying problem that causes it.
These underlying issues are different for everyone, but the most common ones are stress at work/school, relationship issues, emotional traumas, financial stress, and medical illnesses.
If you want a temporary bandaid to simply help you through a few nights, then sure, CBD oil and weighted blankets will help. But if you want to improve your sleep once and for all, then you’ll have to fix that problem that causes your anxiety.
Sleep tips for traveling.
How to preserve your established circadian rhythm when you travel and change time zones?
There’s a hard way – arrive at a new place, force yourself to live by the new hours for a couple of weeks, and your body will adapt in time.
But, of course, there’s an easier way. Start even before you reach your destination. Figure out what time you’ll be living in, and start living by that time while on the plane. That means you should sleep if it’s nighttime at your destination, even if it’s 10 am your current time.
My recipe to easily fall asleep on the plane:
- Use a 100% blackout sleep mask (I use Manta Sleep);
- Get a 100% natural cocktail of magnesium, l-theanine, and melatonin;
- Use noise-canceling headphones (I use Bose QC35);
- Stay hydrated before and during the flight.
Once you reach your destination, hit the gym, and do a quick workout within an hour of arrival. I don’t know the science behind it, but it almost always helps me eliminate jet lag.
Book, podcast, and gadget recommendations.
People often ask me for books, podcasts, and gadget recommendations, so here’s a special list of everything sleep-related that can help you to sleep better, and as a result, have a better life.
Start with the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matt Walker.
Many people swear by this book, claiming that it’s changed their lives, and according to Google Scholar, it’s been cited more than a hundred times in academic papers. Walker goes more in-depth on some points I’ve made in this article and touches on CBT-i (the application of cognitive-behavioral therapy to sleep issues). In his book, the key point that Walker makes is that you need at least 8 hours of sleep:
“After being awake for nineteen hours, sleep-deprived people were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk… After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.”
Even though it’s a pop-science book, and there are quite a few factual errors, “Why We Sleep” has probably been one of the most important instruments in raising general awareness on the importance of sleep in recent years, which is all that matters.
After you finished “Why We Sleep,” read the essay “Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’ Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors” by Alexey Guzey.
He compares the facts that Walker presented in chapter one with the scientific literature and does a comprehensive review of all scientific and factual errors along with an apparent invention of new facts by Walker.
The essay’s main point is to show that if you naturally sleep well and wake up with no alarm clock after less than eight hours of sleep, stick to that. People are different, and not everyone needs full 8+ hours. Many people tried to sleep more after reading “Why We Sleep,” which led to more awake time, frustration, worry, sleep-related anxiety, and insomnia.
- Peter Attia, M.D. and Matt Walker, Ph.D., go in-depth on sleep, different stages and cycles, the dangers of chronic sleep deprivation, roles of REM vs. non-REM sleep, and much more. Basically, if you don’t want to read Walker’s book, listen to this podcast.
- Think Your Way Out Of Insomnia by NPR – When you can’t sleep, your thoughts can be your worst enemy. In this episode, Stephen Amira, a psychologist at Brigham, and Christina McCrae, a clinical psychologist and CBT-I expert at the University of Missouri, explain five key strategies to help break the spiral, based on what many believe is the most effective treatment out there: cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I.
Sleep gadgets that I use:
- Oura ring – as far as I know, this is the best and the most accurate consumer-level sleep tracker currently available on the market. Yes, it’s far from perfect, but if you don’t have access to a sleep lab, this is the best option. With a body temperature sensor, infrared LEDs, 3D accelerometer, and gyroscope, it tracks your actual sleep time, sleep cycles (REM, deep, light), HRV score, resting heart rate, respiratory rate, and other things, allowing you to see how are you actually sleep at a glance.
- Manta Sleep Mask – the best sleep mask that I’ve tested so far (and I’ve tested quite a few of them). It’s highly adjustable, ridiculously comfortable, and offers 100% blackout.
Sleep gadgets that I don’t use, but only because they don’t fit into my suitcase:
- Philips wake-up light alarm clock with sunrise simulation – I’ve mentioned this before, but will say this again – you shouldn’t use alarm clocks, but if you do, use this one instead of the annoying sound-based alarms because they shock you into waking up, leading to sleep inertia.
- chiliPad – this is basically a system to regulate the temperature of your bed. The best thing about chiliPad is that if you and your partner have different optimal sleep temperature preferences, you can easily set your own temperature for each side of the bed.
- The Pod by Eight Sleep – the ultimate biohacker’s mattress. Combines chiliPad’s temperature control capability with sleep tracking and a premium memory foam.
- White noise machine – I tend to stay in quiet places, but the white noise machine can be a lifesaver if you have a noisy household. It creates a sound that remains consistent across all hearable frequencies, which creates a masking effect that’s blocking out the sudden changes in noise that can cause you to wake up during the night – the snoring, dog barking, or a garbage truck rumbling down the street.
Whatever you do to improve your sleep, remember one rule – don’t stress too much over it.
Ironically, it may backfire and lead to a vicious cycle of ever-increasing worry about sleep, frustration, anxiety, and insomnia.
Take it easy, and gradually implement one change after another to see what each of them does to your sleep.
As always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or want to chat about what worked to improve your sleep, hit me up on Twitter or email me at hi [at] mgrev.com!