Biohacking Sleep with Lighting, Beverages and Mindset
From my book How to Be Cross Eyed: Thriving Despite Your Physical Imperfection — a mémoire and lifehacking manifesto
When it comes to optimizing health, happiness and overall human performance (there’s a very in vogue phrase that will make you sound cool at cocktail parties) there’s a lot of low hanging fruit options which the next few chapters will explore. They might not be cutting edge technology with cool names and acronyms BUT they still make a big difference in the mental horsepower that you can bring to bear.
If you’re wary of using the Nootropics you’re really going to want to implement all of these. I’ll discuss pros vs cons, evidence, usage and cost of these empowering lifestyle biohacks.
Unless you’re already measuring your sleep and you’re consistently scoring in the top 80% percentile (or you awake every morning feeling freakin’ fantastic!) you probably get crappy sleep. Sleep really matters to performance. Or perhaps you’re thinking…
I sleep just fine. I get 8 hours nightly.
Well, do you frequently feel tired, fatigued or lacking in energy or motivation? That has everything to do with your sleep quality. Even if you easily fall asleep that doesn't necessarily mean that it’s good sleep. Try habituating some of these sleep hacks for a month or two and see how your life changes.
The most popular sleep supplement is probably Melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that naturally is supposed to put you to sleep, but supplementing Melatonin has some real downsides; if you use it nightly you’ll become dependent upon it to get to sleep.
- It’s ok to use Melatonin once or twice a week maximum
- Don’t use more than 10 milligrams
Ashwagandha is the notable Melatonin alternative
It’s an adaptogenic herb that naturally regulates down the autonomic nervous system. Hard working professionals are often plagued by bad sleep as their nervous systems are overactive when they should be winding down from a demanding day. At least 6 scientific papers identify Ashwagandha as a sleep hack.
- Take Ashwagandha about an hour before bed
- Dosage: as low as 500 or 800 milligrams helps some people relax BUT some people need as much as 3–4 grams of the stuff to reach tranquility. It’s a natural herb that is fine to take at higher dosages.
With Nutraceuticals quality matters. The Ashwagandha that you can find at a pharmacy may be of low quality. You want organic Ashwagandha that has been verified by a certificate of analysis to be >97% pure. A few sources that meet these high standards
Ashwagandha Spagyric Tincture (2 fl. oz)
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Nootropics Depot - Search Results for "Ashwagandha"
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There’s some other sleep promoting supplements; like L-Theanine, Valerian, Chamomile and Magnesium but chronic low level anxiety is such a prolific cause of bad sleep that Ashwagandha is really the king of sleep supplements.
Cost: $10 — $20
A couple of other noteworthy sleep supplements
Red strains of Kratom
This relatively benign opioid herb will really relax you before bed. I love to sip some Kratom tea while reading in the evening before bed. When I had it, I’d use it once or twice a week before bed.
I’ve had some of the best sleep of my life on this Gabaergic stuff! But it doesn’t work as consistently as the other sleep hacks. If you use this stuff about once a week 500–1500 milligrams will be awesome for your social life, your stress or your sleep. Use it more frequently and it will lose its luster for you!
Before Bed Beverage regime
What I’m drinking actually has a noticeably relaxing effect on putting me to sleep, especially these beverages…
- 3–4 hours before bed Decaffeinated Green tea
- 1–2 hours before bed Ashwaganda, Chamomile or Valerian tea
- 15–30 minutes before bed Apple-cider vinegar tea — 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of raw organic honey
I drink these almost every night.
Wear orange tinted sunglasses for 2–6 hours before sleep. This is an especially good idea if you spend hours staring at a screen, working on the computer in the evenings. Cheapo orange tinted sunglasses are better than nothing but if you really want to filter out all blue light there’s some very high end (and fashionable!) options.
Swannies Classic - The Best Blue Light Blocking Glasses For Better Sleep Tonight
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Cost: $13 — $69
Is bad for sleep quality. Turn off your laptop’s wifi off and put your smartphone on airplane mode. If you want to automate this connect your wifi router to a power outlet with a timer so your wifi automatically shuts off at 11:00PM or about an hour before bed time.
Sleep mask and Earphones
Are good ideas to improve sleep quality especially if you live in a noisy city. Lifehacker extraordinaire Tim Ferriss called this as the most comfortable and effective sleep mask.
Sleep Master Sleep Mask
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Lighting & Screens
Make a big difference to your sleep quality and health in general. Just as we avoid junk food, we also want to avoid junk light. There’s two main kinds of light you want to avoid (especially after dark):
Blue light and fluorescent light
I’ll quote from the excellent book Head Strong by Dave Asprey which goes really deep on this topic of using light to improve mitochondrial health…
Your mitochondria have to produce a lot of extra energy to process the blue light in LEDs, which burns oxygen and creates free radicals in the cells of your eyes. And when the mitochondria in your eyes are stressed, the rest of your mitochondria can get stressed, too, including the ones in your brain. (pp. 159–160)
You are getting overdosed on blue light, so changing the ratio of blue to red can help your eyes and your brain, and your mitochondria will thank you. Simply install a red light somewhere in your field of vision. (pp. 241–242)
Ideally, you want to spend the last 2 hours of the day before bed in the dark, but that’s pretty impractical for most people so just try to avoid bright blue or white light before bed.
Screens — Turn the brightness on your laptop, tablet and smartphone all the way down at the end of the day. Install applications like F.Lux or Iris on your computer and devices that filter out the blue light.
Candles — You probably need some illumination during the last 2 hours of your day and I encourage you to pick up some cheap candles and just use those. Candle light certainly has a soothing effect.
I really sucked at sleep for about a decade
I’ve had a lively mind and an over active imagination for as long as I can remember; which has led me to lead a life of adventure and novelty seeking. The unfortunate downside to this is that for almost as long I can remember I was on the insomnia spectrum; getting to sleep has always been a challenge. There is always just so much to think about!
As a teenager I remember wondering…
What should I be thinking about to go sleep?
This was before the age when you could find a really helpful answer to that sort of question by just Googling it.
I would read these different self help type books which would say that…
Before falling asleep you should think about what you’re going to do the next day or write down a challenge you’re dealing with.
This really did not help my sleep as I would then spend hours tossing and turning worrying about what I was going to do the next day to overcome whatever I was dealing with.
I had also heard that you may want to repeat a mantra like
Relax… Relax… Relax…
Or that you want to try to “self talk” hypnotize yourself to sleep
You’re going to sleep Jonathan… You’re getting sleepy… You’re going to sleep Jonathan…
These really did not work for me. I felt really silly repeating mantras or trying to talk myself into falling asleep and then I would just get frustrated with myself.
When I got into Entrepreneurship in my early 20’s my mind was constantly formulating business plans and marketing strategies. Sometimes I would come up with (what I thought was) a really brilliant business idea at around 11:45 PM and would think about it for hours and hours getting more and more excited; around 5:00 AM I would give up on sleep and just get up, get some coffee and get to work.
In my mid 20’s my insomnia was as bad as ever and I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually needed to drink myself to sleep; not like a half bottle of vodka a night but I needed like a glass or two (or three) of wine to get to sleep.
Fast forward to today and I’ve almost totally overcame this issue and I have more to think and worry about than ever. It would be an understatement to say that my domain of concerns has expanded. Yet I fall asleep consistently without the aid of drugs or booze, I’m very rarely tormented and kept from slumber by my thoughts.
What changed? Well, I do use a lot of those sleep hacks, they really do help, but during my time as a digital nomad a lot of them didn’t fit into my lifestyle. I figured out what to think about to actually fall asleep, the key is…
Going to sleep you really want to think about things that don’t excite you, ideally you actually want to be a little bored. Which is a little bit counter intuitive to modern life; nowadays everything about life is trying to make sure that we are constantly amused, entertained or enraged. It’s actually really important to spend a little bit of time every day being bored.
What are some examples?
This is probably the most quintessential example of non-stimulatory thinking; either the vipassana style or the Blue Sky Protocol will clear your mind of thoughts that excite you. Doing 20 minutes of meditation before bed really will imbue tranquility and can be a serious game changer for your sleep life. You may even fall asleep while doing the meditation.
A none-stimulatory thought exercise is to go on a time travel journey through your own personal history. With your reminiscing, as opposed to just letting your mind wander, you want to focus on sequences of related of memories, such as:
- Apartments or houses you’ve lived in.
- First dates you’ve been on.
- Places you traveled on vacations.
- Lovers you’ve had.
- Favorite articles of clothing you’ve owned.
- Video games you used to play.
- Jobs you’ve worked at.
Go through the sequence from your earliest memory to the most recent; it should be a little monotonous.
Visualizing physical action
In your head you can practice the moves of some physical exercise you do; it could be a weight lifting technique, martial arts, yoga, or whatever.
Personally I do salsa and latin dance so in my head going to bed I often practice the latin dance moves I’ve learned recently.
If you’ve learned a second language; you can think through the vocabulary and grammar you’ve learned. You can try to construct phrases or translate song lyrics that have been in your head.
Audio enablers of slumber
You may find that your mind just keeps defaulting back to more high valence thinking; your inner dialog beats you up about your bad decisions and grapples with the challenges you’ll face tomorrow. What works really well for me is to listen to a podcast or audio book about some subject that’s not very stimulating. In particular…
Stefan Molyneux’s Free Domain Radio — Viewing society, culture and current events through the lens of empirical philosophy.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History — Really thorough story telling and analysis of major historical events.
Both of these guys have soothing voices and a melodic cadence that will talk you to sleep. I would not listen to a podcast that had a lot of audio effects, jokes or entertainment value while trying to go to bed.
There’s these audio tracks of really soothing music that help some get to sleep, listening to podcasts or audio books has always worked much better for me though.
The Power of Non-stimulatory Thinking
I’m reading this autobiographical book by this Finnish engineer who invented the smart phone in the early 2000’s. One of the things I found interesting is that right from its inception the smart phone was intended to be a drug.
The establishment engineers at Nokia in Finland thought that mobile phones should just be a convenient tool to make phone calls but this young inventor, Johannes Väänänen, imagined this engrossing, compelling and even addictive experience that could be provided by a device the size of your hand.
Buddhism has for thousands of years sought to banish suffering from the world, and it would seem that it has a very long ways to go in that endeavor, but Johannes’s invention has nearly banished boredom from the world in just a little more than a decade.
We may still use the word boredom; but we actually use it now to describe the opposite state of mind from boredom. We’ll spend 30 minutes or an hour (or more!) jumping between applications, reading the news, sending an SMS to a friend, browsing Twitter or watching a funny video. We are so stimulated that we can’t hold our attention on one thing for more than a few minutes.
You may think…
But I’m not addicted to my smart phone the way a junky needs cocaine or oxycotin!
Perhaps you remember the scene from the movie Eyes Wide Shut where he gets into this secret society ritual sex orgy. If you ever wanted to actually go to a party like that, you would want to find a No phone swinger party.
The first time I went to such a party was a few years ago in Medellin, Colombia. An amigo and some girls I knew invited me to this secret bar. I took a taxi to an address and I had to knock on an unmarked black door on a deserted street to enter, I was then informed that I would be leaving my clothes and phone in a locker. I paid the cover, was given a towel and directed to a hot tub.
That night easily ranks in my top 5 most hedonistic experiences but there was some undeniable acute separation anxiety from not having my phone.
You may not be into swingers parties but it’s worthwhile to try going to a social event without your smart phone or maybe you could organize your own No Phone party (clothing optional?)
You’ll experience that there’s kind of an anxiety curve to being smart phone-less, at first it just doesn’t feel right, you’ll keep reaching for your pockets. You’ll fidget a little more, needing to give your hands something to do. I imagine that it’s not all that different from someone who just needs a little bit of heroin daily to function.
You are likely highly stimulated all day, everyday, if not by your work, study or family then by your computer, smart phone or television. It’s important to include some non-stimulatory thinking in your day:
- It will allow your mind to follow a thread of thought for more than 30 seconds. In what’s become our default state of browser tabs, notifications, apps and videos competing for our attention it’s difficult to think thoroughly about a single topic for until we reach our conclusion or decision.
- It turns down the volume of mental static which allows the default network (your subconscious) to deliver up creative solutions to problems to your conscious mind.
- It allows you to transform information into knowledge; to take the things you hear and see and integrate them into a holistic understanding of the world and your place in it.
How is non-stimulatory thinking done practically?
- I live downtown and at the end of my work day or sometimes at noon, I’ll just walk around for 10 minutes, taking in the sights and sounds of the city.
- Reading intentionally and thoroughly. This is the opposite of browsing a Twitter hashtag about the most recent terrorist attack. I try to spend 30 minutes a day reading something dense with the intention of understanding a deeper nuance as opposed to just being amused; usually a none-fiction book about technology, science, history or philosophy.
- I spend approximately 25% of my workday listening to zero content music; either the lyric free algorithmic music of Brain.FM or classical music. Next to smart drugs this is probably my best biohack for focusing on a project for hours at a time.
- For many doing exercise, lifting weights or doing yoga alone in silence doubles as a beneficial mindfulness practice.
- Journaling, the old fashioned way with pen and paper, focuses your problem solving and introspective powers on the important things in your life.
- If you’re a guy you can do tantric self cultivation, if you’re one half of a couple you can do orgasmic meditation with your partner. More on this in the sex hacking chapter.
I’ll challenge you to try to spend 30–60 minutes a day being bored; usually at the end of the day and see how much it improves your mood, focus and productivity the next day.
I’ve noticed a marked difference between…
a) If I turn off my Internet connection; read for 30–60 minutes while having a tea, then stretch for about 10 minutes and go to bed.
b) If I’ve spent an hour or two before going to sleep watching Youtube videos or reading articles about crazy things going on in the world, using Twitter and messaging friends.
The former just about guarantees that I’ll start my day right, make better decisions and allocate my time better. With the latter I find that the next day upon awakening my attention is really fractured; my discipline is poor and I’m not nearly as productive as I could be. It’s not true that a night of sleep is a fresh reset of your mood and attention; how you spend the very end of your day definitely has an effect on the beginning of the next.
Try being a little more disciplined about the last 45–90 minutes of the day and you’ll see for yourself!
- Melatonin is a popular but problematic sleep supplement. Try Ashwagandha instead.
- Lighting matters; carefully avoid blue light and fluorescent light for several hours before bed if you really want to sleep deeply
- Non-stimulatory thinking can be a game changer for your sleep. If you suffer from insomnia because thoughts run relentlessly through your head as soon as the lights go out; you’re doing too much stimulatory thinking before bed.
- It’s important to spend a little bit of time every day being bored.
This is a chapter from my mémoire and lifehacking manifesto.
Order it from Amazon or directly here on my own website