Adventures in Sleep Hacking - Part I

Anyone with a baseline of knowledge in health and fitness deems themselves an expert. They have their favorite vitamins, supplements and exercises. While one person will tell you that what you’re doing is correct, another person will tell you that same exercise is being done incorrectly.

At some point it all turns into confusing noise, doesn’t it?

 One area that everyone universally agrees on, though, is that improving the quality of our sleep can improve everything from our productivity to weight loss to muscle gain. 

A number of years ago I could tell you exactly what my cutoff time was for sleep. 3.5 hours. If I slept less than that, I was delirious. If I slept that amount or longer, I felt ok.

As the years went on I became to appreciate sleep more. 5-7 hours of sleep became the standard. I would work backward from my planned wake up time (4:45a) to determine the window of time that I needed to be asleep by.

While that worked fairly well it still did not address the quality of sleep that I was getting. I was only increasing the quantity or time in bed.

Spending nearly three weeks in two different hospitals, I was being woken up between every 30 minutes to every 2 hours for blood tests, to take medications, change machines, hospital noises or just to check on me.

Once I got home I have been awoken up to three times per night to use the restroom and take medications. 

It has been substandard sleep quality at best.

The Experiment

Using my body as a guinea pig I wanted to begin testing different sleep hacking concepts. 

You certainly don’t have to use all of them but I wanted to provide them in case you were interested.

  1. Install f.lux. Install f.lux to automatically adjust your laptop's brightness as the sun sets. The brightness from your laptop doesn’t change throughout the day even though the light around you does. This can have serious consequences on the quality of sleep.
  2. Winding down at least two hours prior to bed. In a society where we are glued to screens all day and night, we need to down regulate our bodies more effectively as we prepare ourselves for bed. This is not easy since many of us (me included) lay in bed with a TV at our feet, a smartphone in our hands and a tablet close within reach.
  3. Turn your phone on airplane mode. Not only will this prevent you from checking your phone throughout the night, the harmful effects from wifi and cell signals are turned off too.
  4. Turn your phone upside down. You might not be able to leave your phone in another room, which would be ideal, so just focus on flipping it screen-side down to minimize any alerts.
  5. Sleep mask. Prior to my injuries I had never tried a sleep mask before. As part of a gift that was sent I received a sleep mask and thought this was the perfect time to try it. There are a number of them available from retailers.
  6. Cold room. I have always favored sleeping in a colder room with only boxers on. For the experiment I purposely only used a sheet to cover myself thus lowering my core body temperature. Your sensitivity to cold may vary.
  7. Minimizing interruptions. This one is a bit difficult for me. It may be difficult for you. I wanted to minimize interruptions while I was asleep, namely waking up to use the restroom. During the experiment it was hard because I still have to wake up in the middle of the night to take pain medications.
  8. Laying flat on you back. Most people are side sleepers even though laying straight on your back is among the best for you. For a while I couldn’t sleep on my back since Laura said that it would cause me to snore. But, with over the last several weeks that seems to have cured itself.

There are several other tweaks that can be made to help improve quality of sleep. We’ll discuss many of them later in this article.

The Results

Installing f.lux during the day did not fully allow me to realize the incredible quality of what this tiny app does. As nighttime set in f.lux immediately transitioned my screen to a different shade and brightness. I was pleasantly surprised. It takes a minute to get adjusted to the change but then your eyes feel amazing.

While I would have liked to wind down more effectively, once we climbed into bed Laura reached for her tablet to ask me a question. Once she did that we both reached for our smartphones. We ended up having three bright screens glowing for approximately 20 minutes. We, however, did not turn on the TV which is something that we usually do.

Turning my phone on airplane mode and putting it upside down was not too hard for me. I already sleep with my phone upside down so killing the wifi and cell signal had no negative affect on me, though it may have long term benefits which is why I will keep doing it.

The sleep mask definitely helped me to sleep longer and deeper than I anticipated. The hardship with this is that when one of your senses is cut off your body turns to another sense. In my case that next sense was sound. 

There is a lot of noise around my community at night. There are cars coming and going. People talking or walking their dogs. Sprinklers turning on and off. I have a cat that kneads so loudly that he could muster a military unit. And we have a dog that snores louder than most humans. 

If you are sensitive to sound then I highly recommend buying a pair of ear plugs. You can buy a box of 200 pairs for under $20.

Once I had the sleep mask on I became immediately more sensitive to the sounds around me. At first I thought I was just having an issue falling asleep but then I realized that it was my body switching other senses on.

Make sure you sleep in a cold room. It does not have to be freezing to the point where you are shivering. An ideal temperature should be between 67-70 degrees.

When I had to wake up at 3:00a to take more pain medication, that 10 minutes of being awake ended up costing me at least 1.5 hours after. By minimizing distractions you provide yourself with a higher likelihood of continuing.

If you can do it, try laying on your back. It will help many more things beyond just improving your quality of sleep.

Next Steps

While these sleep hacks have proven effective, there are a number of other hacks that I will be employing over the coming weeks. These include:

  1. Magnesium, 5-HTP and Gaba. Taking any of these vitamins before bed has been shown to improve your sleep quality. I have ordered all three and plan on testing them together as a sleep stack. I previously took ZMA (zinc aspartate, magnesium aspartate and B6) which not only helped to speed up recovery and increased time in REM sleep.
  2. Using Sleep Cycle app. Until I went searching for it I had not realized that they made this app for Android now. You can (now) download this app for either iPhone or Android. It monitors your sleep patterns to provide you with real data on your quality of sleep. It softly wakes you in your lightest sleep phase within 30 minutes (or other time frame that you set) of your desired wake time.
  3. Acupressure mat. An acupressure mat will help prepare my body for sleep. I do not intend to use it to sleep on. Instead I will use it for 10-15 minutes before falling asleep.
  4. Ear plugs. Using an eye mask I noticed that my body switched to being sensitive to sound. I could hear every movement, vehicle, sprinkler, bird. Everything. It was very distracting and reduced my overall sleep quality. If you think that may happen to you then pick up a box of these.
  5. Phillips goLITE BLU Light Therapy device. This light therapy device has been heralded by Tim Ferriss as a tool that has helped him hack his sleep more. Though a bit pricier than other options, I may give this a try.
  6. Greenwave Dirty Electricity Filters. These filters block harmful electromagnetic pollution that can negatively affect sleep quality.
  7. Low-Blue Nightlight. This is an amber LED nightlight that does not emit any visible blue wavelengths of light known to suppress melatonin.

The first four hacks I will be adding over the coming week or so as they arrive. The last few on the list will likely be incorporated over time or as I seek to continue hacking my sleep. 

Closing Thoughts

You do not need to go as far as I have or invest large sums of money to greatly improve your quality of sleep. Many of these hacks are either free or only cost a few dollars. 

Test one or two first so that you understand how your body will react. From there you can layer in others from the list.

The bottom line is that we all need to improve our quality of sleep.

Question: What sleep hacks do you utilize to improve your sleep quality?

Image Credit: Jessica Spengler