For what seems like decades now, I have a weird thing where I would wake up 3 AM on the nose almost every night. If I got out of bed at all, it would be to go to the bathroom and then I would crawl back into bed and fall peacefully asleep. I dismissed this as a personal eccentricity and did not mind it until several months ago when this 3 AM episode transformed from a faint memory the next day to the start of my mornings. Suddenly, I could no longer reliably fall back asleep, and even though I was older and needed less sleep, my day to day functioning began to deteriorate as the nights of 4 hours of sleep began to pile up. In this article, I will share with you some of the things I did that didn’t work, and things I found that do work for me almost every night. Why isn’t it eight, restful hours, you might be asking? Well, for starters each of us is different and have different needs, and as we get older, we tend not to need as much sleep as we did when we were younger. Seven is my magic sleep number, I hope this story helps you find and realize yours.
Sleep Failure #1 – Using Your Bedroom Only For Sleeping
You see this advice often, typically from medical providers or sleep professionals. Use your bedroom, and especially your bed, only for sleeping and your body will be accustomed to it and it will promote better sleep is their argument. I’m sure that’s great advice for many. What it did for me was trigger boredom and tossing and turning until about midnight, every night. Just to wake up again at 3 AM. You’d think being bored would make you sleepy, but not me. It seemed to make me more awake. I guess I was too habituated to reading, or one last game on my very dimly lit tablet or one (or three) last episodes on Netflix and I couldn’t give up my mental distractions.
Sleep Failure #2 – Podcast Sleep Stacks
Being in the supplement business, I often get calls from people with ideas for products they want to make for advice on how to get them manufactured. Not too long ago I was contacted by a friend of a colleague of mine about this one particular supplement stack that was getting a lot of buzz online from a podcast. Interestingly, this podcast wasn’t health related at all, but the host had been developing it for himself and mentioning during his podcasts. It quickly gained popularity as he described his experiments tuning it and his good outcomes. This stack had it all; melatonin, amino acids, neurotransmitters, it was six bottles of pills, and you had to try and swallow down a handful these each night. The one thing the stack didn’t have? Effectiveness, at least for me.
Sleep Failure #3 – Tryptophan/Melatonin
Tryptophan is the infamous amino acid that is blamed for those after Thanksgiving meal siestas, and melatonin is a hormone that has long been prescribed for sleep. I tried both of these, individually and I had passing success with each of them. However, it seemed that I built up a tolerance and I quickly stopped seeing results. I didn’t want to be reliant on popping pills every night just to have a restful nights sleep. While I am a huge fan of better living through chemistry, that just felt like borderline dependence. You couple the potential for dependence with the accelerating tolerance and I had visions of myself gobbling down handfuls of these things every night, forever. That wouldn’t work.
These four hacks that I am about to share with you didn’t happen all at once. I am a constant n=1 experimenter and what follows represents the hacks that have given me consistent success, especially when I do all the techniques together. At the end of this, I will share a little bonus hack that I use on nights that I expect might be a little rough, and since this is infrequent, this hack has a high rate of success for me.
Sleep Hack #1 – Light Blocking Glasses
The blue light emitted from our electronics (and the Sun) works against us when we are trying to sleep. Our bodies can’t tell the difference from real sunlight and from the light coming at us from our tablets, phones, TVs, and some cases, even our light bulbs. This blue light sends a signal to our bodies saying “hey, it’s daytime, stay awake and do stuff” and it’s highly disruptive. Especially if you’re chronically exposed to this when you should be packing up for the night. I bought a pair of these glasses to block this light and putting them on is the first part of my evening ritual (Hack #4). This way, any electronics I might still be poking at or watching, or bright white lights I might be under won’t negatively effect my circadian rhythm.
Sleep Hack #2 – Meditation
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for about 4 years now. I’ve found it to have a remarkable effect on me in many ways, especially coupled with other lifestyle interventions and improvements. It seems to have a compounding effect with a multitude of things. In this case, I feel it greatly helps quiet my mind down for sleep. Even if I switch back on my Nexus after I meditate. I am in a much better state than I was before. My favorite meditation for the evening is the guided compassion meditation from my absolute favorite book on meditation, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
Sleep Hack #3 – Prebiotics
You shouldn’t be surprised to see this here, as I absolutely love prebiotics (you should too, by the way). GOS has recently been shown in rat models to promote non-rapid-eye-movement(NREM) which is indicative of deeper, more restful sleep. Additionally, the gut bacteria B. infantis, has been linked to the production of tryptophan, a neurotransmitter used by the body to synthesize serotonin (also produced in the gut) which promotes better mood and better sleep. My home prebiotic cocktail is a 1:1 mix of Oligo30™ and Great Gut® Extra-Strength Prebiotic Fiber and that is then mixed at about a 2:1 ratio with resistant starch from banana flour. The second thing I do, after I put on my night glasses is gobble down two tablespoons of this yummy mixture. If you’re new to prebiotics, however, do not start with two tablespoons. It could backfire. We call it “Daddy’s chocolate powder” at my house, and my boys love it, as much as I do. This prebioic super-mix makes sure my gut bacteria has all the fuel it needs to crank up the drug factory in the gut and begin producing my own tryptophan and serotonin. This last dose used to be earlier in the day, but I moved later to be closer to bed time. In my case, this tends to be about 45 minutes to an hour before I fall asleep.
Sleep Hack #4 – Rituals
My bedtime ritual is the replacement for the “sleep only bedroom” tactic that didn’t work for me. The ritual acts as a wind-down signal to my body letting it know that I intend the next stop to be Sleepy Town. I try to be very consistent at night with my bedtime (it’s embarrassingly early so I won’t share 😊) and the first thing I do is pull down my blinds, put on my night time glasses, head to the bathroom for my prebiotic power blend, and then lay on the bed and kick off the guided meditation. There are some very good meditations, like a body scan, or my other favorite Breath & Body, but I find the compassion meditation to be the best for night time. It really puts me in a good spot in my soul. After the meditation, I’ll play a game or two, or scan the news, or crank up some Netflix. Either way, by about this time I’m not going to be up much longer. I have been trying to tweak this routine a little, however, I haven’t been consistent enough to build any new habits. The two things I want to add to the ritual are journal writing and just a few minutes ruminating on the big problems I am working on. Neither of these are to help me sleep, necessarily, but are more so to help me the next day be more productive.
Secret Sleep Hack – Tryptophan & Valerian
Since I’ve spent several months focusing on sleep; experimenting, pivoting, reflecting, and evaluating I’ve been able to identify a key trigger that seems to be contributing to my lack of it. Life stress. Being a husband, father, entrepreneur, and a full-time faculty member I find myself encountering some significant spikes in life stress. Fortunately, since I’ve adopted a prebiotic rich lifestyle and have been practicing mindfulness, I no longer suffer the debilitating anxieties or lapse into the horrible stress responses that I used to, but some residual negative responses appear to be manifesting as sleeplessness. When I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with a new class, a new formula, or something with my family, I take 4g of Tryptophan and 2g of Valerian, together, with my prebiotics. The great thing about Valerian root is that it's non-toxic, non-habit forming and full of sleepy goodness. For me, both combined and taken situationally, consistently knock me out as if I had stepped into the ring with Mike Tyson. I started at 1g of each and experimented with them in about 500mg increments and found that this current dose is what works best for me. I get good rest and don’t feel drugged or groggy.
When reading these sorts of articles, it’s important to remember that every individual is different, not only biologically unique but also contextually unique. Our circumstances, our family structures, our jobs, our responsibilities, our everything is wonderfully diverse and unique. If this post inspires you to adopt some of these tactics to improve your sleep, I hope you find the blissful nights you seek. And if you don’t, remember to embrace your uniqueness and to keep trying and to iterate over a variety of solutions until you find that perfect set of hacks that works just for you. If you have your own great sleep hacks you would like to share, be sure to comment below. Good luck and here’s to good sleep.