We all know how important sleep is for cognitive function, physical performance, recovery and freedom from disease. Experts such as Mathew Walker have long been talking about how imperative it is that we put effort into maximising both our quality and quantity of sleep. Before I offer somewhat of a “recipe” to improve your sleep quality, I’ll link a resource to investigate if you or anyone you know would like further clarification of the importance of sleep. Furthermore, his book titled “why we sleep” is a more thorough resource if any of you would like to look into it.
Sleep is your superpower – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MuIMqhT8DM&t=4s
Disclaimer: I want to stress that the basic interventions of improving sleep far outweigh the fancy and somewhat more appealing methods. Individuals are always looking for the “magic pill” that will yield the greatest net profit for the minimum amount of effort, and while I agree that you should be running a cost:benefit ratio on any intervention you wish to employ, usually the intervention that will yield the greatest result is an easy fix that is simply unappealing.
I also want to define the term biohacking before I begin to use it, as I see it to be a buzzword which has lost its true meaning due to it being butchered through marketing. When I use the term biohacking, I’m referring to an intervention which allows the optimization of the body through some form of exogenous or external means, therefore allowing for somewhat of a super-physiological state. This is not to be confused with any interventions which allow the body to perform or behave as it was designed, albeit more optimally. An example of biohacking would be the ingestion of an exogenous hormone to induce a physiological change in the body, as opposed to ingesting carbohydrates and thus having an increased training performance.
Day time tasks to improve sleep
Step 1 – light exposure and optimizing the circadian rhythm
Our circadian rhythm is an internal clock which regulates our sleep/wake cycles and our alertness, in in doing so can influence many other aspects of our physiology such as hunger and bowel movements. Our circadian rhythm is primarily influenced by our hypothalamus in the brain, however it can also be influenced by external factors such as exogenous consumption of melatonin and caffeine, as well as light exposure.
In order to optimize our sleep, we want to have a consistent circadian rhythm which requires us to maintain consistency in both the time we go to sleep and the time we wake up in the morning. Fluctuations in both duration of sleep as well as time of sleep can lead to irregularities in our circadian rhythm, and hence disturbed sleep and bigger swings of sleepiness and alertness during the day.
Evidence suggests that our circadian rhythm is primarily regulated through regular and periodic exposure to light and darkness. There is therefore evidence to suggest that our circadian rhythm will be better regulated by exposing ourselves to sunlight during the day, preferably upon waking, while tapering down the exposure to light as sleep approaches.
Step 2 – minimise napping
In order to ensure our sleep wake cycle remains relatively intact, we should aim to minimise large daytime naps. If naps need to be taken due to sleep deprivation, keep them short (approximately 1 hour) to minimise the risk of the nap impacting your ability to sleep that night. Consider caffeine naps if the situation suits.
Step 3 – consider front loading fluids
Have you ever had to get up in the middle of the night, or perhaps several times during the night, to empty your bladder? This is a common issue faced by many who drink excessive amounts with dinner or later in the day. To avoid this, consider front loading your fluids earlier in the day, particularly your water, to ensure you stay hydrated while minimising the amount of times you’ll have to get out of bed during the night. While we are on the topic of liquids, also ensure you have a drink bottle nearby if you’re the type to wake up in the middle of the night thirsty, as it will ensure you don’t have to exit the bed to go to the kitchen, and in doing so prevent you from being exposed to light in the middle of the night.
Step 4 – have a sleep environment you are proud of
Invest in comfortable bedding, a good mattress and comfortable pyjamas. “Comfortable” is of course subjective and open to interpretation, but please view all aspects of your bedding as an investment in your health rather than an expense. Have a clean room, with enough space to not feel cluttered or confined when you sleep. If you’re the type of person who usually has half of their bed covered by snacks and clothes, clean it up and ensure that the #1 use of your bed going forward is sleep.
Night time tasks to improve sleep
Step 5 – Minimise stimulation around bedtime
As we begin to taper our day down for sleep, we want to ensure that our body is becoming more parasympathetic nervous system dominant. To optimise this, we should ensure that we are minimising the amount of stimulating activities we are doing around bedtime. If you want to play videogames or watch a movie, potentially consider doing this slightly earlier in the night If it is going to get you fired up (no Die Hard or Call of Duty directly before bed). A better example of what do as bedtime approaches may be to put the PlayStation controller down and opt for a book.
Effort should also be made to begin limiting our exposure to blue light to allow our brains to naturally produce melatonin (the hormone which induces sleep). If technology is going to be used, use “night light” or “grayscale” on your phones or “f.lux” on your computers to minimise the amount of blue light you are exposed to. Consider blue light blocking glasses, as even though there is inconclusive evidence on their usefulness, they would no doubt act as a cue to signal that its time to wind down.
Step 6 – Have a cool down routine using “cues”
Following on from the blue light blocking glasses, you should be looking to utilise some sort of cool down routine in order to get ready for sleep. This may be highly individual, but the universal factor should be the intention of effort to prepare the body and mind for sleep. I’ll include my personal cool down routine which I used during contest prep in the hope that it gives you an idea of the practical application of a cool down routine:
7:30pm – alarm goes off on my phone to signal the commencement of cooldown routine. I put phone on do not disturb, finish up whatever I’m doing and start turning lights off around the house.
7:40pm – Hot shower (writing positive affirmations on the steam on the shower door) followed by changed into comfortable pyjamas and cleaning teeth.
7:55pm – Turn on air conditioner to create a cool bedroom ready for sleep (studies show that optimal bedroom temperature for sleep to be approximately 17-20 degrees for the average person). Take out clothes for tomorrow morning and hang them on bedroom door handle.
8:05pm – Read a book or listen to a podcast
8:25pm – Self-reflection.
8:30 pm – Sleep
I didn’t start off with such a robotic approach to sleep, but rather implemented one point at a time and over time it developed into a system which became second nature to employ. Some of you may thrive on the strict structure, some may not, but I daresay most of you will benefit from having some consistent variables which act as cues to “anchor” you to the behaviours which result in a better-quality sleep.
Step 7 – Self-reflection
Ending your day with some sort of activity which promotes reflection, self-awareness and gratitude is a great way to unwind and gain clarity before drifting off to sleep. This includes, but is not limited to; prayer, meditation or visualization. For those interested in meditation, the free app “headspace” is a fantastic resource. For those competing, visualizing competition or tasks which contribute to performance (training) could be a small task which yields profound results. However, visualization is also context dependent, as it does not make sense to visualize a highly stimulating activity (max effort deadlift) during a time period which is supposed to be reserved for downregulating sympathetic processes. In such a scenario, visualization can still be used, but potentially directed towards processes which aren’t going to result in such aggressive stimulation, while still having a net positive effect on the outcome. An example would be of an athlete visualizing waking up on the morning of the competition well rested, and making weight.
Biohacking and physiology assisting extras
(1) Melatonin – the hormone which helps to regulate our circadian rhythm by inducing sleep. This hormone can be taken exogenously to assist in inducing sleep, or can be taken after a tumultuous time period to help restore a consistent circadian rhythm. Melatonin is prescription only in Australia, but if you don’t want to go to a Dr you can buy it online at iherb.com. Ensure that you get the correct dosage, as you want to consume 300-600mcgs approximately 30min before sleep.
(2) Ashwagandha (KSM-66) – A relatively new supplement that serves as an adaptogen that supports resistance to physical, biological and chemical stresses. Studies have shown 300-500mg a day can have benefits such as decreasing cortisol (which we want to have a surge of around waking and a trough around sleep time), lowering anxiety and increasing testosterone (not clear if it directly increases testosterone, or what is more likely, improves sleep and decreases anxiety which in turn leads to increases in testosterone).
(3) Magnesium – Magnesium supplementation can be seen as less biohacking and more of a correction for something that we don’t consume enough of. Magnesium deficiency is the second most common vitamin deficiency in western countries (behind vitamin D which we get from exposure to sunlight, go figure). Adequate magnesium is required for processes such as testosterone production, blood sugar regulation and relaxation.
“The standard dose for magnesium supplementation is 200-400mg. Gastrointestinal side-effects, like diarrhea and bloating, are more common when magnesium oxide or magnesium chloride are supplemented, due to the lower absorption rates of these two forms. In general, magnesium citrate is a good choice for supplementation. Magnesium should be taken daily, with food” – Examine.com
Sleep masks and ear plugs
Reducing stimulation around sleep hours is conducive to getting a higher quality sleep, and therefore investing in a sleep mask and ear plugs may prove to be a game changer, particularly if you share a bed with a partner who may have different sleep habits to you e.g. TV before bed.
Tracking your sleep
Garmin, fitbit, apple and oura all have their own apps which record and make inferences as to the quality and duration of our sleep. In addition, sleep cycle is a free app which not only tracks your sleep based off of audio, but also acts as an alarm clock and records your time in bed. While it is still unclear as to how much stock we can put into the metrics this technology presents, particularly the data talking about sleep stages, we can gain an objective data point quantifying how much time we spent in bed, and therefore approximately how much time we spent asleep. We can track this over time, and try to stay consistent as possible with both our hours slept as well as our time in bed.
Last but not least falls the most controversial item on the list, the nose strip. In recent years, this product has caught a bad rap as a handful of fitness influencers made a few outlandish claims on the piece of nose tape’s ability to burn fat and improve performance. While I disagree with these claims, I’ve personally found a massive benefit from using the nasal strips for precisely what they were designed to do, which is to relieve nasal congestion when sleeping, particularly when suffering from a cold.
Anecdotally from myself and clients, I find that the strip allows me to have a slightly more undisturbed sleep (less snoring when using the sleep cycle app), as well as waking the next morning with less of a dry throat (less mouth breathing throughout the night). While many sceptics may dismiss the nasal strips quite hastily, for $10 a box the risk:reward and cost:benefit ratios are heavily tilted towards at least trialling the intervention to see if it subjectively improves sleep quality, particularly when carrying a cold and nasal breathing when sleeping is an issue.