Relax Like A Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep

I once went almost five days without sleep in 1996 just to see 1) if I could make a week (I couldn’t), and 2) what the side-effects would be.

I was a new neuroscience major at Princeton at the time and hoped to do research with famed serotonin pioneer, Barry Jacobs.

Hallucinations cut my sleep deprivation trial short, but I’ve continued to experiment with sleep optimization and variation as a means of improving performance.

Here are a few effective techniques and hacks I’ve picked up over the last five years from sources ranging from biochemistry PhDs to biologists at Stanford University…

1. Consume 150-250 calories of low-glycemic index foods in small quantities (low glycemic load) prior to bed.

Morning fatigue and headache isn’t just from sleep debt or poor sleep. Low blood sugar following overnight fasting is often a contributing factor. Just prior to bed, have a small snack such as: a few sticks of celery with almond butter, a mandarin orange and 5-8 almonds, or plain low-fat (not fat-free) yoghurt and an apple. Ever wonder how you can sleep 8-10 hours and feel tired? This is part of the explanation. Make a pre-bed snack part of your nutritional program.

1-2 tablespoons of flaxseed oil (120-240 calories) can be used in combination with the above to further increase cell repair during sleep and thus decrease fatigue. It tastes like a mixture of cat urine and asparagus, so I recommend pinching your nose while consuming it — thanks Seth Roberts, PhD. for this tip — or using capsules.

2. Use ice baths to provoke sleep.

Japanese have longer lifespans that do most other ethnicities. One theory has been that regular ofuro or hot baths at bedtime increase melatonin release, which extends lifespan. Paradoxically, according to the Stanford professors who taught Bio 50, cold is actually a more effective signaller for sleep onset, but it could have no relation to melatonin production.

I decided to test the effect of combining 10-minute ice baths, timed with a countdown kitchen timer, one hour prior to bed (closer to bed and the adrenergic response of noradrenalin, etc. won’t allow you to sleep) with low-dose melatonin (1.5 – 3 mg) on regulating both sleep regularity and speed to sleep. The icebath is simple: 2-3 bags of ice from a convenience store ($3-6 USD) put into a half-full bath until the ice is about 80% melted. Beginners should start with immersing the lower body only and progress to spending the second five minutes with the upper torso submerged (fold your legs Indian-style at the end of the tub if you don’t have room). I’ll talk about the fat-loss and sperm-count benefits of this in future post.

The result: it’s like getting hit with an elephant tranquilizer. Don’t expect it to be pleasant at first.

3. Eating your meals at set times can be as important as sleeping on a schedule.

People talk a lot about circadian (circa dia = approximately one day) rhythms and establishing a regular sleep schedule, but bedtime timing is just one “zeitgeber” (lit: time giver), or stimulus that synchronizes this biorhythm (like pheromones and menstrual cycle). Eating meals at set times helps regulate melatonin, ghrelin, leptin, and other hormones that affect sleep cycles. Other “zeitgebers” for sleep include melatonin, light, and temperature. Parting suggestion: Get a sleep mask if you have any degree of light in your bedroom.

4. Embrace 20-minute caffeine naps and ultradian multiples.

Test “caffeine naps” between 1-3 pm. Down an espresso and set your alarm for no more than 20 minutes, which prevents awakening in the middle of a restorative sleep cycle. Interrupting cycles often leaves you feeling worse than no sleep (though some researchers assert your performance will still improve in comparison with deprivation).

For longer naps, test multiples of 90 minutes, which is called an “ultradian” rhythm in some papers, though the proper term should be “infradian” since it’s less than 24 hours. Thomas Edison, despite his vocal disdain for sleep and claim to sleep only four hours per night, is reported to have taken two three-hour naps daily.

Don’t forget to factor in your time-to-sleep. It often takes me up to an hour to fall asleep, so I’ll set my alarm for seven hours ((4 x 90 minutes) + 60-minute time-to-sleep).

5. Turn off preoccupation with afternoon closure and present-state training.

I have — as do most males in my family — what is called “onset insomnia.” I don’t have trouble staying asleep, but I have a difficult time falling asleep, sometime laying awake in bed for 1-2 hours. There are two approaches that I’ve used with good effect without medications to address this: 1) Determine and set a top priorities to-do list that afternoon for the following day to avoid late-night planning, 2) Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention. Recommendations for compulsive non-fiction readers include Motherless Brooklyn and Stranger in a Strange Land.

From fat-loss (leptin release decreases with sleep debt) to memory consolidation, sleep is the currency of high-performance living.

Have you taken time to master it like a skill?

Here are a few questions for the researchers among you:

-What is the fastest way to pay off sleep debt?

-Can you eat more food — or protein specfically — to compensate for sleep deprivation? To what degree?

-How do side-effects of ongoing melatonin use compare to drugs like Ambien?

-What is the interplay of the hypothalamus and RAS (reticular activating system)?

-Does insulin sensitivity change between waking and sleep cycles? How?

-Can coffee and its effects on adenosine affect sleep depth or length?

Sweet dreams.

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338 Replies to “Relax Like A Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep”

  1. Hey Tim,

    Some interesting things in this post and the comments. Thanks for sharing.

    I have struggled with insomnia for most of my life. Falling asleep is my primary challenge. I’ve tried all sorts of different things, including prescription medication and various natural supplements. Melatonin seems to interrupt my natural sleep cycle, and I wake up every couple of hours. Often times it’s difficult for me to get back to sleep after these interruptions.

    Recently, I’ve found myself regularly taking one tablet of Diphenhydramine (Tylenol PM without the Tylenol). This works wonders in allowing me to fall asleep without feeling drowsy the next day.

    My question is, what are the short and long term side effects of regular Diphenhydramine consumption?

    Any insight would be much appreciated.

    Thank you.

  2. Tried the ice bath. Most mind over matter thing I’ve done in a long time. Maybe forever! Lol. Very unpleasant but it worked. I am about to pass out and can barely type this. Good night.

  3. Good tips, I’m going to work on getting more consistent at eating at the right times, as I’ve heard this before and whilst my sleep is a whole lot better than a year ago (bad insomnia) it’s still not great by any means..

    Cheers!

  4. OMG ice bath sounds so brutal! I found that your suggestion for setting meal times along with avoiding electronics before bed makes a huge difference. A really easy thing that folks avoid too is simply staying hydrated. Drinking a some water before bed will trick your body into thinking it has a full stomach and will naturally want to sleep.

    Really good tip too on the nonfiction before bed. I stopped reading nonfiction/cerebral stuff before bed a while ago because I’d be up in bed for hours thinking!

  5. The caffeine nap is legit! I’ve used that technique for years whenever I was short on sleep but had to be alert. It started off unintentionally, pounding coffee in the early morning before a test and then falling back asleep by accident. The trick is to fall asleep before the caffeine really kicks in. Then you wake up in full buzz mode!

  6. Thank you Tim! This is super interesting. Definitely want to try the ice bath. A hot tub with 1Kg of highest quality salt (e.g.Himalayan crystal salt) for 35-45 mins works well for me and is said to have the effects of a 3 day detox. Epsom salts (magnesium) or high quality pure baking soda in a hot tub work well too. Calming essential oils added to the bath do wonders and can also be vaporised in the room for extra effect, as well as rubbed on the temples. Aromatherapy and its effects in general are way under valued in my opinion. Supplementing with magnesium gel (transdermal is best way to absorb) also works really well. Meditating in ‘Savasana’ for 10-15 mins does wonders too. I could not agree more on cutting worries short with your technique of afternoon planning, but where impossible, evening planning definitely works better for me than no planning at all. Thank you again for your sharings & sweet dreams to you 😉

  7. The specials Ops Seals train to face lack of sleep with five days of sleep deprivation, during which they report hallucinations, and some state they never wish this kind of sleep deprivation on anyone. I went without sleep for nine consecutive nights. That was seven years ago, when I went to Peru to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Three nights in Cusco, three nights hiking the Inca Trail, one night in Aguas Calientes, two nights back in Cusco. During the second day of the hike, I run 10 Kms in just over an hour – that is with four nights without sleep. All through the hike I felt fine. on the tenth day I caught a bus to Puno and that night I went to a drug store and asked for a sleeping pill to put down a horse – slept for eight hours and was fine visiting Lago Titicaca.

    During the first six days, since arriving in Cusco and through the hike, I chewed Coca leaves (the locals refer to the chewing as “Acullico” and suggested it would alleviate/prevent high altitude-related problems – Cusco is at 3,400 m and on the second day of the hike we crossed over 4,200 m – then gradually descending by the fourth day to just over 2,400 m at Mach Picchu). I could not figure out how I was able to manage nine nights without sleep, until recently. I googled Coca leaves and found out that it not only helps overcome altitude sickness, but also suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. Unknowingly, I was high on cocaine.

    I was 63 when I did the Inca Trail – now at 70 am still looking after my consulting business, and am still having a bitch of a time falling asleep. When I sleep, I average about three to four hours, and at least two or three times per month I go without sleep – and the next day I can provide training all day, with the energy of one who is fully rested.

    I know that sleep is our battery recharge. Considering that I am performing at probably 50% efficiency and doing great, I always wonder what I could accomplish at 100%. Am a damn freak.

    1. Great story, funny how you didn’t realize Cocoa leaves was cocaine,you were probably chipper and hiking faster than the guide if there was one,lol. Thanks for sharing. Not quite sure but cocaine has a lot more added human ingredients, eating the leaves directly probably had similar effects without as many horrible ingredients added. I am interested, what type of consulting do you work in?

  8. When I was in high school and having trouble going to sleep, I would take a cold shower and it always helped. I have been off and on using the cold in shower for helping sleep and kick starting the day, but have been using it more frequently since following your blogs. Love your research and enjoy learning more each time I read or hear your show. Have a beautiful week. PS I have stayed up 7 days but it wasn’t natural and I also had hullicinations, anytime you want to hear about it hit me up, would love to talk and share my story.

  9. Hi Tim,

    I’ve been following your podcast & blog for about a year–and your Fear(less) show recently. I’ve learned so much from your guest interviews and personal stories.

    Just a question that maybe you could answer in a future blog or podcast. I didn’t know until reading this blog post that you were a neuroscience major. That’s really interesting. What made you decide not to pursue neuroscience, if that’s the case? You may have addressed this in an earlier podcast (pre-2016), but I don’t recall you mentioning a deep interest in neuroscience. Your focus seems to be more on physical endurance and optimization as well as productivity hacks. What other brain health or psychological studies/experiments have you done aside from the affects of sleep deprivation?

    Thanks for sharing!

    Meow, Angie

  10. Having acid reflux disease I find your article most helpful. There is, however, one other thing that you can do at night and that is sleeping in a more upright position with the head and torso elevated. This can be achieved with wedge pillows or bed wedges.

  11. Oh man, most of my life I’ve had FOMO late night, not letting my tired self get to sleep. Instead I would keep researching, song writing, organizing, planning etc. Thanks Tim for this insight. I will test out. I need that recharge for sure.

  12. Hi Tim, I know this is a late response on this post, but I have recently started having extreme difficulty falling asleep, and thus, I have recently started seeking solutions to my problems. As a follower of yours, I knew you have suffered from onset insomnia, which is what lead me to this post.

    I watched your Youtube videos regarding your nightly routine. I want to try your tea, apple cider vinegar, and honey elixir as a solution to help me fall asleep, but I was wondering what tea was best for sleeping, if any.

    Best,

    Chuck

    1. I have regularly taken a melatonin tablet prior to bedtime. Recently, I’ve discovered cherry juice which contains melatonin and have gotten better results with it. It has also given me vivid dreams.

  13. Hi Tim – if you haven’t heard of him, you may be interested in the work of Dr Guy Meadows of the Sleep School in London. He has amazing success rates in treating insomniacs with acceptance-based therapy and getting people off meds