Why write a book about how to "hack" sleep?
Well, I've suffered from sleep issues throughout my entire adult life. Sleep was such a tough thing to figure out. It didn't respond to willpower. I could beg and cry and kick and scream to myself to fall asleep, but my body would not listen.
Finally, I realized that enough was enough and that I was going to fix this very important area of my life for good, or at least do my best to try. I spent nearly one year constructing a system to improve the quality of my sleep.
I researched and experimented with all kinds of things. I kept a journal. I gave a polyphasic sleep a run for its money. I changed my daily habits and diet. And I learned so much about the fascinating process of sleep.
As it turns out, small changes were all that it took. I call these "hacks" because they are small things that hack the system - sort of like cheat codes, to win the game of sleep.
Below is an outline of five of the most effective hacks from my new book, Hack Sleep, which can immediately improve the quality of your sleep, along with actionable steps for each.
Melatonin is the hormone that our brains produce before bedtime which makes us sleepy. But sometimes our lifestyle or diet blocks melatonin production... which is one of the main reasons why we struggle to fall asleep, or wake in the middle of the night.
Studies performed at Khon Kaen university in Thailand show that pineapple boosts melatonin production in the brain by 266% percent and bananas boost melatonin by 180% percent.
Yes, it is absolutely better to boost melatonin naturally through diet than with supplements. Why? Well, to start with: the active ingredient in many melatonin supplements is cow urine. Weird and gross, but true :-(
Apart from that one disgusting fact, there is absolutely no evidence that the supplements even help, or that the payload is delivered where they need to be. There's also the risk of dependency whenever you introduce something foreign in to your body.
Stay away from melatonin supplements altogether. Aiding the natural processes of your brain and body is the way to go.
I've made it my personal practice to eat one serving of pineapple around the time the sun goes down (roughly 5:00pm). I live in Thailand, so there's fresh pineapple everywhere.
Melatonin production begins within the brain at 9:00pm, so eating my serving of pineapple a few hours ahead in advance, to give it time to work its magic, is what's been working best for me.
I never ate pineapple before I learnt of its health effects (especially where it applies to sleep), but instantly realized a big improvement in the quality of my sleep once I began incorporating it into my diet.
I used to wake up often in the middle of the night and stayed up for hours restlessly; eating pineapple fixed that.
Adenosine is what I refer to in my book as a sort of "sleep toxin."
Before we knew much about how or why we sleep, it was hypothesized that the onset of sleep was caused by certain hypnogenic substances that accumulated during periods of wakefulness.
To test the theory, in 1907 French researcher Henri Pieron would walk dogs through the streets of Paris at night, preventing them from being able to sleep. He would then extract their cerebrospinal fluid and inject it into the brains of healthy dogs, to test the effects. The effect was immediate, proving the hypothesis: the dogs slept longer and more deeply than usual.
Pieron dubbed this substance a "hypnotoxin" and published his findings in the work Le Probleme Physiologique du Sommeil (The Physiological Problem of Sleep). We didn't yet know the exact nature of this hypnotoxin until several decades later.
Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is an important chemical which provides energy for cells throughout the body, and Adenosine is a counter-agent that breaks down ATP.
Adenosine accumulates naturally during waking hours, however, periods of intense mental and physical activity speed up the process, because adenosine production correlates to the activity levels of the brain's neurons. That's why you probably feel exhausted after a difficult exam, for instance.
Make it a point to engage your mind with high-level tasks each day, regardless of which side of the bed you woke up on. If your work lacks much mental stimulation, then read or solve puzzles - the more difficult they are, the better.
Or even better, find a new career - one that you're fully engaged in.
One of the surest, most effective ways to spend less time awake in bed, struggling to fall asleep, is to simply spend less time in bed. Sleep restriction is a powerful way to fend off insomnia, and is actually a widely practiced form of therapy for insomniacs.
If I'm really busy, sleep restriction helps me to manage. I fall in to a deep sleep almost immediately from the moment I tuck myself in, and stay asleep the entire night. This method also works hand in hand with the formula of adenosine accumulation. The idea is that by the time your head hits the pillow, you have been awake for extra hours and accumulated a healthy deal of adenosine so that sleep overtakes you.
Now, you might be a tiny bit sleep deprived following this strategy, but you should find it to be very minimal. It's also a stop measure to prevent the type of severe sleep deprivation that hinders your normal waking activities.
The way it works is simple: if your normal hours of bedtime are say, 11:00pm to 7:00am (eight hours), then reduce your time in bed so that you lay down at 12:00am (midnight) and awake at 6:00am.
Waking up early - regardless of how well you slept - and not sleeping in, is a big part of falling in-line with a healthy sleep pattern.
Those two extra hours of waking time allow for two additional hours for adenosine to accumulate in the brain, which makes a big difference. If you spent those same two hours lying awake restlessly in bed, your neurological activity is quite low, and so it just hurts you more.
Furthermore, this practice is effective for another reason: psychologically, it "anchors" your bed to sleep. The bed becomes a cue for bedtime, in the same sense that when a bull sees red it signals a cue to charge.
If you practice this strategy, spend midnight to 6:00am in bed and make sure you stay out of bed outside of that window. Don't do any other activities - such as work, browsing the internet, or masturbating in bed. Save that for the shower or on the couch.
Light exposure is the heavyweight champion when it comes to both a healthy waking and sleep life. It may be the most important thing of all.
One day is 24 hours, but our own internal body clocks, left to their own devices, tend to vary to be about 24.5 - 26.5 hours - so they need to be adjusted constantly.
Our body clock adjusts when light passes through cells in our eye's retina and is relayed to the hypothalamus. Light entering into our eyes provides a cue to our brain that it's time to be awake, and by contrast lack of light cues that its time to sleep.
There's way more to touch upon about this topic; such as the importance to block out electronic lighting after sunset (I often use candles instead).
But for space purposes, here's what you need to know: get as much light (preferably sunlight) during the day as possible. This light becomes seratonin when it enters your brain, which makes you more awake and alert, and fends off mood disorders. If you get more serotonin during the day, it converts to increased melatonin at night.
Light exposure also helps to reverse any effects of sleep deprivation from the night before. Personally, I make it my practice to get direct exposure to sunlight at three critical points in my day:
If its a cloudy day, or if there is limited sunlight where you live, there are numerous lightboxes you can invest in. These can stimulate the effects of a sunny springtime day, and you can set them in your office or on your desk while you work.
One interesting side effect once I began to get a lot more sunlight was that I dreamt more often: four or five nights a week I experienced vivid, detailed dreams (including the occasional lucid dream), and memory recall was excellent.
Caffeine is like Lord Voldemort (or "He Who Must Not Be Named") when it comes to sleep: always lurking in some hideous form, always trying to tempt us ("Join me, and together, we'll do extraordinary things!"), always out with some deviously brilliant ploy to disrupt our sleep patterns.
In a molecular sense, caffeine blocks adenosine (the substance mentioned earlier), making us more alert (and preventing us from becoming tired).
However, caffeine takes more than it gives. If you consume 200mg of caffeine (one cup of coffee) it might give you a boost for a few hours. But 50% of that caffeine (100mg) is still in your system by 4:00pm - six hours later.
By 10:00pm, you still have 25% (50mg) of the caffeine in your bloodstream from a coffee that you consumed twelve hours ago!
Do I drink coffee? Yes, I do. But I have two rules: first, it's best to drink only one cup (if possible) immediately after you wake up, so that it has plenty of time to filter out of the bloodstream by bedtime. Second, you absolutely must have a cut-off time - such as 2:00pm - where you enter the "No Caffeine zone."
And besides, if you get enough light exposure, it can easily replace a cup of coffee or two without the harmful after-effects.
About The Guest Author
Danny Flood is the author of Hack Sleep, which explores the fascinating terrain of sleep including insights into body temperature, the circadian rhythm (and how to hack it), cortisol, self-hypnosis, lucid dream induction, and a guide for insomniacs.
Rebecca Turner is a science writer, illustrator, explorer of consciousness - and founder of World of Lucid Dreaming. She is currently studying for a biology degree in Auckland and blogging at her site Science Me.
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