The article in short
Sleep is a hype topic at the moment. Its importance for performance, health, recovery and brain power is well studied. More importantly: Each and every one of us knows how a bad night of sleep feels and how much it affects our energy levels.
You’ll find tons of information and sleep hacks out there. From complete sleep systems, cooling bed sheets or binaural sounds from your phone, to home remedies like milk with honey or apple vinegar before bed. I’ve looked deeply into the topic of sleep and tested a lot of methods to boost the effectiveness of my own rest. Because let’s face it: Getting 8 hours each and every night is hard to accomplish. There are ways to get more out of your time in bed, increasing the efficiency of your sleep.
That’s what we’re going to cover in this article. The minimalistic approach to sleep hacking and optimization.
The importance of sleep
Sleep is mandatory, not optional. In our capitalistic society we admire the person who works very hard, for long hours. The need for sleep has often been seen as a weakness. But the times are changing. The importance of sleep is starting to get recognized not only by pro-athletes and health-nuts but also by the general population, including the corporate space. While the body can function without sleep for a while, even one night without sleep takes a huge toll on our mental performance. After several consecutive nights without sleep, the mental power is decreased to a fraction of what is possible. Quite the opposite of a high performance state.
Do you remember the feeling when you woke up after a good night of sleep, ready to tackle the day? Your brain is fast, your athletic performance almost superhuman and you can work until late without getting tired. That’s what a good night of sleep can do. It has effects on physical and mental power, mood, motivation and of course – health!
Sleep is not just one kind of state where you’re in once your eyes are close and you drifted off. It consists of several stages:
- Light sleep – Necessary for proper brain function.
- REM sleep – Rapid Eye Movement, the dream stage of sleep. Your mind needs this phase to process the experiences of the day.
- Deep sleep – The most restorative sleep for your body
But to get to the point: What are the minimalistic steps I’d recommend to improve your sleep?
The number one factor for a good night of sleep is the environment. Turn your bedroom into a sanctuary of sleep by sticking to the following rules:
Your bedroom should be quiet. Imagine the earlier human beings which slept in a cave. Imagine how quiet the world was back in those days. No cars, planes, construction noises and no drunk people walking around in the street singing “5000 miles” (love the song but you get the point). Especially if you’re sensitive to sounds, like me, sleeping in a noisy environment will interrupt your sleep and prevent you from reaching the deeper stages of REM or deep sleep.
In case you can’t shut out noise very well or if you’re sleeping with an open window or a snoring partner, consider ear plugs to reduce the impact. Ear plugs are also one of the most important sleep hacks when traveling. Hotel walls are notoriously thin.
If you’ve ever slept in the woods or in the mountains, you know how dark a night is without artificial light sources. In our age, we have street lights everywhere. If you are living in a city, light pollution is a real thing for you. Light greatly impacts your sleep. Not only during the time you actually lie in your bed, but before.
Try to darken your room as much as possible. If you can’t, use a sleep mask to cover your eyes and block out light. Get one with some spacing for the eyelashes, so it doesn’t disturb you.
When going to sleep, your body will cool down, even as low as 36,2 degrees Celsius. For me it usually drops by around -0,3 degree Celsius. When the body is unable to do that, you will have a harder time falling asleep and reaching the deeper sleep stages like REM and deep sleep.
So try to keep your bedroom to around 18 degrees Celsius for an optimized environment.
Your bedroom should be used for sleeping and other bed-related activities only, nothing else. No screens, no video games, no food, no hanging out there. If you use your bedroom solely for the purpose of sleeping, you will condition your mind to go into sleep-mode, as soon as you retreat to your chamber. That will help you to relax and fall asleep faster. Also avoid putting lots of plants and decoration into your bedroom. Keep it simple and clean so there is not too much excitement.
Once you’ve set up the right sleep environment, the next thing is to establish a more or less consistent schedule. Your internal clock, which regulates your sleep hormones, is called circadian rhythm. It is influenced by light, movement, stimuli like caffeine and all the things that signal day and night in nature. Back in the days, people relied on the sun to measure time. With sunlight they were active, as they could see. When the sun settled and the light disappeared, they were almost forced to rest. Have you ever been camping? A camping trip in nature is a great way to reset your circadian rhythm. At one point you will rise with the sun and go to sleep when it sets.
Now we created artificial light so we can work longer. With those advantages come disadvantages as well. Our internal clocks are confused (which basically means the bacteria which cultivate our body don’t know which time it is and send the wrong signals or transmitters which in terms produce the wrong hormones or hinder the production of the right ones).
The more consistent your sleeping schedule is, the more reliably your body will produce the right hormones at the right time. Cortisol and Serotonin in the morning, to get you started, Melatonin in the evening to make you sleepy.
Usually in the first half of the night, your body goes into deep sleep for recovery. At the end of the night, you go into REM sleep. This cycle is controlled by your circadian rhythm and established over time. If you go to bed at around 10.00h each night, your body can develop a rhythm and knows how much time it has to get in the deep sleep as well as REM, before waking up again. If you go to bed too late, you will miss out on REM sleep most likely, as your body will get the required deep sleep first. However it will also be cut shorter if you wake up too early, as you’ll interrupt the REM phase at the end of the night.
A lot of mobile phones even included a sleep-time function for the alarm clock, which should motivate to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. I know, life is life and sometimes it varies (for me it often varies especially when traveling). But try to be more consistent and you will immediately feel more refreshed in the morning and go to sleep faster in the evening.
Do not exercise or work around 1-2 hours before you got to bed. It puts your body in an alert state and keeps you from calming down. This is actually a very big factor that should not be neglected! Working out or chewing on a work-related problem sends a clear signal to your body that energy must be provided and the senses have to be sharp. It signals “we are going for a hunt or at war” rather than “let’s sit around the fire and then go to sleep”.
Block blue light
A bit less of a problem within the European Union but still a topic: Blue light refers to light which has a large share of higher wavelengths or blue light. What do you think is the largest natural source of blue light? Exactly, the sun. So your body will get the signal that it is daytime when exposed to blue light.
Unfortunately all our screens emit a large share of blue light, too. From your TV, to your laptop, your phone and even the small LEDs on almost all devices. Some people are more sensitive to blue light than others but it’s generally a good idea to reduce exposure. The first and most simple steps are:
- Remove screens from your bedroom and tape off any LED lights
- Use software to remove blue light like f.lux or reduce the blue content on your TV or turn on the built-in night-shift mode
- Buy some PC glasses or blue light blocking glasses if you’re sensitive (I know, widely discussed, but if you’re not perfectly refreshed each morning or have trouble going to sleep, give it a try)
For me, the nightshift mode on my mobile phone and the software f.lux on my laptop make an enormous difference. When the sun sets outside, my devices switch into the warmer mode. I feel more relaxed and tired in the evening. I currently test blue light blocking glasses, after a friend told me about the great improvement in his performance. I didn’t have problems before but seem to feel more tired in the evening when wearing the glasses.
The last point to improve your sleep quality is by using hacks. I refrain from taking artificial supplements my body can produce on its own to improve sleep quality, as I don’t want my body to get used to this sort of “supported” sleep. So I tend to stick with natural alternatives.
Relaxing Herb Tea / CBD Tea
This seems to be a big one for me in terms of sleep quality. I purchased a high quality CBD tea for better sleep, which I drink around 30mins to 2 hours before I go to bed. It helps me to relax and also serves as conditioning for the brain that now is the time to wind down and go to sleep. The CBD tea had no improved results compared to the relaxing herb tea in terms of sleep quality, so the ritual itself might be more important than the ingredients (CDB does have other benefits though which are worth investigating).
Extra tip: Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of honey or consume both raw with the tea. It stabilizes deep and REM sleep for me.
Tablespoon of MCT Oil
Often promoted as fuel for the brain, MCT oil is also supposed to serve as fuel for the brain while dreaming. Your brain doesn’t stop operating during the night and still needs energy, which it gets from the ketones produced by consuming proper MCT oil. I feel it has an impact on my sleep quality.
Similar to the MCT oil, raw honey provides your brain with some fuel, which lasts during the night. Oftentimes when people wake up a lot during the night, it is caused by a sudden crash of blood sugar. Your body sounds the alarm because of incoming starvation and pours out some cortisol as stress response. Raw honey seems to help in that respect (but admittedly, I’m still skeptical and will look deeper into this natural sleep booster in the future).
A very unorthodox yet effective measure to improve sleep quality is to tape your mouth at night. It prevents breathing through the mouth as well as sleep apnea. It reduced my wakeup times by 50%. As it is basically for free (except the cost of ego and attractiveness) and might greatly improve your sleep quality, it offers one of the highest ROIs among sleep hacks. Just get yourself a micro pore tape and try it out for one night.
To improve your sleep, look into the 3 areas of:
And in that order. Identify and remove disturbances like noise, light and chaotic decoration etc. Add ear plugs and a sleeping mask to your arsenal if needed. Then try to keep a consistent rhythm and help your inner clock to adjust by blocking blue light when the sun sets. Last but not least try some relaxing herbal tea, raw honey and MCT oil before going to sleep. Avoid exercise, work and meals around 2 hours before hitting the bed.
Last but not least: Use common sense when making sleep-related decisions. Imagine how your ancestors would have lived with the sun and the rhythm of nature. Our environment might have changed but our bodies are still the same.
If you liked the article and got some benefit out of it, I would be grateful if you would recommend it to people who should get that info, too. You help someone you love and at the same time spread the word about optimized performance. If you're interested in daily updates on better performance, follow @minimalist_biohacker on Instagram.