Sleep quality is a cornerstone of optimized, vibrant well-being and high performance. Perhaps this is a case of stating the obvious, but I see people all the time who eat amazingly well and have excellent fitness routines, but are never getting where they want to be in terms of energy, performance and well-being - primarily because they are suffering from low-quality sleep. Even if you feel like you're sleep quality is good, the reality is nearly everyone's sleep quality can be improved - and most people by a huge amount. As with everything we approach with the Synchro Life Design framework - we're not content to settle for "good" when you can hack your way to "better" with a little elegantly applied knowledge.
There is a huge distinction to be made between sleep quality and sleep quantity. Getting sufficient sleep duration is certainly important, but not nearly as important as the quality of your sleep. 5-6 hours of high-quality sleep is going to do way more for you that 8 hours of poor, disrupted sleep. So how do we get higher quality sleep? Let's first look at what the body is doing during sleep.
Production of most hormones occurs primarily at night, and specifically in the latter part of a sleep cycle. Human growth hormone (hGH), specifically, is both produced and released primarily during sleep. The quality of the sleep you get has a huge impact on these hormonal processes. There's really no understating how important healthy endocrine (hormone) functioning is for optimal health. In addition to hormonal processes, critical muscle and tissue repair happens primarily during deeper parts of a sleep cycle. There is also a ton of evidence that cognitive performance is closely tied to the quality of sleep you get. This is an abbreviated list, but you get the point: quality of sleep is important.
What we're doing by hacking our sleep is examining these critical processes that are occurring during sleep, and then optimizing metabolic, biochemical and environmental conditions such that these processes happen for as long and as fully as possible.
1. Magnesium Supplementation
Ideally, we'd never have to worry about supplementing with magnesium. It should be abundant in our soils and thus, the produce we eat. But in our current agricultural system in which most produce comes from land that has been farmed for decades, this is far from the case. We're at a point now where - unless you're supplementing - you're almost guaranteed to be deficient in magnesium. There are few minerals more ubiquitous in metabolism than magnesium, so the consequences of deficiency are countless. Migraines, high blood pressure and increased anxiety are some of the ways magnesium deficiency shows on the surface. But the reality is magnesium is involved in so much that a deficiency is guaranteed to drag down health and well-being across the board.
The specific function of magnesium that is most relevant for sleep hacking is muscle relaxation. In our muscles tissues, magnesium and calcium work in opposition to each other. Calcium is involved in muscle contractions while magnesium is involved in the relaxation that follows. When calcium is present disproportionately in the body, muscles will spend more time in a contracted state. This is the essence of why a magnesium deficiency leads to greater anxiety. Unsurprisingly, overly contracted (i.e. tensed) muscles also effect sleep quality. The deepness and quality of your sleep is highly correlated with how relaxed your muscles are.
Supplementing with magnesium about 30 minutes before bed will allow muscles to relax more fully, making the process of falling asleep easier and allows you to stay longer in states of deep sleep where muscle repair and hormone production happens most fully.
Find magnesium here.
Synchro Recommendation: 400-800mg 30 Minutes Before Bed
2. Removing LED's From The Bedroom
This is really one to be militant about. The specific types of light emitted by some LED's can have huge negative impacts on the quality of your sleep. The body's system that is effected by light from LED's is production and release of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is probably the supplement most closely associated with sleep - and for good reason. Melatonin is produced and released by your body naturally at around the same time each day. The release of melatonin initiates a cascade of effects that relate to sleep. Most significantly, melatonin is responsible for lowering body temperature, a major factor in maintaining deep sleep states.
So back to LED's. The specific types of light emitted by white and blue LED's greatly suppress production of melatonin - 5 times more than even having a normal incandescent lightbulb on in the room. The theory behind this is that the body recognizes these specific types of light as equivalent to daylight, and thus suppresses melatonin and sleep. Less melatonin production throughout your sleep cycle means you don't sleep as deeply and your sleep quality suffers.
As you may have guessed, the ideal scenario would be to sleep in total darkness. LED's or light sources of any type in your bedroom are going to suppress melatonin production and decrease sleep quality. If you live in an area with a lot of outdoor light sources, covering windows can also do a lot to protect the quality of your sleep. But if you're going to choose a first step to take, it's getting blue and white LED's out of the bedroom.
This thing is ruining your sleep quality...
3. Protect Your Sleep From Electromagnetic Radiation
Electromagnetic frequencies (EMF's) are a type of radiation emitted by all electronic devices. It is EMF radiation that has many people concerned about the long-term consequences of holding a cell phone to your head every day. While the evidence of a connection between cell phones and brain issues is still scarce (but growing), evidence of EMF's having a negative impact on sleep quality is much better established. Studies have shown that people sleeping in the presence of EMF's spend less time in deep sleep states and experience less critical muscle relaxation.
What steps should you take to protect yourself from disruptive radiation? Look first at the most intense sources of EMF's present in your bedroom. Electronics with wireless capacity should be the first to go. Cell phones, laptops, cordless phones and wireless routers emit the most intense EMF's and will have the greatest negative impact on your sleep quality. If you absolutely must have a wireless device in your bedroom, keep it as far away from your bed as possible. Looking beyond wireless devices, other electronic devices would be the next to go. Anything that plugs into the wall or uses a battery is emitting EMF's and is consistently reducing the amount of time you spend in deep sleep every night. Again, if you absolutely need any of these devices in your bedroom, keep them as far away from the bed as possible and unplug it from the wall (this includes bedside lamps).
There are ways to continue the process of reducing your exposure to EMF's in your bedroom, but further steps are both more expensive and/or complicated and don't have nearly the beneficial effect that removing electronics will. If it feels significant to you to further reduce EMF's in the bedroom, the next step is to find a mattress and bed frame that are both free of metal. The metal in your bed frame and the springs in your mattress effectively act as "antennas" amplifying any residual EMF's left in your sleep environment.
4. Dial-In Your Sleep Rhythm
As I mentioned in the previous section, melatonin is produced and released by your body beginning and ending at about the same time each day. When possible, you want to consistently orient your day such that you are going to sleep as melatonin release begins. What this means practically is being very consistent about what time you're going to bed each night. Over time, your melatonin production and release will naturally adapt to the time you're going to sleep.
Interestingly, research has shown that sleep quality is not impacted by what time you sleep. Other schools of thought will tell you that rising with the sun or going to sleep at dusk has benefits for sleep quality, but research has never shown this to be true. So if your body naturally prefers to go to sleep at 2 and wake at 9 (like mine), and you have a job that lets you do it...by all means, go for it. The caveat here is that if you're sleeping too deep into the day, it becomes a lot harder to create the conditions (specifically light and noise isolation) that are necessary for melatonin production and deep sleep.
If you do get sleep deprived, you're definitely better off catching up with high-quality sleep than trying to stick rigidly to your sleep cycle. Barring significant sleep debt, you're going to get big improvements in your sleep quality from sticking to a consistent sleep schedule.
5. Supplement With Melatonin
Perhaps the most effective of all the techniques I've covered here, I've strategically left melatonin supplementation for last on this list. Taking melatonin before bed will amplify the effect of your body's natural release of the hormone. The effect on sleep quality is significant and few people experience any residual drowsiness or other side effects the next day. So why did I leave it for last? You would be forgiven for adopting only melatonin supplementation from this list and because you experienced a meaningful improvement in sleep quality, ignoring the other techniques on this list. If you did this you would miss an opportunity to greatly improve the quality of your sleep (and thus, your health).
It's also worth noting that I don't take melatonin myself on a daily basis. I view it as the last (optional) step in the process of hacking and optimizing your sleep. Following the other techniques on this list will support and amplify your natural production of melatonin such that supplementation is unnecessary. That being said, if you're someone who historically has a lot of difficulty going to sleep or staying in deep sleep states, supplementation with melatonin can be life-changing.
There are a few specific situations in which I do use melatonin to hack my sleep and improve my sleep quality. In times when my sleep cycle has been disrupted and I've stayed up later than usual a few days in a row (such as after a vacation or busy weekend), I will use melatonin to re-set the start of my natural melatonin rhythm back to the time I'd like to be going to sleep. This technique can also be god-send when traveling to a different time zone. Traveling from west coast to east and still need to get up early the next morning? Taking melatonin at the time you'd like to go to sleep will make it a lot more likely you'll get quality sleep that first night.
You can get melatonin here.
Synchro Recommendation: 1-2mg, 30min Before Sleep
(Bonus!) 6. Drink A TON Of Water First Thing In The Morning
This last one is a "bonus" because it's more accurately a waking-up-hack than a sleep-hack. This one is pretty simple. Through respiration and perspiration, we can sometimes lose 2+ pounds of water throughout the course of a night's sleep. Few people think to replace this water first thing upon getting up, but doing so can have huge effects. Beyond just eliminating the normal effects the dehydration will cause, drinking a large amount of water in the morning is one of the best things you can do for your skin health. Skin tends to get disproportionately dehydrated during sleep, and super-hydrating it in the morning will do a lot to flush out toxins.
I drink ~64 oz of water in the morning before anything else goes in my body. The first 32oz of which are mildly salted with mineral-rich himalayan salt as is described in Synchro Life Design #1.