Sleep is often referred to as the “missing third” of our life. We spend more time sleeping than on any other activity- so why are we so bad at it?
Two thirds of people say they don’t get enough sleep. Three quarters of people have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. And over a third of us have trouble falling asleep- even when we’re exhausted. And that’s a problem, because how well we sleep affects every aspect of our lives.
I’ve dealt with onset insomnia– extremely difficulty in getting to sleep– my whole life. Let me tell you, a good night’t sleep makes all the difference in the world.
When we don’t sleep well, we suffer from low energy. We have trouble staying awake, focusing, moving our bodies…even getting out of bed becomes an ordeal. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
And the effects don’t stop at your brain. Sleep poorly, and you’ll have less muscle mass, more fat, and less testosterone. Does that mean your sex drive might take a dive? You bet your dick it does. So let’s see what we can do to prevent that.
How much sleep do we need, anyway?
Research is pretty divided on this, but most studies and experts give a range somewhere between 7 and 9 hours a night for adults, with children needing as much as ten hours a night.
Some studies do suggest that six hours a night can suffice. However, that’s based on the questionable assumption that well-rested people are overestimating how much sleep they get. Other studies suggest that we need 10-12 hours a night, but those are based on experiments in which people were kept in darkness for 14 hours a day, rather unlike real-life conditions.
So, I tend to agree with the consensus that 7-9 hours a night is best for most people. However, there’s a fair amount of variance between individuals- some of us are okay on 6, some need 9-10 a night, and a rare few can get by on 4-5 hours, or may even need more than 10.
Ultimately, you should go with how you feel- getting the optimal amount of sleep will make you feel alert, mentally and physically refreshed, and full of energy. Getting too little will make you feel tired, while oversleeping can cause an unpleasant sort of “stoned” feeling.
Also, you need to sleep in large blocks of several hours. Sleep is divided into different phases which serve different purposes. Sleep is still poorly understood, but in general the lighter phases, including REM sleep, seem to be responsible for the mental benefits of sleep, like memory consolidation and maintaining neuroplasticity. The deeper phases of sleep seem to be where most of the physical recovery and sex/anabolic hormone production happens.
Your brain cycles through the various phases of sleep throughout the night, taking about 90 minutes to cycle through each of them before starting over. As the night goes on, each successive cycle includes more REM sleep and less deep sleep. However, if you take a short, 20-30 minute nap during the day, it will include a higher proportion of REM sleep. This is important.
Because of the way that sleep works, you need to get most of your sleep in long, continuous blocks throughout the night. Your body needs to be going through those whole, 90-minutes cycles. Your body needs complete sleep the same way it needs complete proteins, and a complete mix of vitamins and minerals. You should be sleeping for 7+ hours straight every night, or else in two blocks of 3+ hours each. Waking up once in the middle of the night doesn’t seem to be a problem, but waking up constantly so your sleep is divided into short naps is.
That said, if you feel tired throughout the day, taking a 20-30 minute power nap can be a good temporary solution, and can give you a few more hours of energy. Just don’t lean on this. You may heave heard that polyphasic sleep allows you to live off a few short naps a day, but hopefully now you see why that’s not true: you need to experience all phases of sleep, and that requires a good night’s sleep. Feel free to nap once or twice a day if needed, but you still need 6+ hours of sleep a night no matter what.
Keep to a (semi-flexible) schedule
Your brain loves routine. In fact, it needs a routine in order to sleep well. Pick a standard wake-up and sleep time, and try to deviate from them as little as possible. For instance, I normally go to sleep at midnight and wake up at 8 AM.
You won’t follow this schedule one hundred percent, and you don’t need to. I certainly have nights where I’m up until 3, 4, or even later. This is fine as long as it isn’t happening too often, and as long as you know how to get back on track.
When you stay up past your usual bedtime, don’t push back your wake-up time by more than half the amount of time by which you stayed up late. For instance, since I normally sleep 12-8, if I stay up until 3 AM, I’ll set my alarms to wake me up no later than 9:30- meaning I stay up 3 hours later but only sleep in 1.5 hours later.
This puts your brain into a mild sleep deficit- not bad enough to ruin your next day (unless you go on a major bender, obv), but enough to make it want to get back onto your usual schedule, rather than changing to a new one. You can take a nap that afternoon if you need to, but the next day you should be back to waking up at your usual time.
In theory, you’d eat, exercise, go to sleep and wake up at the exact same times every day. In practice, of course, life doesn’t work that way. The mistake people make here is in treating consistency as all or nothing- either sticking perfectly to a schedule, or throwing it out the window altogether. Flexibility allows you to stay healthy while living your life, and t’s especially critical when you’re going through circumstances that make perfect consistency impossible- like traveling. When I spent 2016 backpacking around the world, I was unable to keep a totally consistent schedule, but I strategically used a flexible sleep schedule and ad-hoc intermittent fasting to build muscle, lose fat, and keep my sex drive high. You can do it too- don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Follow a good morning routine
Quality sleep isn’t just about what you do at night. It all ties into your body’s circadian rhythms, which means that good sleep is built throughout the day- starting when you wake up.
First off, you want to wake up from the lightest phase of sleep. This will happen if your body is waking up on its own, but alarm clocks can jolt you out of deep sleep, leaving you feeling groggy, grumpy, and low on energy throughout the day.
If you absolutely need to use an alarm clock, find a smart alarm clock app for your smartphone. These apps select an optimal wakeup time by using your phone’s accelerometer to sense when you move during sleep.
Another thing you want to do first thing in the morning is optimize your cortisol levels for the day. Far from the gainz-eating boogeyman it’s made out to be, cortisol is actually good for you- during the day. What you don’t want is high cortisol at night.
Charles Poliquin and John Romaniello both recommend optimizing cortisol levels by starting your day off with lime juice and slat water. Mix 1/4 tsp of sea salt or Himalayan salt, an ounce of warm water, and an ounce of fresh, pure lime juice, and gulp it down. This will help ease you into an optimal cortisol pattern- high in the morning, and low at night.
Finally, once you’re out of bed, you want to get your body fully woken up ASAP. The best way to do this is to take a short walk- the combination of sunlight and physical activity will tell your body that the day starts now, and therefore that sleep time will be 16 hours (more or less) in the future.
Feed your brain light cues
Part of the reason why an early morning walk works so well is that sunlight- as well as related signals such as vitamin D- is the primary signaling mechanism that your brain uses to determine when it’s time to be active, and when it’s time to sleep. Specifically, the human brain has evolved to use the presence of sky-blue light as an indicator that it is currently daytime.
To nudge your brain into a healthy sleep pattern, treat it to extremes of light and darkness- lots of blue light during the day, and none at night.
Going outside in the morning will give you that blue light, but if you can’t make it outside- or you live in Alaska and there’s no sun to be had- use an app or a device such as the Phillips Go-Lite to shine some blue light in your eyes.
Following that, keep your environment throughout the day as bright as possible. If you’re stuck in an office, keep the lights cranked up, and step outside a few times a day for some sun.
At night, you want to do the exact opposite: stop any and all blue light from hitting your eyes, and any light at all from touching your body when you sleep.
First off, light-proof your room. Cover your windows with black sheets or blackout curtains to block out external light. Turn off or cover up any light sources in your room, such as fans or computers.
Second, take steps to filter the blue wavelengths out of any light that hits your eyes for the last couple hours before bedtime. A free laptop app called f.luxx will redden your screen in the evenings. A cheap pair of amber or orange-tinted glasses or goggles can have much the same effect, albeit while making you look like you’re getting ready to do some welding.
Finally, make sure you do get some light in the morning to wake you up, as total darkness makes it easy to oversleep. This is another reason why I love light-based alarm clocks.
Get the right kind of exercise
Most people “know” that exercise helps you sleep. And yet, the effect can be very inconsistent- some nights you’ll sleep like a baby, while other nights you’ll toss and turn, despite having completed an exhausting hour-long workout that day.
The thing is, there’s a specific type of exercise that helps you sleep: exercise that taxes your sense of balance. And the good news is, it doesn’t have to be exhausting to be effective. It can be as simple as spending more time on your feet, or incorporating more iso-lateral movements into your workouts.
To see a dramatic example of this effect, perform an hour-long workout consisting entirely of iso-lateral movements such as dumbbell rows, Bulgarian split squats, and one-armed dumbbell overhead presses. Then marvel at how easily you sleep that night.
Fortunately, there’s no need to redesign all of your workouts just to sleep better. You can see a significant benefit just by incorporating 4-8 sets of iso-lateral movements in each workout.
Of course, you probably don’t work out every day. Another solution is to spend 6 or more hours on you feet every day. If you work in an office job, get a standup desk if you can, and alternate between periods of sitting and standing.
Now, I know 6 hours isn’t very convenient, so there’s one other alternative- substituting intensity for volume. Instead of standing for 6 hours, you can stand on one leg to exhaustion, 2-3 times on each leg.
The importance of evening nutrition
Cholesterol is the building block for testosterone- and in fact, for all of our sex hormones. Eating fat, and particularly saturated fat, causes the body to produce more cholesterol.
Studies show that athletes on low-fat diets tend to have low testosterone, while those who eat high amounts of saturated fat have higher testosterone levels. An independent study by the John Fawkes journal of broscience associated low-fat diets with a heightened interest in boy bands.
Because you produce most of your testosterone while you sleep- whereas cortisol, which is also made from cholesterol, is mainly produced during the day- the benefits of saturated fat become more apparent when consumed in the evening. Interestingly, eating saturated fat at night also has a significant sedative effect, helping people get to sleep and stay asleep.
Adding a small amount of healthy sugar (notice both emphases) seems to enhance the sedative effect. In practice, this tends to mean eating a couple of sausages or a few ounces of cheese, dipped in one or two teaspoons of honey or agave nectar, within 3 hours of bedtime. While animal fat is preferable, you can optionally boost the saturated fat content by adding in some coconut oil.
As far as the dosage goes, it seems like the more the better, but you obviously need to control how much you eat. Personally, I’ve found 4 ounces of cheese along with a tablespoon of honey to work really well. Find the minimum amount that works for you; this could get pretty fattening, so only eat as much as you need.
Most sleep supplements are either useless or counterproductive. Specifically, most herbal supplements just don’t do much, while most sedatives- such as antihistamines and prescription sleep drugs, or alcohol for that matter- induce sleep while lowering its quality. Also, I shouldn’t have to say this, but homeopathic sleep pills don’t do shit.
Nonetheless, there are a few supplements worth mentioning. The first two are magnesium and zinc. Both of them contribute to both sleep and testosterone production- with zinc being the most important micronutrient for testosterone, while magnesium has much more of a sedative effect, and plays a central role in the regulation of GABA, the main neurotransmitter responsible for sleep maintenance.
You can take them together in supplements such as ZMA, but for an even stronger sedative effect, try powdered magnesium supplements such as Natural Calm. You also don’t want to over-supplement zinc- you can also test your zinc levels cheaply and easily by using zinc sulfate monohydrate, which tastes differently depending on your zinc levels.
Next up, there’s melatonin, the main hormone responsible for sleep initiation. There’s a lot of debate about the usefulness of melatonin- some people swear by it, while others insist that it’s useless or can even throw your natural hormone production out of whack.
The truth is, they’re all correct, in a way. Melatonin can be very useful, but in this case, less is more. Taking too much can shut down your body’s natural melatonin production and impair sleep quality. Also, your melatonin levels naturally rise throughout the night, peaking a couple hours before you wake; higher doses of melatonin fast-forward this process, paradoxically causing you to wake up earlier.
So what dosage was found effective in studies? As little as .3 mg. All you need is .3-.5 mg, one hour before bed. Which is a problem, because the pills you find in pharmacies are usually dosed at 3, 5, or even 10 mg. While you could grab the smallest pills they have and try to break them up, your best bet would be to order liquid melatonin online and measure it out with a dropper. 2-3 drops is roughly the right amount.
The other alternative would be to take 5-HTP* or L-Tryptophan, both of which are precursors to melatonin. In that case the optimal dosage is 100 mg of 5-HTP or 1 gram of L-Tryptophan. The optimal timing here would be about 4 hours before bed- both because they take some time to convert to melatonin, and because 5-HTP can have a short-lived stimulatory effect as it first begins converting to serotonin.
*Safety note: Don’t take 5-HTP with anything else that acts on serotonin, such as Prozac or St. John’s Wort. This can, in some people, cause a dangerous excess of serotonin called serotonin syndrome.
Control your temperature
Because the ambient temperature goes down at night, our bodies use low temperature as another cue to initiate sleep. So, you want your bedroom to be relatively cold at night.
I can’t give you a specific temperature here, but most people seem to find their ideal sleeping temperature is between 64 and 70 degrees fahrenheit. Take that with a grain of salt though.
Another way of looking at this- the temperature when you’re sleeping should be cooler than during the day, however cool that has to be.
Or alternatively- as cold as it can get without making you uncomfortable. You should always be comfortable.
Bonus- cold temperatures also help you burn a little extra fat, and produce a little bit more testosterone.
De-stress and perfect your evening routine
Finally, you need to address the psychological aspect of sleep. In short, you need to learn to relax as hard as you train.
Rule number one: don’t bring work or stress into your bedroom. If you have to work, pay bills, or talk on the phone with angry relatives at home, find another room to do it in.
Rule number two: use your bed for sleep, sex, and reading before bed. That’s it. You want your brain to develop a Pavlovian response to your bed- when you get in bed, you should immediately feel sleepy. Or horny, if you’re getting some on the regular.
Rule number three: spend at least an hour before bed relaxing and winding down. Preferably two hours. That means stop working, doing chores, or thinking about all your problems at least an hour before bed.
If you’re worrying about something you have to do the next day, put it in a to-do list and plan out that task earlier in the day so you can more easily put it out of your mind. And if you do end up working late, push back your bedtime. It’s actually better to stay up later than planned than to try to force yourself to sleep before your mind is relaxed.
Spend the last half hour before bed reading a novel (again, unless you’re having sex). Not watching TV- that blasts your eyes with light and puts your brain in wake mode. Reading nonfiction won’t do either, as it tends to get you thinking about the real-life uses and implications of what you’re reading. Nothing relaxes your mind like a novel- it’s fun, relaxing, and gives you nothing to worry about because it has no bearing on your life.
Finally, if you find yourself unable to sleep because you can’t quiet your mind- as opposed to any kind of physical reason- at least once a week, take up meditation. This can mean taking a class, or it can be as simple as sitting in a chair, breathing deeply, and blanking out your mind for five minutes a day. Five minutes a day, every day, will get you results. Longer sessions, done without consistency, won’t.
There is no excuse not to make sleeping well one of your top priorities in life. Being well-rested is key to your body composition, happiness, productivity, energy level, sex drive, and overall health. That’s why I offer sleep coaching as one of my online fitness coaching services– you spend about one-third of your life asleep, and in my opinion, good sleep also accounts for about one-third of your health.
When you sleep well and have a healthy energy level, many other parts of your life start to just fall into place. Sleep is, in my opinion, one of the two most under-discussed topics in fitness, and I’ll be writing more about it (and the other topic) soon. If you want to make sure you don’t miss those articles, sign up for my newsletter using the form below.