Hacking Sleep: Resetting Your Biological Clock

Sleep HacksEarlier tonight I was lying awake in my bed, unable to get to sleep. I had always considered myself to be a night owl, with my summer sleep schedule often drifting into the 3am-4am range before drowsiness would kick in. Starting next week, I begin a full time internship which will require me to wake up at 6:30am every morning. I figured I would give myself 4 days of “adjusting” to a new sleep schedule. By “adjusting”, I am referring to my plan to turn the lights out at 8pm every night and watching TV until I fell asleep, with the hopes that my body would eventually adjust. Three days in, this method has proven to be very inefficient. So after three hours of watching episodes of Modern Family (great show, by the way), I decided to make use of my sleeplessness and check up on research and others’ strategies for resetting one’s sleep cycle.

Based on what I uncovered, here is my strategy for adjusting my sleep cycle now and for the future:

1) Set my alarm for 6:30am EVERY morning, even on weekends. And no matter what, do not snooze more than once. A backup alarm will be set for 6:36am in case I accidentally turn off the alarm when I think I’m snoozing it in my half-asleep stupor. The key here is a consistent wake-up time. If you adopt this strategy, just make sure the wake-up time is consistent. You will begin to notice that your body wakes up naturally at that time. And I can personally attest to how enjoyable it is to wake up naturally vs. an alarm clock.

2) Eat a light dinner at 6pm and immediately eat something upon waking at 6:30am, despite the fact that I will not be hungry at that time of the day. Research shows that a 12-16 hour period of no food intake, followed by eating, can be very effective in telling your internal clock that it should be awake at that time. If you have no appetite at all, have something very small. The key is to get some calories in you through solid food (I don’t believe any research has been done on liquid calories).

3) Read until I’m beginning to drift off to sleep, rather than lying in bed because I should be getting “the necessary amount of hours per night.” When a consistent wake-up time is established (see the first tactic above), your body will naturally adjust when you become tired, based on that time. If you want to relax for the night, but aren’t tired yet, read something in bed until you feel yourself nodding off. That way, you don’t waste time lying in bed unable to fall asleep. TV may also be a viable option for you, but I’ve found the brightness of the TV keeps me awake. The only way to be sure it to try it out and see what works best for you.

4) Take one 20-minute power nap in the afternoons if needed (or have some caffeine). Power naps will help prevent excessive reliance on caffeine as your body adjusts. However, if you’re at work and power naps aren’t an option, caffeine is the next best option. Just make sure to avoid drinking any caffeine 6-8 hours prior to sleep.

Happy dreaming!

Update (11/26/2011): In addition to the techniques described in this blog post, I’ve uncovered additional methods that can be used at a moment’s notice to steer your sleep cycle in the right direction.

The first is something I like to call the jet lag killer. This is a technique used by frequent travelers to keep jet lag in check by adjusting their circadian rhythms rapidly. This involves using caffeine to push yourself through the day until it’s time to go to bed (making sure your last dose of caffeine is 6-8 hours prior to going to bed), and then using melatonin around bed time to safely (and naturally) encourage your body to sleep. From what I’ve read on the subject of melatonin, you will want a sublingual tablet for maximum effectiveness. I personally use a 1.5mg dose, but anything from 1mg to 3mg might be sufficient for you. The next morning after this technique, you will find yourself very closely adjusted to your new sleep schedule (though I’ve found two or three days of this technique is the optimal time for complete adjustment, it’s still a great one-day solution).

The second technique involves light therapy. If you shine bright light into the corners of your eyes (much like being in direct sunlight), your body realizes it’s day-time and undergoes a series of biochemical changes, which results in more energy and suppression of melatonin. Unfortunately, the opposite is true; being indoors all day – which effectively blocks you from the bright light of the sun – prevents your body from recognizing that it should be suppressing melatonin, which can lead to depression, lack of appetite, and low energy.

There is a lot of research how melatonin affects you during the day that I won’t go into here.  It will suffice to say that these types of lights are great for people who are susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder, as well as people looking to adjust their sleeping patterns. I’ve noticed that, in addition to keeping me more alert at work, I feel more optimistic and clear-headed from using these lights.

There are two flavors: blue light and extremely bright white light. I opted for blue light because it has been determined to be most effective. However, there are two caveats: first, if you use the blue light at work, you will have a blue-ish glow on you while using it, which you might find embarrassing; be prepared for co-workers to ask about it. The second caveat is that turning the light up too high for extended periods of time is bad for your eyes. Being reckless with these devices can result in eye damage.

If you feel that light therapy would be a good investment in your sleep quality and health, here is the blue light I personally use and strongly recommend for its ability to adjust intensity and portability: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001I45XL8/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=liviforimpr-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399369&creativeASIN=B001I45XL8

Happy sleep hacking!

P.S. – Here are some of the resources that gave me some useful anecdotal feedback on a few of the above techniques:

http://www.dumblittleman.com/2007/05/sleep-adjustment-gain-10-days-per-year.html

http://parentingsquad.com/easy-way-to-reset-your-sleep-cycle-stop-eating

http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/05/how-to-become-an-early-riser/

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.
  • Matthew

    Another tip that I've come across (as I have the same problem as you!) is that if you still are having trouble sleeping, the last place you should be (and this is surprising) is in bed. Your brain, after consistently being unable to sleep, begins to associate your bed with *not* sleeping, and so getting in bed at night will actually start to trigger you being awake, rather than sleepy.

    Along those lines, bedtime habits are also SUPER effective. If you do something specific (i.e., brushing your teeth) right before going to sleep consistently, then performing said activity can actually help trick your brain into being sleepy.

    Good luck with work next week Jon. I also start next week, but I don't think I will prepare myself for the sleep adjustment. Brute forcing my habits into alignment has always been my method of choice.

  • Jordan Szenicer

    I highly recommend Clocky.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ_n6WT-1Gs

    He is really annoying, really cheap, and wakes me up everyday. You won't even have to worry about shutting it off in half-sleep. Also, great function that you can press sleep once and then the second time he goes off, he runs away no matter what. I love it. (Sound like such a spammer).

    There is one that has a little helicopter like disk that flies away when the alarm goes off and the alarm doesn't stop until you place the disc back onto the alarm; however, that one is way too annoying because sometimes it flies away and you cannot find it and literally need to pull the plug for it to shut off haha.

    If you have a bath, that is great before bed. Really warm water. I'd avoid reading because assuming you need light to read, light is the guardian of sleep. When light shines on the eye, a series of processes occur that inhibit production of melatonin, a chemical responsible for inducing drowsiness before bedtime. When the light is off, melatonin can kick in and will help a lot with falling asleep.

  • Well said man! I've been debating buying Clocky for years after I first saw it on ThinkGeek. Perhaps this is just what I need to break the snoozing habit. I've actually been using audiobooks lately. I'm noticing that listening to them in pitch black after you lie down is an amazing way to fall asleep super quickly.

  • Normally I'm the same way: brute force all the way. The reason I'm trying it this way is because I'm also experimenting with being an early riser type that has time to eat a nice breakfast and go for a run or read before work, so we'll see how that works out!

  • Hey Jordan,

    Thank you for recommending Clocky! You can buy them direct from Nanda Home at our website. We're going to be launching some more smart, and useful products for the home this summer, so you'll have to check it out.

    Thanks again,
    -Nanda Home

  • Regard points 1 and 2: I haven't tried setting my alarm for the same time each day. I tend to sleep in on the weekends, probably more than I should. However, when I do wake up, I always eat breakfast first. From first hand experience, it works. Breakfast gives me a boost to get through the morning. Good advice

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  • I can totally use the tips you have here, I plan to cut down on my caffeine intake!

  • Do you know of any natural substitutes for coffee? I’ve heard that apples do the same thing but they dont seem to work for me,,,

  • forbin

    Sorry to be such a latecomer. I recommend NOT using reading to fall asleep. Just as Matthew indicated that staying in bed when sleepless will train your body to expect that condition when in bed, reading in bed trains you to fall asleep when reading. It is an annoyance when trying to read for pleasure, but can be a real problem when reading for comprehension, and a career-devastator when reading AT work!