Sleep Optimization

A comprehensive guide on optimizing sleep, in a way that allows you to carry out your days with great health, great energy and great productivity.

As a human, you spend around a third of your days on the average sleeping.

On the surface, this might seem like spending a large chunk of your time doing nothing, but the facts and the science are actually pointing towards the opposite.

In fact, the quantity and quality of your sleep can have an enormous impact on your health — and how you function on a day-to-day basis.

Because of that, it makes sense for us to talk about the relevance of sleep, and a standalone system you can use to optimize it and improve your performance and longevity.

Why Sleep Matters

The Cost of Sleep Deficit

Have you ever have the experience of being woken up abruptly by someone or an alarm, after which your body starts to feel like it's having some kind of hangover — as if you're about to throw up?

If so, you're not alone. In fact, this is an all-too-common episode experienced by many people in the civilized world, even though one could argue that it really shouldn't be.

The funny thing is, once you've let this "hangover" happen, its terrible symptoms will continue to manifest for the bulk of the day, potentially affecting everything you do. For example, you might notice that:

  • Your meals are not as tasty as before.
  • Your energy is taking a deep dive, making you feel lethargic, drowsy or tired.
  • Your headache and brain fog are preventing you from thinking clearly. 
  • Your mood is down, making you more irritable, anxious or weary.
  • Your focus, reaction time and productivity dwindles (and you might even hallucinate a bit).
  • You are more prone to errors (and even life-threatening accidents).

In fact, when combined together, these symptoms can, more often than not, make your days exponentially more difficult, almost as if you're somewhat drunk or intoxicated.

The good thing is, with these experiences, it shouldn't take much for you to realize — at an intuitive level — that sleeping is an extremely important thing to do, because if you don't, you could be faced with the effects of sleep deficit for a day or longer.

And if you still choose to ignore it, even more serious things can happen to you. No, it wouldn't be just the loss of your productivity, but the loss of your brain or even the loss of your life. To be sure, here's a concise list summarizing some of the potential risks:

  • Increased inflammation and (cortisol) stress responses
  • Increased oxidation and free radicals
  • Destabilized blood sugar control (which is linked to type II diabetes)
  • Destabilized satiety control (which is linked to obesity)
  • Compromised immune system (e.g., reduced ability to heal and ward off infection and injuries)
  • Compromised learning and formation of memories
  • Reduced ability to remove wastes from the body (e.g., cancer cells, amyloids, tau proteins, neurotoxins)
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases (e.g., hypertension)
  • Increased risk of brain-related diseases (e.g., stroke, Alzheimer's disease)
  • General acceleration of aging (e.g., telomere shortening)
Diagram illustrating the risks of sleep deprivation

The Miracle of Proper Sleep

So if inappropriate sleep can lead to a wide range of disastrous effects on our body, what — if any — can a night of good sleep bring?

For one, the first thing to notice is that sleeping feels good, like you're entering a sanctuary of great peace, warmth and comfort. When you sleep well, you might also dream, and that's when many of the most fascinating things can happen to you.

In fact, because proper sleep gives you a chance to revisit your experiences during the day, it can also allow you to form solid memories and derive interesting insights about them. In that sense, it's fair to say that good sleep can actually accelerate learning.

So instead of thinking of sleeping as a self-defeating waste of time for the lazy, you might want to think of it as a superpower instead. Sleep can literally restore your body to the point of making virtually everything better — from cognition to mood to immune system to creativity.

(consider for instance babies, who spend an enormous amount of time sleeping and experience an enormous amount of regeneration and growth, and elderlies, who spend significantly less time sleeping and experience physical decline and cognitive issues.)

Of course, all these only point to the fact that sleep is a basic need much like our need of movement and food, but that alone doesn't mean sleeping the entire day, every day, is automatically good for you.

In fact, if you do just that, you'll have chronically lower metabolism, mobility and circulation. When pushed to the extreme, that can lead to atrophies and decays of your mind and body as well (much like many hospital patients do).

Instead, what you want to do is to optimize your sleep for maximal efficiency, performance and longevity, and that's where the system covered in the next section can come in handy.

Optimizing Sleep

At its core, optimizing sleep is all about maximizing the quality of your sleep. It's an attempt to make sure that every second of your sleep counts, and to reduce the amount of shallow sleep you might be suffering from.

When that happens, the quantity of your sleep will automatically fit within a healthy range — not too much, not too little. For most people, it'd be between 7 and 9 hours, as regularly getting 7 hours or less is often linked to a series of physical and mental deficits.

But then, just because you want quality sleep doesn't mean that you can get it by simply heading to your bed and closing your eyes, because there are actually many factors at play that can affect your level of sleepiness and your potential for deep sleep.

Instead, you'll have to set up your body for sleep through a series of planning, rituals and routines, so that you can prevent sleeping disorders such as insomnia and hypersomnia while still having the best sleep of your life.

Sleep Planning

While most people are of the opinion that sleep is simply something we do late at night, the fact is, optimal sleep actually begins with your waking, and requires that you structure your days and nights in a certain way.

More specifically, we're talking about the idea of oscillating between the two extremes of stimulation during the day, and relaxation during the night, and the more you gear towards these extremes (within a reasonable limit), the better your sleep quality will be.

Providing Stimulations During the Day

As paradoxical as it sounds, stimulations during the day are actually an integral part of an optimal sleep. Not only do they improve your alertness during the day, but they can also increase your sleepiness at night so that you can sleep soundly.

To provide stimulations throughout the day, consider filling your days with some of the following activities:

  • Physical activities (e.g., running)
  • Social interactions (e.g., group discussion)
  • Cognitive activities (e.g., presentations)
  • Sensory activities (e.g., music)
  • Exposure to daylight (e.g., working outdoor)

By combining all of these, you'll get the best chance of entraining your circadian rhythm so that you can function at your best during the day — and relax properly during the night.

But if you don't, you might find yourself forcing yourself to sleep at night when you don't want to, which can be self-defeating. Remember, the more sleeping pressure you can build up during the day, the better you'll be able to sleep during the night.

Winding Down During the Night

If you've filled your day with a lot of stimulations, then you should start to feel a little bit tired by the time the night comes (and rightly so).

Because of that, you also want to do as much as possible to aid this process, so as not to disrupt it and sabotage your sleep quality.

In other words, the least you'd want to do is to stimulate your mind and body just when they want to sleep. Instead, you want to facilitate their relaxation — until the time you hit the bed.

And to do so, you'd have to start by eliminating your exposure to bright light at night. Such exposures can suppress the natural production of melatonin (i.e., the sleep-inducing hormone), which in turn can prevent you from feeling sleepy at night.

To avoid that, you'd want to put in some measures to prevent light from delaying your sleeping and waking time. These measures can include, among others:

  • Replacing LED and fluorescent light with incandescent light (or no light)
  • Minimizing TV watching at night
  • Limiting the use of electronic devices (e.g., computers, smartphones, tablet)
  • Reducing the brightness of light (and inverting the colors of monitor screens)

In addition to light, there are also some activities which are usually good during the day, but bad during the night. These activities include, among others:

  • Intense physical activities (especially within 3 hours before sleep)
  • Large-scale social interactions (e.g., night parties)
  • Intense cognitive activities (e.g., video games)
  • Intense sensory activities (e.g., loud music, scary movies)

Of course, just because that some activities are stimulating doesn't mean there is no relaxing activity you can do at night. In fact, activities such as night walk, hot bath,  meditation and reading are particularly good on this regard.

Activities aside, you also want to structure your feeding habits so as to avoid being metabolically overtaxed or hungry at sleep. This can be generally achieved by implementing the following routines:

  • Avoid consuming inflammatory and highly-process food in large quantities
  • Avoid frivolous nighttime snacking
  • Avoid eating right before sleep
  • Always go to the bathroom right before sleep

In addition, there are also some food and substances which, due to their stimulating nature, are not recommended at night. These substances often include, among others:

  • Alcohol, whose metabolic aftereffects can impede deep sleep
  • Tabacco and cannabis, which can interfere with REM sleep 
  • Energy drinks
  • Caffeinated drinks, which can cause caffeine crash
  • Chocolate
  • Sleep-disrupting medications (e.g., opioids, antidepressants, painkillers)

After all, nighttime is meant for winding down — not for cranking up. And the better you can relax your mind and body at night, the better you'll be able to enjoy a deeper sleep when the time comes.

Implementing Sleep

While proper sleep planning allows you to set up your mind and body for deep slumber, it's really only the beginning of your sleep journey.

Indeed, whether you'll actually have deep slumber will still depend on how well you know your body, and how well you implement sleep.

In particular, these include how well you can minimize stimulations while you're sleeping, how well you can fall asleep, how well you can remain in sleep, and how well you can wake up properly.

In other words, if sleep planning is about what you do from the day to the night, implementing sleep is about what you do from the night to the day.

Minimizing Stimulations While Sleeping

To facilitate a quality sleep, you'd have to begin by shutting yourself off from the external reality as you lie down in bed.

And naturally, this means avoiding a series of environmental stimuli from the inside and the outside, as even a small amount of stimuli can prevent you from falling asleep or cause you to wake up at night.

For example, to isolate yourself from external stimuli, you could begin by evaluating the stimuli you receive from your five senses (and making changes accordingly):

Sight

  • Cover your windows completely using blackout curtains
  • Cover your eyes completely using blankets or eye masks

Sound

  • Close your doors and windows
  • Turn off phones and TV and keep them away
  • Turn on relaxing background music
  • Wear earplugs or earmuffs if all else fails

Smell

  • Avoid late cooking that involves a strong smell
  • Keep strong fragrance outside the dorm

Touch

  • Use a blanket that is neither too thick nor too thin
  • Use a mattress that is neither too soft nor too hard
  • Sleep with as little clothing as needed
  • Minimize unnecessary movements that can wake you up
  • Maintain a room temperature that is neither cold nor hot

External stimuli aside, your sleeping positions can also affect how well you can relax at night. Here are some tips you can use to aid your body throughout this process:

  • Sleep in a loose fetal position and switch sides every once in a while. This can help you maximize comfort, minimize limb atrophy and prevent loud snoring.
  • Sleep with your head facing down on a small bump (e.g., folded clothing vs. pillow), so as to promote maximum relaxation while avoiding impact on your head and jaw.

On the other hand, avoiding external stimuli to the T will still not help you sleep soundly if you ignore what's going on inside your body. This is why you also want to pay attention to these internal stimuli — and make changes accordingly as you see fit. 

Breathing

  • Breath at a natural speed and not overly deeply
  • Prioritize on fast exhaling and letting air out slowly

Thinking

  • Observe your mind and "freeze" yourself from thinking
  • Imagine whispering simple vocalization if all else fails

Feelings

  • Avoid dwelling on both overexciting and depressing thoughts
  • Suspend your mind from negative feedback loop (e.g., anger, stress, worries, anxiety)

Pain

  • Readjust sleeping position to avoid joint and back pain
  • Address chronic pains and discomfort promptly and seriously

In fact, you can even commit all of the mentioned external and internal stimuli to memory by incorporating them into a body diagram. By doing so, you'll be able to run through them as a checklist every time as you try to sleep.

Tapping Into the Sleeping State

In a nutshell, the key to falling asleep quickly is to pretend that you're really, really tired — as if you're about to pass out.

To do so, you would have to be willing to let go: to let go of your thought, and to let go of your feelings.

But for that, you'd first need to hone in on relaxation by exhaling quickly and somewhat heavily, and by relaxing your pupils as if you're "giving up on consciousness".

Initially, this might feel like you're looking into a perfectly clear, undisturbed pond, but once you've relaxed your mind beyond a certain point, you should start to see some objects involuntarily appearing before you.

And when that happens, you'd want to "chase" or "cling on" to them — by thinking of the different ways you can do to manipulate these objects. For example:

  • If you see a stroller, try to mentally rotate it or look at it from a different angle. 
  • If you see a train, try to find ways to ride on it or walk around it.

Most importantly, every time you notice your attention shifting outward (e.g., to some external sound), you'd want to bring yourself back to the task — by re-manipulating the objects appearing in front of you.

And if you master this, you might even be able to train yourself to fall asleep almost immediately — whether you're near the beginning, the middle or the end of your sleep journey.

Managing Sleep Disruptions

In the ideal scenario, you want to make sure that your sleep flows as continuously as possible, since the more uninterrupted your sleep is, the more restorative it will be (and the more sleep you'll actually obtain).

Indeed, every time your sleep is disrupted, there's an extra switching cost of waking up and falling asleep. This means that you'd end up with a longer sleeping time, a less impressive sleeping quality, along with other deleterious effects such as:

However, since sleep disruptions can have many different sources, it becomes just as important to know a bit about them — so that you can handle each of these cases with minimal hassle as they come up.

For example. you might know that some of the most common disruptions of sleep often include, among others:

  • Headaches (e.g., effects of drugs, stimulants and alcohol)
  • Sleep apnea (e.g., effects of obesity and sleeping on the back)
  • Bodily reactions (e.g., urge to urinate, watching clock repeatedly)
  • Noises (e.g., acute intermittent beeps)

Because of that, it becomes ever more important for you to put some effort into sleep planning, so that you can prevent these disruptors from unnecessarily compromising your sleep quality.

Alternatively, if you wake up during sleep without any apparent disruptor but are still in need of sleep, then you might want to use the procedure outlined in the previous section to fall asleep quickly and preserve sleep efficiency.

But if on the other hand, you wake up from sleep and now find yourself no longer sleepy, then there's no need to be troubled by it. Instead, just stay in bed and use it towards some productive work such as planning — until sleepiness strikes you again.

Waking Up Properly

If you've made it this far, you've gone a long way in your sleep journey. In which case, all that's left to do is to wake up in a way it is supposed to be.

Here, the first principle is that you should wake up based on the extent to which your mind and body are replenished, and not on the amount of external distractions you've received.

Of course, this immediately means that you should not use an alarm — a known circadian rhythm disruptor — to wake you up, even though you're still free to use it as a backup, as long as you wake up a bit before it to turn it off.

On the other hand, you also want to prevent other external cues such as sunlight and human activities from inadvertently waking you up. For that, sleeping early at night and getting up before sunrise might be a way to mitigate that.

Now, since if you're not using any external cue to help you get up, you'd have to rely on yourself to make sure that you don't get up before you receive the rest you needed, and that you don't get up only after you've slept too much.

Fortunately, there's an easy thing you can do to figure out the ideal time to get up, and that is to simply move your head and your body slightly after awakening and observe how you would respond.

In particular, if doing so doesn't make you feel uncomfortable with heart palpitation or headache, then you know that it's time to get up. But if not, then you also know that you might have to stay in bed a bit to allow your body to recover a bit.

Whichever the case, you do want to spend some time in darkness and silence as soon as you get up, as it'll allow your body, brain, circulation and hormones to adjust to the day (and minimizes the effect of sleep inertia).

Ideal Sleeping Pattern

While one's sleeping timeframe can change along with age, chronotype, work schedule and environmental demands, there is also a sleeping pattern that is the most in sync with our environment and our biology.

In particular, we're talking about the pattern of getting up at dawn and sleeping early at night (e.g., sleeping from 10pm to 6am), as it allows us to optimize for both stimulations during waking hours and relaxations during sleep.

In fact, it's also no secret that many people have adopted this pattern to maximize their sleep efficiency and productivity. This includes the so-called "night owls", whose late sleeping is often found to be a result of a series of sleep-delaying habits.

In other words, in order to get up at dawn consistently, you need to be willing to structure your days to sleep early, but even with that, the nature of circadian rhythm is often such that you'll be back to your old schedule if you simply go cold turkey.

Because of that, what you want to do instead is to gradually advance your sleeping time each day by just a little bit (e.g., 30 minutes), and to keep up the effort until the desired sleeping and waking time is achieved.

Once there, all that's left to do is to sleep and get up at around the same time every day (including the weekends). This will allow your body to get used to the new rhythm, which will become easier and easier as time progresses.

In fact, with optimal sleeping timeframe and habits, there's a chance that you might not even need a nap to maintain your productivity. And even if a nap might still give you a short-term boost, doing so can also interfere with your ability to sleep later at night.

After all, naps are in many occasions pseudo-solutions for addressing heat/meal-induced tiredness and sleep deficit induced by our alarm-clock culture, and are very rarely a proper substitute for the restoration provided by a deep, undisrupted sleep.

The good news is, since you're no longer dependent on naps, you can now use the same time towards other tasks such as introspection. Doing so will allow you to better plan for your day, which enhances your clarity and prevents you from wasting your time.

Improving Sleep Every Day

As you've seen, optimizing sleep is a process that starts with the beginning of a day and ends with your waking on the next day. It's all about planning your activities and implementing your routines so that you can have your most restorative sleep at night.

Daily Activities

Night Activities

Pre-Sleep Routines

In-Sleep Routines

Waking Routines

But then, even if you think that you've nailed it, there is always room for improvement and tweaking. So every day, look for ways to make your sleep deeper and more continuous, as it'll allow you to function even more efficiently than your best days.

For example. if you notice that you sleep better when you run in the morning, then you might want to crank up the frequency of your running. But if you notice that chocolate can prevent you from falling asleep, then you might want to reduce its consumption a bit.

As you continue in your sleep optimization journey, there are going to be days where your sleep might not be as good as usual. But then, those could also be the days where you learn the most about your body — and how to best improve your sleep regime.

All in all, considering that you spend around a third of your days sleeping, this is really an area that you want to hone in. Not only will optimized sleep allow you to cut down many sources of inefficiencies, but it'll also allow you to live your life with more happiness, health and productivity.

Anything to say?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Join the Sustainabilitist Movement

Save yourself, save your community and save the world one step at a time.