We all know that a sufficient amount of high quality sleep nightly, is an essential pillar of longevity. Sleep resets our ability to function at our best, both physically and cognitively. And it’s essential for our body’s ability to perform necessary internal maintenance processes that allow our cells to regenerate.
In our search for some science-backed tips on how to quickly improve sleep quality, we came across this episode of Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast. Huberman is one of our new favorite health & longevity gurus. He is a Neurobiology professor at Stanford University and the head of The Huberman Lab which is focused on understanding how the brain works, how it can change through experience, and how to repair brain circuits damaged by injury or disease.
Below are Huberman’s top sleep hacks. You can quickly upgrade the quality of your zzz's by implementing these easy tips.
1. Adjust Caffeine Intake to Increase Sleep Hunger
Sleep and wakefulness are influenced by a number of factors. One of the key drivers for sleep is adenosine, an organic molecule that builds up during wakefulness and creates a desire to sleep (sleep hunger). Popular sleep advice suggests avoiding caffeine after 2pm and for good reason. Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist. This means that it blocks adenosine receptors so that the adenosine molecules cannot bind to them. When this happens, there is no gradual rise in adenosine and subsequent increase in sleep hunger. Once the caffeine is metabolized, the receptors are freed, and you experience the infamous “caffeine crash”. Some individuals are more sensitive to caffeine than others and since the stimulant can negatively affect sleep hunger, you may need to experiment to learn how caffeine affects your body and your ability to sleep at night.
2. Get Sunlight Early in The Day to Regulate Sleep Hormones
The circadian rhythm (internal clock) helps govern sleep; it dictates when our bodies want to be asleep and when we want to be awake. But thanks to the demands and distractions that drive our modern lifestyles it’s easier than ever to disrupt our natural sleep/wake cycle. The good news is that we have inputs that can help shift our internal clock and none are more powerful than light.
As the only direct input to our internal clocks, light has the ability to influence the balance of our two key sleep hormones—cortisol and melatonin. In a normal sleep/wake cycle, the body will wake within 3 hours of sunrise and receive its first cortisol pulse. The combination of cortisol with epinephrine (from the kidneys) serves as our wakeup call—it gets us up and moving and ready to start the day. This first release of cortisol needs to happen early in the sleep/wake cycle because cortisol determines when the body will release our other sleep hormone, melatonin. Typically, the internal clock tells the body to secrete melatonin 12-14 hours after that first cortisol pulse. Melatonin is released from the pineal gland and as the concentrations increase in the body, we become sleepy.
This internal hormone system is set by external cues, which is why light is the most important influence on the sleep/wake cycle. When we first wake up, retinal ganglion cells, a type of neuron found in the lower half of the retina, respond to light—most specifically, morning light because of its low solar angle and its particular combination of reds and blues. When morning light is perceived by these neurons, a signal is sent to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (the home of our internal clock) which tells the rest of the body to get up and start moving.
To keep your internal clock on track or reset it if your sleep/wake cycle is erratic, try to get outside and view sunlight as close to waking as possible for around 2-10 minutes. If you live in an area where you can’t get outside or daylight is scarce, you can stay outside for longer (15-30 minutes) or purchase an artificial light like the Circadian Optics Light Therapy Lamp($50)and sit near it for 10-15 minutes every morning.
3. Time Nonphotic Inputs
Aside from sunlight, certain nonphotic inputs like exercise and food can also affect our internal clocks. Once you have morning light exposure down, try timing your exercise so that it occurs early in the day; this can help reset an erratic internal clock. Restricting your feeding window can also help reset your clock. Everyone is different and has a slightly different sleep/wake cycle, but if you’d like specific tips on how to time your meals, check out The Circadian Code ($9).
4. Be Mindful of Sunset
Like sunrise, viewing the sunset or getting exposure to light for 2-10 minutes in the late afternoon can influence sleep hormones. It’s well documented that bright light exposure can inhibit the release of melatonin. Viewing the sunset (which also has a low solar angle) can mitigate the negative effects of light on melatonin levels by providing the external input the body needs to signal to the internal clock that nighttime is approaching.
5. Be Careful About Light Access and Placement
One negative effect of our “always on” society is that light is always readily accessible and oftentimes shining well into the night. Light exposure at night, particularly blue light emanating from phones and screens, inhibits the release of melatonin which keeps us awake for longer, and the longer we stay awake, the easier it is to have our sleep pattern disrupted. For that reason, it’s important to get as little light as possible after 8pm and be sure that you don’t have any bright light exposure between 11p-4a. Research suggests that we are especially susceptible to the negative effects of bright light between these hours because of the habenula, a structure inside of the thalamus. Occasionally getting up in the middle of the night and turning on a light is unlikely to cause a problem, but chronic exposure to bright light during this crucial time affects the release of dopamine and can cause mood disorders, anxiety, problems focusing, and trouble forming memories and learning new information.
If you have to use lights at night, place them low in your environment. The ganglion cells that trigger the release of cortisol are located in the bottom half of your retina, which makes them responsible for your upper field of vision. By placing lights low, you can avoid accidentally shifting your internal clock.
6. Use The Sleep Hormone System to Create New Sleep/Wake Habits
Poor sleeping hygiene and poor sleep quality can make it difficult to wake up in the morning. If you find yourself chronically tired due to either of those reasons, use your own internal system to help get yourself back on track by exposing yourself to light prior to your wake up time. Research has shown that you can phase advance your internal clock even if your eyes are closed. The presence of light in a previously dark room is enough to start to stimulate the sleep/wake cycle and in a few days time, it’s likely that you’ll find it easier to wake up.
7. Reconsider Melatonin Supplements
Melatonin is a popular natural sleep aid, but Dr. Huberman is far from an advocate because of the hormone's effects on the endocrine system. In children and adolescents, melatonin supplementation can interfere with key hormones responsible for onset and development during puberty and can actually delay normal development. In adults, supplementing melatonin can affect other hormone systems which can alter metabolism, blood pressure, and mood. Melatonin is also not an effective aid for helping you to stay asleep and because it’s a supplement and isn’t regulated, you may be getting a drastically different dosage than is listed on the bottle. Matt Walker, a prominent neuroscientist and sleep guru, performed one study that showed over-the-counter melatonin has dosages ranging between 15-400% of what is listed on the bottle.
If you’re looking for an alternative to melatonin, you might consider trying one of these safe sleep supplements instead:
- Magnesium can have positive effects on sleep by increasing GABA and relaxing the mind. More specifically, magnesium threonate is associated with transport systems in the body that allow a higher concentration of magnesium into the cells. To use this supplement, Dr. Huberman suggests taking 300-400 mg at least 30-60 min before bedtime.
- Theanine is another supplement that has been shown to help with relaxation. It is often added to energy drinks to curb the stimulatory effects of ingredients like taurine and caffeine. Dr. Huberman suggests taking 200 mg at least 30-60 mins before bedtime. Note: Sleepwalkers should not take this supplement as it is known to cause vivid dreams.
- Apigenin is a derivative of chamomile and supports relaxation and sleepiness. To use this supplement, Dr. Huberman suggests taking 50 mg at least 30-60 mins before bedtime.
Note: Apigenin is an estrogen inhibitor and is not recommended for women and should be used with caution in men.
Go Deeper: For additional information on these or other sleep aids, visit Examine to view peer reviewed studies and warnings on supplements.
What are some of your favorite sleep hacks? Would you try any of these? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
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