The Cave

No, not Plato’s Cave. I haven’t felt sufficiently philosophical lately to tackle such deep topics!

Rather, this is another post in my series about what I do to improve brain function … or at least to keep it from getting any worse! Previously I discussed my experiments with nutritional supplements and exercise. This time I will talk about a subject even nearer and dearer to my heart: sleep.

(I know, I know. You thought I’d abandoned the series because I haven’t posted on this subject in weeks. Well, I still have things to share – at least two more posts after this one. I need to prioritize writing, that’s all!)

I have always taken sleep very, very seriously, even before I started focusing on mental performance. Originally I cherished the belief that if I could get perfect quality sleep, I would need less sleep. And if I slept less, I would finally have the time to master my ever-increasing to-do list.

I even briefly tried polyphasic sleep, but found it too hard to fit around a “normal” life of a day job, commuting, and family. (Maybe I’ll try again if my life stops being normal.) All in the name of getting more done!

Even though I no longer treat sleep as the solution to my to-do list, I am still passionate about sleep. I have learned over the years that my brain function is intimately tied to my sleep quality. Some “star achievers” brag about sleeping only a few hours every night, or starting every day at 4 a.m. – even on weekends! – but this is not me. Having experimented so long with my sleep (even using a FitBit for a while), I know I need seven hours each night, no exceptions. Eight is better. I call it my beauty sleep, because I am a monster when I  get less. Ask my family!  Just last week I was wide awake for 1.5 hours in the middle of the night, and I wasn’t sure my marriage would survive the next day. And not just quantity; quality matters too. A quick internet will turn up a gazillion hits on the link between sleep and brain function … slightly more than links for exercise and  brain function!

So what have I tried to improve my sleep?

First and foremost, I manage the levels of light in my bedroom. Intensely. I basically sleep in a cave. Starting with electronics. I almost bought little stickers to paste over the lights (Head Strong mentioned them) but thankfully they were out of stock at the time. This meant I could implement the free solution instead – just remove the electronics. That’s right. No night lights, no alarm clocks, no LEDs or other insidious little sources of light, except one power strip banished to underneath the bed where its feeble light is blocked from sleeping eyes. We recently installed a new skylight with a remote controlled shade, since we had to replace the roof anyway, and that has helped keep out ambient light from the night sky as well. My smartphone is always face-down on the bedside table. Always.

Speaking of the smartphone, I always put it in airplane mode before going to sleep. I don’t know to what extent the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emanated by smart phones impact sleep, but it’s easy enough to do, so why not? Especially since the phone so close to my head anyway… better to be safe than sorry. Because it now serves as my alarm clock, I cannot just banish it from the bedroom, as much as I might like to.

I also try keeping the bedroom relatively cool, and use a ceiling fan to keep the air circulating.

In addition engineering the environment for optimal sleep, what one eats and drinks also plays a role in sleep quality.  I appear to be particularly sensitive to stimulants. I never drink caffeine after lunch, and have recently cut back to just one cup of coffee a day – occasionally followed by a cup of black tea on mornings when I am really struggling. Whenever I am sick and congested, I will only take over-the-counter medicines with pseudoephedrine in the morning. Recently I also learned that cordyceps tea also interferes with my sleep if I drink it at any point in the afternoon. (Which means if I ever need to pull an all-nighter, I know exactly how to do it!)

I am also careful about how late I eat, and how much alcohol I consume (at least on nights when I know I have to wake up early, or high pressure days when I know I have to be on my “A” game). Both late night snacks and alcohol can interfere with how deeply one sleeps.

In my last brain-function post, I referenced several nutritional supplements that I used for brain function: n-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and phosphatidylserine (aka PS) and high dose magnesium. These work together to both help me fall asleep, and stay asleep, and sleep more deeply. I will sometimes cycle off of the supplements – which is a polite way of saying that I forget to order a new bottle before I run out, and then take a break for a week or two before buying more. These three are the ones I keep coming back to, though, because they really seem to help.

Not every technique I’ve used has turned into a habit, unfortunately. The one change I’ve struggled with the most is managing my late-evening-blue-light exposure. Late night blue light interferes with the body’s internal clock, which can interrupt sleep cycles. I spend far too long each day staring at various glowing screens – like most Americans, honestly. It’s the computer, it’s the cell phone, it’s watching TV or movie with the family. I would love to reduce my blue-screen-time, I really would. I just… you know, don’t. I tried software which adds a yellow tint to a computer screen or phone screen, but never saw enough benefit to put up with the colors looking funny. I even own amber safety glasses that fit over my regular glasses to filter out blue light wherever I look. Yeah, don’t even ask me where they are now!

Additionally, there are two sleep improvement techniques I do not plan to try. One is sleeping on an earthing mat. I’m not willing to invest that kind of money for technology to replace something that should be natural. Granted, in the winter it is particularly hard to get enough earthing time – time spent in direct contact with the earth’s surface. But buying a product to replace that natural connection just seems so wrong.

The other change I won’t make: rising at the same time every day, even on the weekend. If you can do this naturally, it indicates that you are getting enough sleep. Some folks recommend you force yourself to follow this practice because consistent sleep habits help reinforce quality sleep. Personally, I take the opposite approach. If I don’t have to wake up, then I am going to sleep until my body says it’s ready to wake up!

4 comments

  1. Wow… I thought an earthing mat was a bag you could put earth from your yard in, so you could sleep on your earth like a vampire in his coffin. But the truth is even stranger! An earthing mat is plugged into the ground terminal of an electrical outlet, which then supposedly leads into the ground! I bet the ground outlets in my 8th floor condo don’t lead down into the earth.

    I am reading the book “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival”, which is all about sleep and diurnal rhythms. The most radical book I ever read; the authors think we went wrong with the taming of fire (really!). But in between what (hopefully) may be hyperbole, they make a persuasive point that our bodies respond to sunlight just as intensely as plants do; sunrise and sunset are dramatic events in our body’s daily life. Electrical lights surrounding us confuse the many layers of autonomous systems that keep our body on point.

    I haven’t emptied my bedroom of gadgets, but I do sleep with a blindfold now; my wife found a psychedelic tie-dye blindfold that says “Spaced Out” on the outside. It seems to help. I will look into magnesium, NAC, and PS… I am on the same caffeine and sugar regimen as you: only before lunch.

  2. Ah, I may have to track down a copy of “Lights Out”, that sounds like an excellent read! And I forgotten to mention my own abandoned attempt at using a sleep mask. Every time I tried it, I kid you not, I ended up with an eyelash in my eye during the night. I would wake the next morning looking like I had a case of pink eye! I gave up after the third try.

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