Relax Like A Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep


I once went almost five days without sleep in 1996 just to see 1) if I could make a week (I couldn’t), and 2) what the side-effects would be.

I was a new neuroscience major at Princeton at the time and hoped to do research with famed serotonin pioneer, Barry Jacobs.

Hallucinations cut my sleep deprivation trial short, but I’ve continued to experiment with sleep optimization and variation as a means of improving performance.

Here are a few effective techniques and hacks I’ve picked up over the last five years from sources ranging from biochemistry PhDs to biologists at Stanford University…

1. Consume 150-250 calories of low-glycemic index foods in small quantities (low glycemic load) prior to bed.

Morning fatigue and headache isn’t just from sleep debt or poor sleep. Low blood sugar following overnight fasting is often a contributing factor. Just prior to bed, have a small snack such as: a few sticks of celery with almond butter, a mandarin orange and 5-8 almonds, or plain low-fat (not fat-free) yoghurt and an apple. Ever wonder how you can sleep 8-10 hours and feel tired? This is part of the explanation. Make a pre-bed snack part of your nutritional program.

1-2 tablespoons of flaxseed oil (120-240 calories) can be used in combination with the above to further increase cell repair during sleep and thus decrease fatigue. It tastes like a mixture of cat urine and asparagus, so I recommend pinching your nose while consuming it — thanks Seth Roberts, PhD. for this tip — or using capsules.

2. Use ice baths to provoke sleep.

Japanese have longer lifespans that do most other ethnicities. One theory has been that regular ofuro or hot baths at bedtime increase melatonin release, which extends lifespan. Paradoxically, according to the Stanford professors who taught Bio 50, cold is actually a more effective signaller for sleep onset, but it could have no relation to melatonin production.

I decided to test the effect of combining 10-minute ice baths, timed with a countdown kitchen timer, one hour prior to bed (closer to bed and the adrenergic response of noradrenalin, etc. won’t allow you to sleep) with low-dose melatonin (1.5 – 3 mg) on regulating both sleep regularity and speed to sleep. The icebath is simple: 2-3 bags of ice from a convenience store ($3-6 USD) put into a half-full bath until the ice is about 80% melted. Beginners should start with immersing the lower body only and progress to spending the second five minutes with the upper torso submerged (fold your legs Indian-style at the end of the tub if you don’t have room). I’ll talk about the fat-loss and sperm-count benefits of this in future post.

The result: it’s like getting hit with an elephant tranquilizer. Don’t expect it to be pleasant at first.

3. Eating your meals at set times can be as important as sleeping on a schedule.

People talk a lot about circadian (circa dia = approximately one day) rhythms and establishing a regular sleep schedule, but bedtime timing is just one “zeitgeber” (lit: time giver), or stimulus that synchronizes this biorhythm (like pheromones and menstrual cycle). Eating meals at set times helps regulate melatonin, ghrelin, leptin, and other hormones that affect sleep cycles. Other “zeitgebers” for sleep include melatonin, light, and temperature. Parting suggestion: Get a sleep mask if you have any degree of light in your bedroom.

4. Embrace 20-minute caffeine naps and ultradian multiples.

Test “caffeine naps” between 1-3 pm. Down an espresso and set your alarm for no more than 20 minutes, which prevents awakening in the middle of a restorative sleep cycle. Interrupting cycles often leaves you feeling worse than no sleep (though some researchers assert your performance will still improve in comparison with deprivation).

For longer naps, test multiples of 90 minutes, which is called an “ultradian” rhythm in some papers, though the proper term should be “infradian” since it’s less than 24 hours. Thomas Edison, despite his vocal disdain for sleep and claim to sleep only four hours per night, is reported to have taken two three-hour naps daily.

Don’t forget to factor in your time-to-sleep. It often takes me up to an hour to fall asleep, so I’ll set my alarm for seven hours ((4 x 90 minutes) + 60-minute time-to-sleep).

5. Turn off preoccupation with afternoon closure and present-state training.

I have — as do most males in my family — what is called “onset insomnia.” I don’t have trouble staying asleep, but I have a difficult time falling asleep, sometime laying awake in bed for 1-2 hours. There are two approaches that I’ve used with good effect without medications to address this: 1) Determine and set a top priorities to-do list that afternoon for the following day to avoid late-night planning, 2) Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention. Recommendations for compulsive non-fiction readers include Motherless Brooklyn and Stranger in a Strange Land.

From fat-loss (leptin release decreases with sleep debt) to memory consolidation, sleep is the currency of high-performance living.

Have you taken time to master it like a skill?

Here are a few questions for the researchers among you:

-What is the fastest way to pay off sleep debt?
-Can you eat more food — or protein specfically — to compensate for sleep deprivation? To what degree?
-How do side-effects of ongoing melatonin use compare to drugs like Ambien?
-What is the interplay of the hypothalamus and RAS (reticular activating system)?
-Does insulin sensitivity change between waking and sleep cycles? How?
-Can coffee and its effects on adenosine affect sleep depth or length?

Sweet dreams.


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Posted on: January 27, 2008.

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303 comments on “Relax Like A Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep

  1. some are probably thinking: ice bath before bed will keep me up all night but as tim says
    “it’s like getting hit with an elephant tranquilizer. Don’t expect it to be pleasant at first.”
    great words tim


  2. Great post Tim! 5 days is a crap load of time without sleep. I usually break down and sleep for 18 hours after going 2 days without it. I personally resent sleeping and try to keep it to a minimum, so thanks for the interesting tips and theories.


  3. I am embarking on a 30-day polyphasic sleep schedule as of today, and chronicling it all at howtohackyoursleep dot com. It’s much like you suggest here, but more regimented, and allows for even more free time, in theory. There is also a slight Tyler Derdanesque risk to the whole venture, which I’m okay with. :)

    Look forward to your thoughts!


  4. Has anyone figured out how to deal with Middle of the Night Insomnia? The blog post and book really only deal with Onset Insomnia. I wake up at 4 am every morning…


  5. After reading your post I realized my I had to address my frequent wake up headaches. My husband complains I snore, so I went to my doctor and he ordered a set of neck and head xrays and to drop weight. I also mentioned having trouble controlling my body temperature. As crazy as it sounds, thyroid problems seem to run in the family and this genetic time bomb might just be rearing its ugly head, so I a getting that checked as well because my weight issues could also be due to this.
    I have never had sleep problems, so I will take your info into account and start the cold showers, and although I have also woken up with headaches after bingeing on ice cream and desserts before going to bed, or overeating protein, I will try the light snacks you mention.
    Thank you for your posts


  6. Hey tim!

    Thanks to mr.Rogan i ended up reading both of your books and changes have been made! I have a concern about this ice baths though , is ice really necessary? in your 4hbody book, you talk about the minimum amount required , could that apply to cold water vs ice baths? …
    Hope to hear back from you, or at least one of them outsourcing kind assistants!
    Keep up the good work.
    Ps: its 11pm here, i will start my oscar wilde books, take care tim!


  7. About an hour before bedtime, we started a nightly relaxation routine that includes reading, taking a bath or anything else that can be considered soothing. Completing all exercises at least three hours before bedtime and not looking at screens before we go to sleep, which of course stimulates your brain. We implemented this for me, my wife and my children which has helped all of us and made all the difference in the world. It also helped with their concentration and school work. We even made sure to stay on these schedules during summer break and which has helped to make it a part of their everyday lives.


  8. Ice -bath and wine
    Hi there, I ve tried the ice bath yesterday, – problem being that in spite of ice bags I could not get the temperature to below 17 C, which I guess does not make an “ice bath”.
    Which brings me to another point, if someone could help please: In 4 HB, some suggestions are down to ‘micrograme’, while others are surprisingly unspecific: I.e., – What is the SUGGESTED TEMPERATURE for an ice bath Tim?
    Likewise when speaking about wine. What’s ‘2 glasses”? In some people’s lives that’s 2 standard units and in others’ double that.
    Any suggestions anyone? THanks! :)


  9. Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful information particularly the ultimate section :) I take care of such info a lot. I was seeking this particular info for a very lengthy time. Thank you and good luck.


  10. I’m interested on how to relax like a pro. I’m 20 years old and I’m having a hard time to sleep. Thanks to this post It helped me alot.


  11. Interesting – Just wondering why almond butter for sleep and not any other nut butter? Is there a particular reason to use almonds?


  12. These tips seem very helpful and I’m eager to try all of them out. I’ve been having a difficult time sleeping for the past few months and I think I may already have insomnia. Getting to have enough sleep is really important to me because I get drained and burnt out easily if I don’t. Thanks for this post. Hopefully I’ll get my sleep back.


  13. I have been implementing your tips since I saw you on Dr. Oz and they have helped a lot. The only thing I haven’t tried is the ice bath. Might try that when summer rolls around. We do keep the house cool at night during the winter – at 57. I find I sleep much better in a cool room with blankets than keeping the heat up. Saves money too.


  14. I am 22 years old and have been yawning all day long have having sore/tired eyes. I am sleeping 8-12 hours a day and find it hard to stay awake 10-12 hours! Im going to implement this for a week and if I don’t see improvement I will make a sleep doctor appointment.


  15. Benny lewis, explains that you can sleep just 5-6 hours and do a siesta for 20 minutes in the afternoon (like after lunch).
    He says you should try it for 2 weeks before getting adapted to it.
    What do you say about this? do you also use this method or you think you shoiuld sleep more if possible?


  16. I also suffer from difficulty falling asleep and these are great tips. What has helped me recently is: no screen time 1-2 hours before bed, esp. portable devices; brief yoga and meditation practice seems to chill me right out; and if I have any energy left, actually reading some (challenging) non-fiction, i.e. Jane Jacobs Cities and the Wealth of Nations…after about 10 pages I’m done for. Fiction, however, I can stay awake all night for!


  17. What’s the ideal weight of ice or water temperature for weight loss?
    In the book and on CBS, you suggest 20lb and on AskMen you say 30lb. And are there diminishing returns after 3 times a week?


  18. Hello Tim,

    I’m a sleep tech. Was watching this talk at 42:22; that you’re talking to devices makers about getting EEG data. I think I have an idea that might get you something excellent for people to get REAL accurate sleep data for their reports. It involves DIY methods on the cheap, models being sold for those who don’t want to play with wires and an open source platform.

    Let me know if you’re interested.


  19. Hi Tim, thanks for the post. I tried all of these in the past to improve my sleep and by far the technique that worked best is to use yellow glasses before going to bed. It completely changed my life and I’ve been recommending them to everyone with great success. Detailed explanation below.

    From an evolutionary perspective, Nature made us sleep in the night to avoid falling prey to animals which we could not see. So light regulates our sleep cycle: we are awake with light and fall asleep without it.

    We have three light receptors in the eye: red, green, and blue, which is why those are the primary colors. It’s only the blue light and the blue receptor that control the sleep cycle, probably because the sky is blue and that is the most abundant color during the day.

    So an easy way to stay awake in a long road trip is to have small blue lamps in the car, and an easy way to get better sleep is to wear yellow or amber glasses that remove the blue. I use them one hour before bed each evening, fall asleep faster, and sleep better. It is important to keep the yellow glasses until you turn off the light, otherwise the hormonal system stops producing melatonin and needs some time to start again. This medical experiment revealed that amber glasses help to sleep better, and amber works better than yellow:

    I also found that they help with jet lag: if you fly eastward and want to spread a 5-hour jet lag over several days, you can use the glasses in the evening for one hour before bed two days before, two hours before bed the day before, then two hours after bed the day after, and one hour after bed two days after.

    Any yellow glasses that cut out the blue will work. It’s low-tech and costs under $15 (e.g., SolarShield or UVEX).


  20. The reason why you have trouble falling asleep at night is because you take espresso at 1pm! Don’t take any caffeine before noon if you are sensitive to caffeine! The half life of caffeine is 6 hours, so even after 24 hours, you still have 12.5% left in your system.


  21. I do not sleep much due to an intrusive thoughts which I have almost no power to stop and the things I do online. I will try your advice . Thx.


  22. Never before heard of a steam shower enclosure up until I stumbled on this incredible website, so pleased
    I did really would like one now and finances permitting will be buying one pretty soon