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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. I have played around with sleep cycle manipulation, to varying degrees of success.

    I have tried several 30 day trials (based on the poly-phasic sleep study conducted by Steve Pavlina at his site) and have settled on a bi-phasic approach of roughly 4.5 hours of core sleep and 90 minutes of afternoon “siesta”.

    This cycle has left me more energetic than ever before and fits perfectly in with my family life and online work schedule (I have a great night shift without interruption from my wife or 3 kids and I am recharged from my power nap for when the kids get home from school).

    To everyone, do some research and consider a 30 day “lifestyle design” trial with your sleep/awake cycles, you may be very surprised (positively) with the results.



    • Hi, Thanks for your post. What time of night do you go to sleep and what time of day do you take your nap? Does it have to be the same time everyday? Aren’t you tired until after the nap with only 4.5 hours of core sleep at night? What if you don’t sleep well during the core sleep or nap? Finally, does it take getting used to and if so, how long?




  2. Tim,

    I’m interested in seeing the results of the questions at the end of the post when they are available.

    It’s kind of strange that this post popped up in my RSS reader right now — I was just contemplating why I was waking up in the morning with headaches for the past few days. I’m convinced that it is from not eating a meal prior to bed now. I thought it could have been from over sleep, but the fact that I cannot get 7 hours of sleep right now without an alarm clock and my diet has also changed (not eating before bed) I think you are right. Food!

    On a side note, I have found melatonin to be very effective at helping resetting my “clock” subsequent to a trip with a time zone change.

    I’m up for experimenting with some of those questions at the end, though. Especially the “eating more protein to compensate for sleep deprivation”.

    Thanks, Jeremy


  3. Hey Tim,
    What is the thinking behind taking caffeine right before a nap, is it restorative? Seems counter-intuitive to down coffee when you are trying to rest.

    great post though, it would certainly be interesting to figure out how to sleep better!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Caffeine takes 15-20 minutes to start having an effect. A short 15 minute nap also leaves you waking up after the “rest” stage of the sleep cycle, so you are waking up rested just as the caffeine is kicking in.


  4. the idea is that the caffeine doesn’t kick in until when you’re about done with your 20 minute nap, so you’re refreshed, plus caffeinated…


  5. The “caffeine nap” is an interesting idea. I’m aware of the 90 minute sleep cycle, but I read somewhere that if you can’t sleep for 90 minutes, always sleep for less than an hour. Not sure what this is based on though.

    Tim, do you have any sources you can recommend that led you to these tips? Or was it primarily personal experimentation?


    Hi Teresa,

    It’s a combination of personal experimentation, conversations with a few sports specialists, and Q&A with the professors who taught Bio 50 at Stanford a year or two ago. If you search “PubMed” on Google, you can find a great index of recent research as well.



  6. For a time in my early 20’s I owned a new business that took about 70 hrs/week out of me. To pay the bills I worked at Domino’s Pizza 4 nights a week in another city 30 minutes away so my customers wouldn’t know I had to moonlight.

    I would drive up there at 7pm dog tired. Finally I bought an alarm clock and took 10 minute naps in the seat of my Nissan pickup at a rest stop midway between jobs. It was uncomfortable but I woke up completely refreshed each time.

    One day I left my alarm clock out of the truck but knew I had to have the nap. I looked at my watch and laid down. My eyes popped open and my watch read exactly 10 minutes later. After that I could always take a nap and sleep exactly 10 minutes without a clock, except for one variable.

    I decided to sleep at home one time. My brain recognized the different location and I slept for 90 minutes.

    The most incredible thing is that before this, it would take me an hour or so to fall asleep each night. Since then I fall asleep within 30 seconds of laying down 95% of the time and rarely lay in bed for more than 5 minutes before falling asleep.

    One last thing about the sleeping brain. I have been able to consistently ignore noises such as other’s alarm clock. I will wake up to mine but no one else’s. I even traded alarm clocks with my girlfriend and now wake up to the one for me but not hers. Nothing I did on purpose, just lucky.


  7. The caffeine nap works for me–I discovered it quite by accident in college–but for the life of me I don’t know why. Anyone have a clue?

    Meanwhile, I too would love to see the answers to some of those questions Time posed at the end…


  8. Getting to sleep (something I need to do in a few minutes) is key to getting up early, which is key to everything else. So… here’s my latest hacks which I just discovered:

    1. Count backwards starting at 100 or say the alphabet backwards. This takes the mind off worrisome things just enough for it to turn off.

    2. Listen to relaxing music. There’s a great CD that I just discoved called: “Bedtime Beats”. It a bunch of classical music that just makes me feel instantly sleepy as soon as I hear it.


  9. Tim,

    Interesting post, as a sleep specialist I would like to add a few comments:

    1) The Glycemic Index is always a topic of discussion, the data is quite interesting. If you go for High GI foods do it about 4 hours before bed, anything after that should be low GI foods. It basically falls around the idea of a sugar high and then crash. It is, as is everything, all in the timing.

    2) In fact I have not heard of this one before, but rather that HOT baths will raise core body temp then causing a drop, which is a signal to release Melatonin. But thinking about it, if you can be a polar bear, and get your body cold quickly it may work. However, be careful data has shown that sleeping in areas below 65 degrees can be disruptive to sleep.

    3) Great advice, I could not agree more!

    4) What I have been calling the “Caff-Nap” in my book (shameless plug here) Beauty Sleep is exactly what you are discussing. However I would add that espresso is not the drink of choice here but regular drip coffee (much higher caff content) and it should be luke warm (trying to fall asleep with burns on the roof of your mouth, just ain’t easy).

    5) This too is great advice, remember to also mention to people that the light source that they are reading with can in fact effect sleep. I ask patients to change the bedside table lamp to a 40 Watt bulb, or use a book light (check out the lightwedge, very cool).

    A while back I was asked to comment on Uberman and his sleep schedule in a blog called Health Hacks, it was an interesting discussion.

    Great post, keep them comming.

    The Sleep Doctor


  10. I take a 20 minute nap at the end of my lunch break every day mon – fri … after drinking a skinny mocha ( two shots espresso , 1tbsp hersheys cocoa, 1tbsp hersheys dark cocoa, 2 tbsp sugar , 1/4 cup fat free land o lakes half/half —

    I go to sleep just fine … and wake up like I have slept for 39 years!!! … ok , well for about two hours ( seriously! )

    In other words, .. something is working. That ‘lunch espresso nap’ gives me some serious recharge.

    I challenge everyone to try it and compare the results .. it is more than a little unusual… very interesting isn’t it??


  11. I’ve found the single best thing to do is get outside light for 1-2 hrs early in the morning. At least one hour, optimally two hours. If you can’t actually be outside, sitting by a window seems to help. I’m outside on my porch (in the shade) every morning, working on my laptop. Sometimes I stand.


  12. My sleep cycles are incredibly unpredictable due to severe insomnia, but on week nights I get an average of 4 or 5 hours of sleep. It’s important for me to have one sleep-in day a week, otherwise I’ll burn out in about 10 days. That “day of rest” is a Biblical principle, and really helps.

    In response to Mike (above)… Sometimes I can wake up to an internal alarm clock, but often it’s the other way around. I can predict when I’ll fall asleep and how much sleep I won’t get in any particular night.


  13. I have sleep-onset insomnia and just wanted to add – light yoga and meditation helps me a lot more than reading or else I’ll stay up all night thinking about Martians and Heinlein. I’m glad it works for you, though.


  14. By experience,I don’t believe the cafeine effect per itself. I read recently that now researchers consider sensitivity to cafeine disappear when one becomes a regular user. That makes sense.

    My opinion is adults are like toddlers that will sleep if you give them their teddy bear, and will wake up fully after drinking cocoa. We are just more complex because we have different sorts of bears and morning drinks. I let you play with the ice bath teddy bear.

    I control pretty well my sleep, and don’t need more than 4 hours a night. Unfortunately, I’m not Edison.
    How do I do ? I can’t tell. I got used to it when I was a busy student and had to get up at 5, while I couldn’t sleep until midnight at best. Like Mike, after a while I saw I could do it on demand.

    **What is the fastest way to pay off sleep debt?

    Probably pranayama or similar energetic breathing practice.
    You may also need to drink water as deshydratation is common in modern life, do strectching, close your eyes, take a micro-nap, massage to stimulate muscles or skin. Eating ? I’m not so sure, you certainly feel more hungry for junk food when tired, but you probably shouldn’t eat more.

    About your number 1. Isn’t your flaxseed oil stale ? Be careful it can become toxic if kept too long and not stored properly in the fridge. Maybe that’s just a question of quality. Mine is sold a crazy price, but it tastes like oil, not good but not bad nor smelly. It’s tasty on a salad.


  15. Tim,

    From what I’ve read, the key is both getting to the right core temperature and having a declining temperature gradient as one goes down to the feet. The reason people take hot baths an hour before bed is to stimulate peripheral circulation. Then, once down, that helps to cool things off more rapidly. Ditto the use of foot warmers in the winter. They’d warm your feet, get the circ. going and then the feet would cool more quickly and you’d get the gradient vs. your already cold core.

    A few references are listed below.

    I’m still experimenting with my own sleep patterns out of desire for more productivity. Meanwhile, I wish you luck with your insomnia.

    Tigard, Oregon

    Physiology & Behavior
    Volume 90, Issue 4, 16 March 2007, Pages 643-647

    International Journal of Nursing Studies
    Volume 42, Issue 7, September 2005, Pages 717-722

    Volume 25, Issue 5, Supplement 1, November 2001, Pages S92-S96


    • JR,

      My impression of heat therapy modalities is more of a/muscle relaxant for insomnia as opposed to increase in peripheral circulation %/or core temperature decline. Most patients report best sleep with warm bed and cool air in winter, I don’t think lowering body core temperature prior to sleep is therapeutic, unless you are being sedated for brain injury.
      I totally understand the caffeine nap as it is great way to hit liquid snooze button.
      I function best with 4-5 hr block of sleep with 30-45 min power nap. It destresses and gives 2nd wind.



  16. Hi,

    I have never tried the ice bath, but that’s now on my must try list! What I do however is take a colder than usual shower before going to sleep. This gently cools you down and sends the right signals to your body.

    Also check out NapSounds (link above) if you want help with power napping. Voice guidance and binaural beats are quite helpful to bring you in and out of sleep in a very short time.

    Sebastien – NapSounds


  17. This is a brilliant post. I’ve been thinking about the subject a lot in the past months, trying to figure out the post-waking headache and nausea. Been struggling with the onset-insomnia all my life as well.

    What I’ve recently started doing, (and it works really well) is to drink 1-2 cups of Lemon balm tea one hour before sleep – it induces a pleasant relaxed feeling that gets me ready. Turning off all audiovisual stimuli – no music, no movies – during this time is a must as well. I had the extremely bad habit of listening to high-energy music and turning it off just moments before going to bed – no wonder I couldn’t fall asleep for 3-4 hours at minimum. Nowadays, I just read fiction – if, for any reason, sleep won’t come, at least there’s a good feeling of doing something constructive.

    Do you think that the caff-nap works with yerba mate/green/black tea as well? Is there any difference between coffee or tea that’s relevant?


    • not a scientific reference, but this article from a local tea shop here in az gives an interesting explanation of the difference between coffee and tea caffiene-wise. (i know this post is 2 years old, but i’m here now, ja?) i haven’t looked into this further but can tell from personal experience there is a big difference; i can tolerate an almost unlimited amount of caffienated tea but one cup of coffee and i thrash-and-crash.
      here’s the link to the full post, fyi (and quote beneath):

      The caffeine in tea is called theine (tay-eene) and metabolizes differently in the body than the caffeine in coffee. Researchers found, for example, that the high content of antioxidants found in tea slows the absorption of caffeine, resulting in a gentler effect that seems to last longer and does not end with the abrupt let-down often experienced with coffee.

      Besides caffeine, tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine (L-tay ah neen). L-theanine is relaxing and counteracts the stimulating effects of caffeine by increasing those neurotransmitters in the brain whose overall effect is to quiet brain activity. Instead of getting the jitters, tea drinkers experience a sense of calm with improved brain function. Recent studies also show that L-theanine may help protect the liver, alleviate high blood pressure and improve immune system function.