Three Simple Ways That I Optimize My Sleep

sleepGood sleep is one of the cornerstones of good health and I have been experimenting for the last few years with ways to optimize my sleep. The more I started reading about sleep the more I realized that the sleep habits of modern humans are completely out of whack with how our ancestors evolved. In the past, I’ve struggled to feel rested when waking up, to get enough sleep at night, and even if I was able to get a good amount of sleep it wasn’t always good quality sleep. In college I had so much going on between school, work, social events, and being a volunteer firefighter that one year when I went home for Thanksgiving, I slept for 17 hours straight the first night I was there. My parents kept checking on me to make sure I was breathing.

In a 2012 study [1], 30% of working adults were getting less than six hours of sleep. Fifty years ago it was less than 3%. Technology has decoupled us from the 24 hour cycle our bodies evolved with, mainly using the sunrise and sunset, and has pushed us to go to bed later and wake up earlier than anytime in history. It all started with the invention of the light bulb allowing us to do things – anything actually – past sunset. It’s only been in the last 100 years of human history that we stopped relying on the sunrise and sunset to set our body clocks.

Here are three simple ways that I optimize my sleep based on scientific research.

1. Sleep In A Pitch Black Room

Why: Before the light bulb the only lights at night were the stars and the moon. Essentially night time was always pitch black (unless there was a full moon) and darkness is what signals our brains to produce melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone our body produces to make us drowsy and fall asleep. The blue wavelengths of light suppress melatonin production so daylight triggers the body to stop producing it (interestingly red, orange, and yellow wavelengths don’t suppress melatonin production and are the same wavelengths produced by fire). It’s actually in a very narrow wavelength of light, 460 to 480 nm [2], that are responsible for the melatonin suppression. In scientific studies, melatonin has been shown to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep, experience less restlessness, and prevent daytime fatigue. Melatonin has also been shown to be a powerful antioxidant and has some positive effects on our immune systems. 

In an article about sleep on Dr. Mercola’s website [3] the production of melatonin is described in detail:

Melatonin is produced by a pea-sized gland in the middle of your brain called the pineal gland. When your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your body produces less melatonin…

For most people, the pineal gland is totally inactive during the day. But, at night, when you are exposed to darkness, your pineal gland begins producing melatonin to be released into your blood.

Melatonin makes you feel sleepy, and in a normal night’s sleep, your melatonin levels stay elevated for about 12 hours (usually between 9 pm and 9 am). Then, as the sun rises and your day begins, your pineal gland reduces your production of melatonin.

The levels in your blood decrease until they’re hardly measurable at all. This rise and fall of your melatonin levels are part and parcel of your internal clock that dictates when you’re sleepy and when you feel fully awake.

Melatonin Chart

Fluctuation in melatonin levels over a 24-hour period

So why is sleeping in a dark room so important? It turns out even the smallest amounts of light at night can disrupt our body’s production of melatonin. So something as simple as turning on your bathroom light in the middle of the night can cause a disruption in melatonin production. According to one study [4] published by Harvard Medical School in Boston, “…exposure to room light during the usual hours of sleep suppressed melatonin levels by more than 50%.” That’s pretty significant!

How: What I did was spend a night looking around my room for sources of light, any light, and eliminated them. Do this after sunset! I found light creeping in around one of my doors so I bought some stick on felt for door frames. Next was a plethora of LED lights coming from various sources like power strips, smoke detectors, computer chargers and my wifi base station. With each LED I took a small piece of electrical tape and covered them up. A big source were the windows in my bedroom. I live in Chicago and there is constantly a source of light outside my apartment at all hours. There were already cheap blinds on my windows and I didn’t want to buy expensive black out shades so I decided to buy a cheap microfiber dark colored blanket and cut it to size for each window. I used several push pins to hold them up behind my blinds. It’s not elegant but it blocks out all of the light I used to get through my windows.

If you travel or there are other factors stopping you from doing the things I mentioned above, you can purchase a simple night time eye mask to block out any light that way. If you go that route, though, it prevents you from taking advantage of a simulated sunrise…

2. Simulate The Sunrise/Sunset With An Alarm Clock

Why: Humans have evolved to wake up with the sunrise and fall asleep with the sunset. It’s only been the last 100 years or so, basically once the light bulb started becoming common in households, that the natural balance of the sleep/wake cycle became decoupled from the sun. Interestingly, a study was recently published by the University of Colorado [5] stating that one week of camping can cure insomnia – because of waking up and falling asleep with the sun! Have you ever noticed that waking up to a blaring alarm clock in the morning makes you feel, well, crappy and not rested? Especially if you wake up before the sunrise? This has everything to do with our natural sleep cycle patterns and once you understand those patterns it starts to make sense.

Each sleep cycle consists of five stages of sleep and lasts about 90 minutes. On a typical night we will go through four to five of these cycles. It’s easy to think of a sleep cycle in a “circular” pattern, since it repeats several times in a night, but it actually looks like the chart below. Once we get to the deepest sleep stage, stage four, the cycle actually reverses through stage three, two, one and then into REM sleep. You can read more about sleep cycles here and here.


When we are woken up by an alarm clock buzzer in the middle of stage three sleep we interrupt the natural cycle of sleep and our body pulls us out of that cycle to wake up. It leaves us feeling groggy and not refreshed because we haven’t completed the sleep cycle. The benefit of a sunrise alarm clock are the natural clues to our body to wake up, which occurs gradually over a period of time, typically 30 minutes. When we reach the beginning or end of REM sleep our body signals us to wake up instead of going through the next cycle. This is the same way we naturally woke up before the invention of the light bulb (and the same way we wake up when camping!).

How: I purchased a sunrise alarm clock to get this effect. Mine is made by a company called Verilux and it offers me several options around the sunrise and sunset, like having a built in LED bar plus being able to hook up some external laps to it. I hacked together some remnant pieces of lamps from IKEA for $6 and have a lamp with a full spectrum incandescent bulb hanging directly above my bed. I also setup an audio track of morning bird calls to gradually increase volume with the increase in light produced each morning over a 30 minute period. My model is pretty expensive for an alarm clock but there are other options to get a similar effect. You can search Google to find a pretty large selection of similar alarm clocks with varying features and prices. If you are more of the DIY type, Lifehacker has posted several articles about building different solutions to achieve a simulated sunrise each morning here here and here.

Sunrise Lamp Setup

The simulated “Sun” hanging above my bed in my apartment

3. Get Your Bedroom At The Optimal Sleeping Temperature

Why: Temperature can have a huge influence on the quality of sleep you get. If your body needs to react to being too hot or too cold, it will actually pull you out of a deep sleep cycle to do this. You don’t want this to happen for the same reasons you don’t want an alarm clock to pull you out of deep sleep. Studies [6] have shown the optimal sleeping temperature to be quite cool, between 60 – 68 degrees. Our body temperature actually falls by a couple of degrees during the sleeping hours. A room that felt comfortable during the day would feel much different when our body temperature dips.

Body Temperature

Body temperature over a 24-hour period

How: With modern technology this is pretty simple. If you have a forced air heating/air conditioning system in your house just set the temperature between 60 – 68 degrees (but no more than 70) to get yourself in that optimal range. I have a window a/c unit and radiator heat in my apartment so it has been difficult for me to achieve a consistent temperature at night. To help, I bought an external thermometer system that measures my temperature in several areas of the apartment. It’s allowed me to see the actual temperature and pinpoint areas that aren’t getting enough circulation to even out the room temperature. Another option are products that cool your pillow or bed. I’ve recently come across a full mattress system called the ChilliPad. A cheaper and smaller solution is the Chillow, which is just a chill pad for your pillow.

Even though I have been using the methods above, my quest for a better night’s sleep isn’t over. Recently I have been using a free iOS app to track my sleep patterns so I can analyze them and look for patterns. There have been a plethora of devices and apps that came out in the past year to monitor sleep and I’ve only recently started using those. Activity trackers like Jawbone Up also track sleep so they can be used when sleeping the same bed as your partner (the disadvantage of the phone based apps is your results are only accurate if you sleep alone).

Does anyone else use the methods above for a better nights sleep? Or are you having trouble getting better sleep? Tell me what you think about this in the comments section below.

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