Published on

Optimizing your biology: Sleep

🤔 Problem 

The quality of our sleep has never been lower.  The world has simply developed too rapidly for our biology to adapt properly.  Our evolutionary process was designed to take place over millions of years, not along the exponential curve of technological progress.

This is why it’s hard to fall asleep at night.  And hard to wake up in the morning.  And easy to wake up in the middle of the night.  And hard to feel good anymore.  Sleep is one of the greatest examples of the Pareto principle: fixing this one thing can fix an asymmetric amount of shit in your life.  But our current environment has never made it more difficult to do so.

This has devastating consequences:

  • Suboptimal energy levels
  • Imbalanced hormones, which leads to a lack of sex drive, motivation, and general wellbeing
  • Hindered ability to learn (mental) and perform (physical)
  • Living life at significantly lower levels than our potential
  • And much, much more

For the sake of brevity, the list above is shortened.  But I promise you, it’s depressingly long without the omission.  Just know: You solve your sleep, your life solves itself.

Our 2 main problems here are:

  • Our lack of awareness of the biomechanics of sleep
  • Our environment

💡 Solution

When it comes to creating your environment, assume you have free will.  When it comes to living in it, assume you have no free will.- Chris Sparks

To fix our sleep, we must fix our environment.  To fix our environment, we first have to have a basic understanding of the biomechanics of sleep.

The fail-proof protocol to sleep well:

  • Optimal light exposure
  • Physical activity
  • Proper dietary inputs

Notice that these 3 biological actions are things you do throughout the day.  If you don’t make an active effort throughout the day to do things that your body naturally expects, you won’t sleep well.  If you wait till nighttime to decide you want to have a good night’s sleep, it’s already too late.

This effort comes with a bit of resistance early, but like all habits, it gets easier with time and consistency.  Just understand that we’re moving towards a more natural manner of living and it’s one that our bodies crave.

Optimal light exposure

The most important thing on this list.  If there’s one thing you fix, fix this.  Our bodies need the correct light information throughout the day in order to produce quality sleep.

  • Immediately upon waking up, view natural sunlight.  This is one of the most critical steps to setting your Circadian rhythm.  Absolutely nothing beats the natural light your eyes can receive upon going outside.  Sunlamps and SAD lights should not be used as a substitute, unless you have no other option or live in an unusually dark part of the world.
  • Avoid at all costs: waking up, grabbing your phone, and laying in bed scrolling through any sort of feed.  Besides killing your sleep, this behavior destroys your dopamine system and ruining your ability to enjoy anything.
  • In the evenings, view the light hues from the sunset and darkening sky.  Another important step to regulating your Circadian rhythm.
  • Design a nighttime environment conducive to good sleep.  This includes:
    • Avoiding bright OVERHEAD (important) lights.  Dim lights that are lower than eye level are the least disruptive to our Circadian Rhythms.
    • Avoiding blue-light emitting screens at least an hour before bed.
    • If you can’t design your environment, the next best thing is to get a pair of blue-light blockers and only wear them at night.  Wearing them during the day blocks important light information that our Melanopsin cells need to communicate to our bodies.

Physical activity

As you already know, exercise provides a myriad of health benefits.  It plays a crucial role in affecting Circadian timing due its influence on melatonin release timing.

  • If you want to fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier, exercise in the mornings.
  • If you want to shift the time you naturally get tired to later in the night, exercise in the evenings.

I prefer morning exercise, since it’s synergistic with getting good light information, accomplishing something early and building momentum for the day, and it just feels really good.

Proper dietary inputs

This widely ranges depending on your individual body, so I’ll try to keep this as general as I can.  However, meal timing has been shown to have an effect on the synchronization of your Circadian rhythm.

  • Intermittent fasting (time-restricted eating) has shown to have a synchronization effect on your Circadian rhythm.  However, the closing window shouldn’t be too close to bedtime.  Some studies have suggested matching the feeding window to your internal Circadian clock (anecdotally, this has been really beneficial)
  • Avoid eating too close to bedtime.  Late dinners (past 10pm) have been shown to induce metabolic damage during sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine at least 8-10 hours before bed.

🧪 Science

“Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend”

  • This study observed the effects of Circadian rhythm timing on people who camped out in the wilderness for a weekend
  • Note that the light environment of the wilderness is massively different from the light environment of a typical 21st century living space.  There were no artificial lights, no alarms, and very few external stimuli beyond the natural light that the sun produced.  The wilderness is where our species has evolved over millions of years.  Our bodies have wilderness familiarity at a biological level.
  • Within a 72 hour period, the Circadian rhythms of the participants were shifting backwards, as participants naturally started waking up with the sunrise, and getting tired earlier in the night.
  • The conclusion of this study is pretty powerful.  Not only does it validate the stunning positive effects natural light can have on our bodies, it highlights the detrimental effects our modern environments have on us.  The big takeaway is how fast the participants’ internal clocks shifted; it only took a weekend.

"Influence of Exercise Time of Day on Salivary Melatonin Responses”

  • Melatonin (aptly nicknamed the Hormone of Darkness) is the hormone responsible for inducing sleepiness.  It’s known to be secreted by the Pineal gland in response to darkness.  This study observed the effect exercise time has on the release time.
  • The study compared athletes exercising in the morning vs in the afternoon.
  • Participants who exercised in the afternoon had a blunted melatonin secretion as compared to the morning exercisers.
  • The key takeaway here is to understand that exercising later in the day may negatively affect how easy it is for you to fall asleep and stay asleep, given how important a role melatonin plays in those 2 sleep quality factors

"Meal Timing Regulates the Human Circadian System”

  • This study measured the effect meal timing has on its participants’ Circadian rhythm.
  • In the first half of the study, subjects were acclimated to an early feeding schedule and had their sleep parameters measured.  In the second half, their feeding schedules were shifted forward and they had their sleep parameters remeasured.
  • The timing of meals had an influence over human physiological rhythms, with notable changes occurring in aspects of glucose homeostasis.  The study suggests timing of meals plays a role in the synchronization of Circadian rhythms.
  • The key takeaway here is to understand food’s effect on delaying our Circadian rhythms, and implement a time-restricted eating protocol to optimize for this.

🎬 Actionable Advice

The most valuable action you can take right now, in order of importance:

  • Establish the habit of going outside and taking a walk as soon as you wake up.  You kill 3 birds with 1 stone here: optimal light exposure, forward optical flow (helps calm the mind), and exercise.
  • Take a walk in the evenings, around sunset.
  • Remove (or dim) all bright overhead lights in the evenings.
  • If you have an exercise routine (you should), try to move it to the mornings.
  • Avoid eating close to bedtime.  A good rule of thumb is to match your feeding window to how you want your internal clock set.  I.e. if you want to wake up early, don’t eat late.  Intermittent fasting fits like a glove here (among having other benefits).  Also see: Circadian rhythm fasting (allow natural light to direct your feeding window).
  • Avoid caffeine 8-10 hours before bedtime.

✏️ Summary

  • Sleep is really important for your health.  Quality sleep is hard to get in the modern world.
  • Fix sleep by optimizing your Circadian rhythm
  • Optimize your Circadian rhythm by modulating light exposure, exercising at the right times, and eating at the right times

🔮 Next Steps

Take action. Fixing your sleep fixes your life, so focus on that first.  It streamlines the rest of the process of optimizing your biology in order to regulate the amount and quality of energy you have throughout the day.

If you found some value from this post, please feel free to follow my writing here. Sign up there and I’ll drop the posts directly in your inbox, and eventually a Midweek Meditations series every Wednesday, which is a bite-sized newsletter with the goal of grounding you, provoking internal reflection + growth, and targeted inspiration that helps carry you through the rest of the week.

It’s a great day to sleep like a baby.  Until next time, friend.

Get 1 in-depth Leetcode problem breakdown per week 👇