Optimizing Your Sleep and Life

Summary of Dr. Greg Potter, PhD’s Podcast Interview with Biohacking Summit’s Teemu Arina

Working on my sleep has been a continual effort after throwing it totally out of whack while running my technology company and criss-crossing time zones on a regular basis. At it’s worst, I had insomnia that prevented me from falling asleep for nearly a month. One of my earliest blog posts explored my efforts to improve my sleep.

So I was eager to listen to sleep researcher Dr. Greg Potter’s interviewed by the author of the Biohacker’s Handbook and curator of the BioHackers Summit, Teemu Arina. Dr. Potter’s PhD work at the University of Leeds on circadian biology, sleep, diet, and metabolic health was featured in the BBC World Service, the Washington Post, and Reuters.

I wanted to learn how I can continue to improve how I approach sleep. While I’ve progressed tremendously in my sleep efforts, averaging 8-9 hours a night and eliminating the need for any sleeping pills, I learned many additional techniques to improve the quality of my sleep during the interview.

Here I’ve summarized the key items from the interview that stood out for me. I’ve also included the full interview from YouTube at the bottom of this article. For those that like to listen to the audio, here’s a link to the interview on SoundCloud.

Key Takeaways:

  • Avoid artificial light at night and spend time outside during daylight.

  • Our circadian rhythm is connected to the dark and light cycles of the day and we should manage our sleep schedule to match that cycle.

  • Our body clocks tend to function worse with age and we are less effective at generating sleep over time. The more effective we are at sleep earlier in life the better cognative and problem solving we will be later in life.

  • Eating the largest portion of your meals earlier in the day helps with sleep. An eating period of 6-12 hours is about right.

  • Sleep apps haven’t been proven to be accurate, though studies are several years old.

  • Reserve taking melatonin for jet lag travel only.

  • For jet lag, adjust your sleep schedule to the dark and light cycles of the new location as soon as possible.

  • Exercise is better earlier in the day, though mid-afternoon seems to be best for certain types of training.

  • Alcohol and caffeine metabolize differently in individuals, but need to stop many hours before going to bed. Stop consuming alcohol 4 hours before bed and caffeine 9 hours before sleeping.

How To Sleep Better:

1. Quiet your mind in preparation for sleep

Sleep problems tend to be more prevalent at the start of the work week. If you’re trying to hold all these work related things that you need to do the next day in your mind, it will interfere with your ability to shut down. Dr. Potter recommends to keep a diary by your bedside to list anything you need to do tomorrow or the days ahead. Plus, he said to add anything good that happened in your life.

2. Light exposure

While there is an enormous difference in how people are affected by light, reducing exposure to light, especially artificial light, after dark will help. Dim the light, wear blue blocking glasses, and dim the brightness settings on your devices in the evening. Even if you are using night shift mode on your devices, which changes the color of the light, you should also dim the screens.

Dr. Potter recommended Iris which he says gives the ability to personalize this process. Another solution is f.lux. When I checked out Iris, I saw they also offers a free ebook, 14 tips to make your Monitor more Healthy for your Eyes.

3. Keep your Bedroom cool

You need your body core and brain temperature to drop by 1 degree C (33.8 degrees F) to help enter the deeper stages of sleep. Dr. Potter recommends 18 degrees C (64.4 degrees F).

4. Maintain a regular sleep schedule

Your body thrives on regularity. Maintaining a consistent time for sleeping helps with numerous health outcomes including metabolic regulation. He recommends setting an alarm to help remind you to start the ritual of dimming the lights, reducing stimulation including turning off your devices.

5. Brain is an associative organ so you need to manage stimulus control

If you’re lying in bed thinking, why can’t I sleep? Your brain has been trained to think of your bed as a place of wakefulness. You need to retrain your brain to dissassociate that and limit your bedroom to sex and sleeping only.

If you can’t sleep for more than 15 min, you should leave your bed and go do something relaxing in a space with a comfortable temperature, possibly with a dim light. Then only when you are very sleepy, return to your bedroom. This will retrain your brain to associate the bedroom with sleep.

Sleep when Traveling and Dealing with Jet Lag:

What you're trying to do with moving to new times zones is resynchronize your body clock with the new time zone as soon as possible. You need to focus on your exposure to the light and dark and your eating / fasting cycles to align with your new location.

Melatonin is recommended for jet lag. It’s synthesized naturally in the brain during darkness and signals to your organs that it’s the evening and time to engage in night time activities. For most people, taking melatonin should be reserved for jet lag only to help synchronize to the new time zone. Dr. Potter also recommended an app called Jet Lag Rooster to help adjust your body clock.

According to Dr. Potter, the optimal dose of melatonin for jet lag is .5 - 2mg. If you take a higher dose, it may get you to sleep faster, but it will tend to stay in your body longer. Get regular melatonin, not slow release melatonin because you want the rapid pulse.

To help with light exposure during the day, he suggests blue blocking glasses. Also a sleep mask on the plane while in a reclined position will help you fall asleep faster and your sleep quality will be better. Plus you might sleep slightly longer as well.

With respect to eating, many people find it beneficial to fast during flying. If you don't mind fasting, he thinks it's a prime time. What you can do is wait until your first full day in the new time zone and adjust your meal timing to the new time zone.

He also added, we are exposed to more pathogens in airports, so regularly wash your hands. Because of travel fatigue, we often don't retain your normal drinking habits so be sure to drink plenty of water during the flight.

Exercise and Sleep

Exercise done not too late in the evening or earlier in the day tends to help sleep quality. Afternoon HIIT workouts are better for blood sugar regulation. However, Dr. Potter emphasized that it's better to exercise when you can than trying to time it. Over time, your body will actually adapt to the time of day when you exercise.

For high performance, our core body temperature tends to be the highest in mid-afternoon for most people, which is better for strength and power training.

Exercising too late isn't good because it raises your core body temperature which you want to have lower to enter deeper sleep stages.

Not only does your body temp increase during a workout, the body also produces more stress hormones and raises your blood pressure to meet the demands of the exercise. If those hang around too long, they will interfere with your ability to initiate sleep.

Plus if you workout in a gym, you are likely going to a brightly lit place with loud music. Both of those things are going to interfere with your sleep too.

Any strenuous exercise needs to be completed at least 3 hours before you plan to go to bed. Moderate exercise should be completed at least 2 hours before you go to bed.

Sleep Apps

Based on published literature to date, sleep apps are not particularly good at identifying sleep stages. They are quite good at estimating sleep duration. Though, Dr. Potter said the studies are a few years old. So it's difficult to determine how good they are at the moment.

People shouldn't worry too much about sleep stages from what their device is giving back to them. The biggest benefit of these apps and devices is raising people's awareness about behavior. So tagging different nights with their behaviors in the day to understand the relationship between those behaviors and the outcomes would be helpful. For example, tagging when you had alcohol and how it affected your sleep.

Alcohol and Caffeine Effects on Sleep

People metabolize alcohol and caffeine at different rates. For alcohol, the half life depends upon the time of day you consume it as well. So some people can drink a lot later and not affect their sleep and some people can drink a small amount earlier and it affects their sleep dramatically.

As a rule of thumb, stop consuming alcohol 4 hours before planning to go to bed. Track your sleep to see how alcohol affects your sleep.

When the alcohol clears your body during the night, sleep becomes fragmented and you tend to wake up. The sleep is also less restorative affecting mental and possibly physical performance the next day.

For caffeine it takes 5-6 hours to metabolize for most people. Dr. Potter recommended to stop consuming caffeine 9 hours before bedtime.

L-Theanine & Creatine

L-Theanine is a nootropic that is often taken with caffeine by biohackers. You get the caffeine boost with the edge or jitteriness. (I’ve been using L-Theanine now for 8 months.) According to Dr. Potter, it doesn’t hurt sleep. If you are anxious with sleep, L-Theanine might be useful to consume. Many people find using green tea is a different caffeine experience since L-Theanine is present in green tea, but not in coffee. "If you combine the two and it doesn't affect your sleep, then definitely stick with it.”

Creatine is good for the body and brain and helps with sleep. Creatine after sleep loss can help maintain your physical and mental performance during times of duress. Some people just can't get 7-8 hours of sleep a night all the time. In those cases, Dr. Potter recommended taking 3-5 grams of creatine per day to help you.

Biohacker’s Handbook and Biohacker’s Summit

You can learn more about the science behind sleep, how to setup your environment to sleep better and prepare yourself for a consistently good night sleep in this complimentary chapter of the Biohacker’s Handbook.

Dr. Potter will be speaking at the Biohackers Summit in Helsinki, Finland in November, which I will be attending.