Will a layered 5-week approach to sleep health using the Huberman Lab’s “Sleep Toolkit” help me reach my three sleep goals? (And can I stick to the regimen enough to find out?)
January was Sleep Health Month, and I had pictured every month in this process to be contained neatly in one month. That simply wasn’t possible after my Christmas flu domino’ed into five straight weeks of illnesses, ending for my birthday at the end of the month—which I celebrated with a week-long Caribbean vacation.
There’s no real reason why any of these “health”-focused months can’t be more or less than a month’s time of research and experimentation, so here we go again.
The 5-Week Approach
Of the Sleep Toolkit, Andrew Huberman explains that there are behavioral and supplemental levers that can be pulled to optimize your personal wake/sleep cycle. Start smart with the behavioral sleep levers, since these are all changes in your natural, physical behavior. Then, add different supplements to your system and discover which may further enhance sleep quality. Understanding how to pull these levers the right way for your body seems to be key to optimizing your sleep.
First, I’ll solely make consistent behavioral changes for minimum one week—maximum three—to establish consistent data and work towards my three sleep goals. Then, every week following, I will layer in one of the four supplements suggested in Huberman’s “sleep stack”.
Your brain and internal systems need cues to know if the body should be awake or asleep. The external cues are: photons (particles of light); darkness (absence of photons); and temperature. Other factors that work as cues are food (timing of when eaten and the amount); exercise, which generally makes us more alert; caffeine; supplements; and digital tools. Huberman explains there are three critical periods in which to use different combinations of these levers.
Critical Period 1: Morning Wakeup (the first three hours of being awake)
The “foundational power tool for wakefulness and good sleep”, here’s a break down of the levers to pull during this critical period.
- Make cortisol peak within 30-60 min after waking by getting enough sunlight in your eyes. You do NOT want cortisol to peak later in the day, which will be whenever you finally see the sun. You want the sunlight to be coming at an angle from the horizon, i.e. sunrise, and not directly above, as in midday.
- Stay looking in the direction of the sun for an appropriate amount of time based on cloud cover. On a bright, clear day, ~5min will do. For cloudy days, ~10min. For heavily overcast days, ~20-30min.
- If you skip a day, double the time of sunlight viewing the next day.
- Especially on cloudy days, try using a ring or tablet light at your desk on all day after your morning sunlight viewing session.
😳 My apartment is a sunless box and most of these winter WFH days I don’t venture outside until my work day is over… if at all. Huberman stresses that you need naked eyeballs on real, sun-based photons: no wearing sunglasses, looking through a glass window, or using artificial lights as a substitute. The latter simply doesn’t emit the necessary amount of photons as the sun. Remember that your eyes are filled with neurons (melanopsin cells, to be exact)—receptors that signal straight to your brain; enough photons need to touch these cells to jumpstart the WAKE UP signal. I measured my indoor and outdoor environments with a light meter to see how great the disparity was.
(In the podcast, Huberman offers solutions to those who don’t have access to sunlight or who work night shifts if you’re curious.)
A seemingly bright read on a somewhat cloudy sunrise; likely the river’s reflection of the sunlight is a helpful factor.
Here’s the light meter’s read over an hour later that morning from inside my apartment, all interior lights turned off. It is embarrassing, almost concerning, how dark my apartment is. My windows face the brick wall of the tall building beside me, perpendicular to the north side of the street.
This Verilux Happy Light is meant for light therapy in a sunlight-mimicking way, so I was curious to see how it would compare. When I turn this puppy on, it feels blinding in the darkness of my apartment. However, the cloudy day light appears to be 3.5x more powerful!
[OK, spoiler: I already started making the very simple change of making an effort to see the sun in the morning throughout January and it has drastically changed my sleeplessness at night.]
You want to increase your body temperature as it increases cortisol (in a good way), resulting in a revved up metabolism and increased focus.
- Take a cold shower for 1-3 min. When your brain perceives the cold, it will release a burst of adrenaline that in turn increases core temperature. This also gives you a nice dopamine hit with which to start your day!
- Exercise or do any modest movement that gets the heart pumping, such as a walk, jog, skipping rope, kettlebells, or flow yoga.
- Eat some food (if that’s your thing.) Digesting food warms up your insides. It’s okay to skip eating in the morning if it’s not normally a part of your routine; the cold shower and/or morning movement can certainly be enough.
- Delay drinking caffeine for 90-120min after waking. This will mitigate your chances of having an afternoon crash, and give the effect of caffeine a long arc without having to drink it again in the afternoon.
- Do not drink any after 2-4pm
I am generally not a coffee drinker as I am naturally energetic in the morning, and I find it gives me a really bad stomachache and terrible jitters. Coffee-dependency has a bad rap, so I was surprised to learn that Huberman is an enthusiast of caffeine when used correctly—and it was fascinating to learn how and why.
So how can accurately timed coffee consumption actually help you sleep? Caffeine is a psychoactive compound, which is a substance that affects how the brain functions. The chemical adenosine builds up in your brain as a by-product of being awake/brain activity. Like sands piling up in an hourglass as a measure of when to be turned (poetically-speaking), adenosine creates “sleep pressure” in the brain until finally there is enough buildup that its receptors signal that it must be time to sleep. Caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist, meaning that it blocks the receptors from the adenosine buildup, making you feel more awake than not. However, the good thing is, once the caffeine wears off, the blocked adenosine that has been being produced all along doesn’t disappear; it all at once loads onto the receptors. None of the incurred sleep pressure is lost, and you’re hit all at once with the sleepiness you deserve at that point.
So, timing is everything. Have caffeine late enough (but not too late!) so that the sleepiness crash is when you should be winding down for bed anyway.
Critical Period 2: Day through Evening
A mix of the levers already covered in CP1, plus general tips to manage your circadian rhythm:
- Don’t drink caffeine. See above—you don’t want to have any after 2-4pm.
- Nap, but not too late or too long, as it will mess up your nighttime sleep. Don’t nap if you don’t need to.
- Try NDSR, yoga nidra, or the Reveri hypnosis app, especially if you’re not a napper but missed out on enough sleep the night before / feel tired. A short session can be just as rejuvenating for your brain as a true nap.
- Exercise intensely to further increase your body temperature and delay your circadian clock from giving you a midday lull.
- Late afternoon / sunset sunlight viewing. Just as in the morning, you want to go out and have sunlight at a low solar angle hit your eyes for 5-30min depending on cloud cover. This protects against the negative effects of artificial light we’ll see later in night time hours. There are different cells in our eyeballs this time than in the morning that are at play here. These can sense the low solar angle the sunlight is coming in at; that is, these cells recognize that the sun is setting on the horizon and signal to the circadian clock that evening is here and sleep is coming.
It’s even harder for me to do the sunset sunlight viewing. I live and work on the east side of Manhattan, and both my apartment and my office do not have a clear line of sight to the horizon. I should probably work harder to find that perfect spot in a crossroad where I can stand and see the sun go down, but it’s a bit of a pain. It’s winter now, so the sun is down before my work day ends.
(As I piece these levers together, I’m realizing why I sleep much better in the summer than in the winter, even though there’s so much more nighttime in the latter! It’s really hard to catch the sunlight cues in the winter due to timing and weather.)
If I had my way, I’d work out in the early afternoon, but with work, it’s easier to do it in the morning. I’m NOT a napper (did I mention my natural, caffeine-free energy?) so I’m going to try Reveri or NSDR (non sleep deep rest mediation) on those days I feel fatigued from a restless night. I’d love for that to work for me; there are many times where I wish I could take a nap, but I truly don’t know how to fall asleep in the daytime. How do people do it??
Critical Period 3: Nighttime 9pm-4am
- Avoid bright, artificial lights of any color. Blue-light blockers are great, but they can’t stop the wakefulness properties of the light. It takes very few photons to keep your brain up after sunset (which is a very annoying, very opposite fact to what’s needed to wake up your brain in the morning.)
- Especially avoid overhead light.
- Use the lowest light necessary for your nighttime activities, like candles and dim bulbs. Light destroys the natural melatonin production that should be happening in the evening.
This I am already a fan of following. I have lots of low lamps and candles around my apartment. Once the sun sets, I instinctually have an aversion to bright, indoor overhead lighting.
- Take a hot bath/shower or sauna trip. Like the cold rinse in the morning, the extreme temperature has a reverse effect on your core temperature. Your brain will perceive you are hot and will start to cool you down from the inside out.
- Make your sleeping environment cold by at least 3º to keep your core body temp down. You can layer as many blankets as needed to feel comfortably warm to fall asleep in bed, but your head, hands, and feet will naturally peek out as the body needs to dissipate heat.
I love this excuse to take a hot bath before bed, and it’s a nice ritual to log off my electronics, turn off the artificial lights, light some candles, and decompress under the shower head. It’s like washing the day off of you! I also have a long skincare ritual, so coming out of the shower and ending with all the lotioning and self-care is really helpful to take the thoughts of my day out of my head.
As for the cold room… if you’ve ever shared a bed with a man, a cold bedroom is not a new request. Men run generally hotter than women, and I’ve definitely felt tortured in the past by boyfriends on this. But now, I open wide my bedroom windows while I’m in the hot shower. I’m so flushed by the time I come out, that the colder air is welcome. Then I jump into the bed with all my blankets before I have time to “feel cold.” I have my AC window unit at the foot of my bed, so I also turn that on a low fan setting, gently pulling the outside winter air in.
I started doing this earlier in January, and it feels strangely divine. Especially living in a classic NYC apartment where you can’t control your heat in the winter so they bake you alive to keep you warm, it’s great to not wake up hot and parched halfway through the night.
Listen to the podcast for the scientific details on any of these that may catch your interest:
- Don’t drink alcohol or use THC too close to bedtime. Both greatly disrupt your sleep architecture. (More on this in future posts; too much to unpack here!) Even CBD disrupts your sleep patterns… but on the flip side, it can lessen your anxiety, which may help some fall asleep.
- Eye masks and ear plugs can help you stay asleep.
- Elevate your feet by 3-5º to encourage glymphatic washout
- Train yourself to be a nose sleeper. One way is by taping your mouth shut with medical tape! Or, you can force yourself to breathe through your nose during cardio exercises.
- Keep the same sleep schedule all week, and avoid sleeping in any later than an hour on a weekend or late morning, for example. It’s much better to wake up at consistent time and then take a nap.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night, try the NSDR / yoga nidra to help you get back to sleep.
The rest of the podcast talks about the supplements you can use as levers, so I’ll come back to those when I start layering them in over the weeks to come!
I’m admittedly 37 minutes past the time I should have turned off my computer and extra lights, but I finally wanted to get back on a good posting schedule. (Implementing science is hard.)
Next post I’ll share my “before” stats to kick this experiment off: my personal sleep data from the past month plus body pics.