5 Ways to Achieve Better Sleep

I’ve had sleep issues as far back as I can remember. Even in elementary school, I was never one of those kids who could fall asleep at 9, sleep 10 hours and wake up refreshed at 7 the next morning, eagerly awaiting the school bus. Today, on many days, especially Sundays when my sleep cycle gets out of whack, I am unable to sleep until past midnight unless I take one or more of the supplements that I will discuss later. On these restless nights, it takes until 1, 2 or even 3 in the morning until the alpha and theta waves of Stage 1 sleep kick in. So yes, I’ve always envied you people who can just shut your eyes and be asleep minutes later!

For many of us, it sucks to face the world running on less than 6 hours of sleep, especially if our bodies are not attuned to abbreviated sleep. In my case, when I sleep less than 6 hours, I tend to have a shot memory, I am unable to concentrate and I feel very drowsy at certain parts of the day. These symptoms obviously correlate negatively with productivity in the workplace.  As mentioned in prior posts, I avoid coffee, but I tend to reach for caffeinated teas when my 4 substitutes for caffeine don’t work.

These caffeinated teas get me through the day, but I’m back at square one, struggling to sleep that night due to my caffeine sensitivity. End result: a vicious cycle in which I sleep minimally and caffeinate again the following day.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned techniques to address my sleep issues. It helps to avoid TV / computer screens and to dim the lights in the evening, but the only surefire way I know of getting to sleep quickly is through supplements.

So what legal supplements do I advocate taking?

1) Melatonin is, in my opinion, the king of sleep supplements and my go-to helper. Although not a sleep hormone, per se, melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that signals it is nighttime and gives the body context for sleep. Present in trace amounts during the day, melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the evening to prepare you for sleep1. Humans, especially those in the first world, don’t produce melatonin as early in the evening as their historic counterparts due to the stimuli today involving light and other related factors.

Thus, in these modern times, your pineal gland may delay the production of melatonin. That is why supplemental melatonin is so useful – once you take it, it will tell your body that it is time to go to sleep. In most normal cases—i.e. you are not stressed out or depressed—you should fall asleep within 30 to 90 minutes of taking it. At least I do! In addition to being natural, melatonin is NOT addictive and has been linked to fighting cancer2.

What are the risks of using melatonin? From a usage standpoint, if I take a huge dose (such as > 5 mg) in one sitting, I tend to wake up after 3 to 4 hours of sleep and am unable to go back to sleep without a subsequent dose. What’s the solution to this problem? Don’t take > 5 mg of melatonin in one setting! Take 5 mg or less (for me, 2-3 mg is optimal). If, for some reason, I wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to fall asleep again (a rare occurrence), I take a very small dose (1-2 mg) and am usually asleep again within a half hour. I’ve noticed that on the days following nights like this, I am surprisingly productive and alert anyway despite the disturbance to my sleep the prior night. So, don’t panic!

Clinically, melatonin can cause next day grogginess, nausea and irritability, but you typically experience such symptoms if you screw up dosage as per the example in the previous paragraph. Furthermore, although melatonin has been shown not to be addictive, use common sense— don’t take it every day and don’t use it for months on end. Also, this one should be obvious but don’t take it during the day unless you want to be a mess for your 3 PM meeting. Although melatonin has been clinically proven not to be addictive, in my opinion, melatonin users should cycle melatonin (i.e use it for X number of days, avoid it for a while and use it again if needed) to be on the safe side.

I prefer time release capsules of melatonin as they are built to release melatonin into the body at various intervals through the night to keep you asleep. I’ve had particular success with the brand below (link on Amazon provided):

NATROL Melatonin 5mg Time Release 100 CAPS

2) ZMA is a popular supplement generally used by athletes to promote better quality sleep (and thus quicker recovery from the grind of training). ZMA is composed of zinc, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6. For sleep purposes, zinc aids in the metabolism of melatonin. For men, zinc is crucial for maintaining testosterone levels and, for women, it aids in the synthesis and secretion of sex hormones3. Magnesium is something that most Americans sadly don’t consume enough of – not only does magnesium promote muscle relaxation (and thus sleep) but it also aids in optimizing brain function4. Vitamin B6 has many benefits but its role here is to enhance the effects of zinc and magnesium so that all three ingredients can play their roles in an optimized manner.

Many times, I take ZMA alone, but, on Sundays, I take it with melatonin so that I achieve not only a quicker onset of sleep but also quality sleep to get a strong start to the week. It is important to take ZMA on an empty stomach 30-60 minutes before bed in order to best absorb the zinc and magnesium to produce the desired effects. Absolutely avoid calcium consumption around the time you take ZMA as calcium blocks ZMA absorption.

What are the downsides of ZMA? Be ready for some intense dreams! This is not surprising given the amount of time you will spend in REM sleep with ZMA. Make sure to take the right dosage – from a typical bottle, men should take 3 capsules, which should equate to roughly 30 mg of zinc and 450 mg of magnesium. Going under may not lead to the desired benefits. Going over may cause adverse effects on the immune system, metabolism and muscle growth. Due to the greater testosterone production resulting from ZMA use, women should be careful and stick with 2/3 the standard dose if they do decide to take it.

Although most brands of ZMA are similar, I’ve added a link to the brand I normally buy here:

Optimum Nutrition ZMA, 180 Capsules

3) Diphenhydramine HCl is another means to achieve sleep quickly. Popular brands based on diphenhydramine HCl include Zzzquil, my go-to, and Benadryl. Diphenhydramine HCl is an antihistamine. Antihistamines block histamines, which are neurotransmitters that keep you awake.

On a given night, if my goal were to guarantee a full night of sleep, I would pick Zzzquil over melatonin. When I take Zzzquil, I am KNOCKED OUT for at least 7 hours, but the downside is that I sometimes wake up mildly groggy. Take diphenylhydramine HCl at least 30 minutes before bed (I personally aim for 60 minutes).

Zzzquil is a drug that should not be taken regularly. Diphenylamine HCl can build tolerance and lose effectiveness after three days of continued use5. Additional side effects to be aware of include dry mouth, dizziness and headache, although I recall experiencing only the dry mouth.

You can find it in most pharmacies, but, if you’re feeling lazy and have Prime, you can find it on Amazon.

ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid Liquicaps 48 Count

4) Chamomile tea is another popular sleep supplement that has been used for hundreds of years to aid with sleep. In addition to sleep issues, chamomile tea has also associated with treating stomach issues, muscle spasms and inflammation.

When I’ve taken chamomile tea on a standalone basis, I have felt calmer, but sleep efficacy depends on the brand. I’ve found Tulsi Sleep tea to be one of these effective brands (I’ve attached the link below for your reference):

Organic India Tulsi Wellness Sleep Tea, 18 Count (Pack of 6)

I generally use chamomile tea and melatonin together as chamomile tea taken on a standalone basis doesn’t always guarantee achieving sleep quickly. If you are going to stack the supplements together, from personal experience, I recommend taking chamomile tea T-1 to T-1.5 hours from bed to get the body relaxed and then the melatonin T-30 minutes out so that it kicks in faster.

Chamomile doesn’t have many side effects but you should avoid it if you happen to have daisy allergies.

5) Beyond the supplements I list above, there are others. Some folks I know swear by red wine and, although it can help bring about sleep, be prepared for poor quality sleep as it can disrupt the sleep cycle. A glass of warm milk before bed can be helpful as it contains tryptophan, the same amino acid found in turkey that sends us into drowsy states on Thanksgiving. However, I’ve personally never had much luck with warm milk. Valerian root, which is derived from a flower plant, is another popular sleep supplement that is worth mentioning. I tried it years ago and, from what I recall, it wasn’t as effective as melatonin and Zzzquil were so I stopped using it.

Whether you decide on melatonin, ZMA, Zzzquil, chamomile tea and / or any of the others, use your best judgment when you take it. If you feel serious side effects from using these supplements, which should not happen unless you are reckless with dosage or have a pre-existing condition, talk to a doctor, scale back on dosage or stop taking the supplement. For the 99% of you that will use these supplements correctly, here is to a better night’s sleep!

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4 Caffeine Alternatives to Amplify Your Day

In my last post, I wrote about my tale of picking up and subsequently dumping the coffee habit. A reasonable follow-up question would be what I substitute for caffeine to optimize my energy throughout the day.

Here are a few of my natural caffeine alternatives:

1) Take a cold shower – This is something I started to do regularly last year when I was feeling exceedingly sore after jiu jitsu training sessions. Yes, stepping into a stream of ice cold water will feel like hell for the first minute but your body will adjust quicker than you’d think. When I started taking these cold showers, I noticed not only reduced soreness but also greater alertness and mental sharpness that would last several hours. When I dug into why I felt so good, I discovered that the deep breathing and increased heart rate that came from the shock of cold water also boosted oxygen and blood circulation, respectively. Oxygen and blood are two of the key ingredients that get your brain going!

For reference, although the experts say 8-10 minutes in cold water is optimal for complete recovery, I’ve found even 2-3 minutes will make a difference. Side benefits: cold showers have also been shown to boost testosterone (what guy doesn’t want to maximize his T levels?) and fat metabolism (which 99% of the Western world is after)1.

2) Get a standup desk – We have all heard that sitting is the new smoking. Long-term, sitting for extended periods leads to a bad back, heart problems and all types of musculoskeletal issues. Short-term, sitting can lead to a foggy brain as sitting for hours has been shown to lead to a slowdown in brain function2. At the New York headquarters of MediaMath where I work, all employees have standup desks. So when it is 3 PM and I hit a mental rut, working on my feet for 20 minutes will usually get me back to working a productive level. If you don’t have a standup desk, considering taking a short walk, especially outside in the cold, to get blood, oxygen and the right neurotransmitters flowing into your brain again.

3) Take a nap – Yes, I do realize that most of the working world is not able to do this after lunch on weekdays and, no, I do not advocate passing out on a toilet (unless you are a sleep-deprived IBanker). However, if you are considering a scoop of Jack3d or a cup of coffee at 5 PM before your evening workout, I strongly suggest taking a 20 minute nap as soon as you get home from work. Why 20 minutes and not an hour or two? Although hitting REM cycles in your core nightly sleep are essential for making new connections in the brain (and thus facilitating learning), waking up in the middle of a REM cycle will leave you back at square one, feeling groggy. Even if you don’t hit a REM cycle, sleeping over 30 minutes may still leave you out of it when you wake up3. The 20 minute power nap is ideal for alertness and motor skills and will thus better prepare you for getting out of your mental and/or physical funk and tackling whatever is ahead of you. One of napping’s several advantages over coffee is that it is more likely to keep your memory intact as caffeine has been shown to decrease memory performance.

4) Eat a lot of veggies – I eat salads almost every day during the workweek, not only because it helps keep unneeded pounds off, but also because I feel an energy boost after binging on veggies. I don’t intend to be Captain Obvious here but the key is to eat the right veggies (i.e. iceberg lettuce probably won’t do much for you). Kale and beets are two examples of vegetables that will make a difference for optimizing your performance. Talking about kale, all around Renaissance man Joe Rogan eloquently stated, “You’ll feel fantastic, have a big boost of energy and later on your poop will fly out of your body as if it was late to catch a plane.”


Beets by Dre…sorry

Beets, especially the roots, are well-known natural performance enhancers used by athletes to promote greater blood flow, thus fueling the body and brain. Also, make sure to eat your veggies with fats! Fats are not only essential for brain function but also vital for allowing the nutrients from veggies to absorb into your body. I use either coconut oil (high in medium chain triglycerides or MCTs, which have been linked to elevated fat burning) or avocados (which are packed with nutrients).

Now that you are fueled by this new knowledge, tomorrow, I implore you to duck that morning cup of coffee or caffeinated drink of choice and try at least one of these four techniques. If you want to report on your results or learn more, email me.

Much thanks to Krutika Gupta, Ankur Sisodia, Dan “The Man” Suzuki and Marcos Rivas for aiding me in publishing this piece!

1)      Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body

2)      The Health Hazards of Sitting

3)      The Secret (and Surprising) Power of Naps