As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics. We are not your physician. Note: This post may contain affiliate links to the products we use.
High quality sleep harbors some of the most impressive performance-enhancing benefits of any recovery tool. Knowingly, many people reach for chemicals or drugs that induce a similar ‘stupor’ and more overall feelings of sleepiness. Unknowingly, the people implementing this practice are interrupting some of the most critical stages of sleep for mental and physical performance. This category includes sleeping pills and alcohol.
After reading this article, you will understand the implications of a ‘night cap’. If you currently use alcohol as a sedative before bed, we will offer other clinically proven sleep-inducing ‘hacks’ that will ensure you get the performance boost you’re actually looking for. Additionally, we will offer some relevant research on small amounts of alcohol and its role in disturbing sleep in both expecting mothers and the growing developing babies. [1,2]
Before we discuss the impact of alcohol on sleep stages, we will briefly cover relevant sleep basics. If you have an understanding already or simply want the actionable insights, skip the following paragraph.
Broadly, each night of sleep is separated into two distinct categories: NREM and REM. Early sleep researchers broke the four stages of NREM (Non-REM) sleep into a descriptive 1, 2, 3, & 4. Stages 1 & 2 are light NREM sleep and 3 & 4 are deep NREM sleep (AKA slow wave sleep, SWS). Because of the eye’s darting activity in the fifth stage, researchers called this portion REM, for rapid eye movement. The tradeoff between REM and NREM sleep stages goes in cycles of approximately 90 minutes. Generally, this cycle happens in the following pattern: wake, NREM stage 1, NREM stage 2, NREM stages 3 & 4, REM, and often beginning the cycle with stage 1 or 2 NREM again. [1-5]
Most people will recognize REM as the dreaming stage of sleep. This stage generally functions to reinforce old neural connections and strengthen new connections in the brain (i.e. this stage is relevant to learning and integrating newfound knowledge into your brain for later use in problem solving, critical reasoning, and more). Cycles of REM typically lengthen as the night progresses, while the inverse happens with deep NREM stages. [1-5]
How does alcohol impact sleep in adults?
First, alcohol is a powerful disruptor of REM. Therefore, alcohol is a powerful disruptor of establishing new neural connections and integrating knowledge for later use. Individuals who consume alcohol before bed have suppressed REM, increased latency to REM, decreased overall REM sleep, and decreased REM sleep in the first half of the night. [1,3-5]
Second, alcohol causes another disruption in quality of sleep called ‘sleep fragmentation’. When you consume alcohol, you wake up more frequently. Sleep fragmentation is rarely recognized by the individual. Oftentimes, those who consume alcohol may not remember waking. For high-quality, restorative sleep, your mind and body need continuous cycles through NREM stages 1-4 and REM. If you are continuously waking, even for brief periods, this cyclical pattern of sleep is disturbed. More fragmented sleep leads to increased fatigue and diminished mental and physical performance the following day. [1,3-5]
For expecting parents: how do low doses of alcohol affect unborn developing babies?
After approximately two glasses of wine, the sleep of developing babies was altered in a few ways. First, less time was spent in REM sleep. Second, the developing baby had lower quality REM sleep as measured by eye movement. Third, the unborn babies in the alcohol group significantly decreased breathing rates during REM stages of sleep. Specifically, babies whose mother consumed the approximate two glasses of wine had breathing rates fall from 381/hour to 4/hour. This is a decrease of about 99%. [1,2]
Instead of alcohol or sleeping pills, add these nighttime ‘hacks’ to your routine:
- Our personal favorite: using the right lighting for your evening routine. So much of ‘biohacking’ is really just taking your body back to the routines developed over the thousands and thousands of years in our evolutionary history. Simply, this means eliminating white, blue, and green light at dusk. We’ve got a full article written here. This straightforward practice helped us increase our REM, SWS, and overall sleep efficiency dramatically.
- Exercise in some capacity every day. From stressing your autonomic nervous system for better parasympathetic/sympathetic balance to increasing deep sleep, exercise will improve your body’s innate restorative processes. Aim to avoid aerobic activity too late in the evening. (Some experts suggest limiting exercise 2-3 hours before bed.)
- Create a true sleeping environment. A bedroom is only for two things that start with S and sleeping is one of them. Eliminate the use of electronics, and remove as many unnecessary electronics as possible (that means pretty much all of them with the exception of an alarm if you need it).
- Make it dark. In line with removing electronics, eliminating all unnatural light is key. Blackout shades will make a huge difference in your sleep efficiency if you’re not using them already.
- Make it cold. The optimal sleeping temperature is between 60-67 degrees, and it’s far better to be on the cold side than the warm side. Drop that temp and bring out another blanket if you need to. You need to drop your core body temp 1 degree Celsius or 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, what happens during the day? Outside temperature rises during waking hours and falls at night - our body relies on these cues.
- Use saunas and heat baths to your advantage. Taking a long hot bath before bed dilates the blood vessels in your extremities in an effort to lower core body temp during the bath. When you get out, all of that heat will dissipate and assists in dropping your core temp for bedtime. Dry saunas have also been shown to increase hGH production.
- Take advantage of power naps. Sleeping for as little as 20 minutes can get you major performance gains, as long as some of that sleep contains stage 2, light NREM sleep (sleep spindles win again). In research settings, such naps resulted in improved mental and physical output (ex: 20% learning advantage over control in one study). Limit these naps to before 3pm and avoid naps in the 30-90 minute range. Fragmenting sleep cycles can do more harm than good, so if you plan on taking a longer nap, allow yourself to sleep for a full 90 minutes.
- Get daytime light exposure. Your body relies on a couple of internal clocks, one of which is your light-driven circadian rhythm. Setting both ends of your schedule will reinforce your body’s sleep habits. We’ve found that a 10,000 lux light right as you wake up will knock off any grogginess and will enable your body to set that sleep-wake schedule.
- Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep, Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. Scribner. 2017.
- Mulder, E., Morssink, L., Van Der Schee, T. et al. Acute Maternal Alcohol Consumption Disrupts Behavioral State Organization in the Near-Term Fetus. Pediatr Res 44, 774–779 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1203/00006450-199811000-00022
- Walker MP. Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Med, 2008: 9, S29-34.
- Walker MP. Sleep-dependent memory processing. Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 2008: 16(5): 287-298.
- Walker MP, Stickgold R. Sleep-dependent learning and memory consolidation. Neuron 2004:44:121–133.