My Sleep Cycle Experiment and What to Limit Before Bed

These modern-day alarm clocks can really be a pain sometimes…rudely waking me up when my dream finally starts to get exciting. Then I’ll usually hit the snooze – probably multiple times – but the damage is done. I’d wake up feeling a little off for a while and the tone was then set for the rest of my morning.

So as you may know, I’ve been working on improving my Night-Time Routine. I came across this Sleep Cycle app in a couple different articles from blogs I follow in the health field. I was interested in the topic of how our sleep cycles affect our quality of sleep, so I went on to buy the $2.99 iPhone app and gave it a shot. I started using this app in September 2013 and just reached the 150 day mark. I figured this was a good samples size for showing my results.

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I figured this would be just an alarm clock that wakes you up when you have completed a sleep cycle. But surprisingly, there was another feature that really caught my interest. You can add different variables to track every night and see how they affect your sleep. This is purely correlation, but still adds an interesting dynamic.

Sleep Cycle Portion

Sleep cycles are usually ~90 minute periods, so you may have 4-6 in a night. Ideally, you want to wake up at the end of the cycle. So how this app works is you choose a range of when you want to wake up. Mine is set on a 30 minute range – so for example wake up between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. The alarm will sound when you are in your lightest sleep in that period. I hoped that this new alarm would help with some common morning symptoms of grogginess and cloudy-headedness.

The Sleep Cycle app determines how well you slept that night based on a percentage. Your sleep quality percentage is calculated based on movements and vibrations throughout the night when you are in different states of sleep.

Testing Variables

As for the variable testing, I could track the relationship between the variables I’m testing to my overall quality of sleep. I decided to remove all of the standard variables on this app and create my own. These are based on either advice I’ve heard or some personal hunches. There are probably many factors I am missing, but here are the variables I decided to track:

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  • Worked Out – If I worked out at all that day
  • Stressful Day – This was a judgement call
  • Drank Alcohol – Usually more than 3 drinks
  • Complex Carbohydrates Before Bed – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.
  • 1 Glass of Whiskey – If I had one drink before bed
  • Melatonin – If I took a melatonin pill before bed
  • Late Caffeine
  • Prayed/Read/Meditated – any form of relaxation before bed that extended over ~10 minutes
  • Nap – If I took a nap that day
  • Glass of Water Before Bed – Only if I had a full glass, not just a few sips
  • Light meal – This was a judgement call – usually light meal and light snacking
  • Shower Before Bed
  • 8 Hours of Computer or TV
  • Computer or TV and Hour Before Bed – testing the lighting factor before sleeping
  • Honey – about a tablespoon usually in tea
  • Tea
  • Magnesium Pill – only if before bed
  • Nootropic – this is a pill to help brain function. I only checked this if it was taken within 6 hours before sleeping

 My Results

Lets start by looking at my best night sleep.

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This was on the night of Sunday Feb 23. I reached deep sleep on 3 different occasions and woke up a few times throughout the night. Also, my time in bed – 7:56 hours – was above my average over the 150 days – 7:34 hours. As you will see, many of these variables in the sleep notes are linked to a more favorable night sleep.

Now, here shows the variables and their individual effect on my quality of sleep. This is over the course of the 150 days, with some variables being added in later. Graph 2 has a little overlap in the wording.

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As you can see, about a handful of these variables are correlated with a good/bad night sleep. The highlights are:

  • Drinking alcohol was linked to a 6% decrease in quality of sleep.
  • Shower before bed was linked to a 4% increase in quality of sleep.
  • Relaxing before bed via reading/praying/meditation was linked to a 4% increase in quality of sleep.
  • Taking a melatonin pill before bed was linked to a 6% increase in quality of sleep.
  • Late caffeine was linked to a 5% decrease in quality of sleep

I pretty much agree with all of these. I anticipated that melatonin and quality relaxation would positively affect my sleep. I also figured alcohol and caffeine would have negative effects.

Here are a few results that I question the legitimacy of:

  • Computer an hour before bed having a positive impact on quality of sleep
  • 8 hour of computer and TV having a positive impact on quality of sleep
  • A Nootropic pill having a negative impact on quality of sleep

These don’t seem to make sense to me. But then again, these variables are not isolated so not much weight can be put on these findings.

Lastly, see below for my quality sleep per day of the week. Friday and Saturday are the days I am most prone to having more than one cocktail. This shows the significance of some lack of sleep and alcohol.

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According to these results of the individual testing, my ideal night sleep would include computer/tv an hour prior to bed, tea, a magnesium pill, a light meal, a shower before bed, read/prayed/meditated, complex carbohydrates before bed, 1 glass of whiskey, a melatonin pill, honey, 8+ hours of comptuter/tv, and a glass of water before bed.

What can be improved with this app

There are a few issues I have with this app. First, there is no way to track variables when you wake up – only before you set your alarm. I would like to track a few variables such as temperature, lighting (sun through windows), initial energy, and mood upon waking. Also, the only way to record your quality of sleep (besides the sleep quality % calculated by the app) is to choose between the 3 smiley faces (good/moderate/poor). I didn’t find this to be useful at all. Ideally, this app would allow you to take notes when you wake up.

Some take-aways from this 150 day experiment is confirmation of what I anticipated going in. Late alcohol and caffeine should be avoided if you need a good night sleep. It is often easier – and more effective – to remove or limit factors than to add them in. Also, occasionally take a melatonin pill before you sleep (I often take one if I am exposed to a lot of light prior to bed). Also, try to find a way to get into a relaxed state before bed. You can find many ways to accomplish this. Ideally, TV would not be in the mix however because the artificial light may throw off your body’s natural melatonin response.

I just recently discovered a new free alarm clock app called Dream:On that claims to help influence your dreams. It plays light music during the night to influence your subconscious mind and ultimately play a factor in your dreaming. Sounds interesting enough to give it a shot.

I’m also moving on to improving my morning routine.

I’m often in a rush in the morning so this many be a little more difficult…

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What I’m Implementing

This is a new type of series I am starting. I am always testing different things in my life and I figured I would share them with you. You can follow my progress/updates/results on the Experiments page above.

Below are a few things I am implementing into my routine.

  1. Doing intermittent fasting 1 day a week. For me, this involves not eating anything after 9:00 p.m. and nothing before 12:00 p.m. the following day. This is a 15 hour fast. All I can consume is water and coffee. The one exception is I can use my home-made coffee creamer, which contains good fats like MCT Oil to help my body get into a state of ketosis (fat burning mode). I have done this in the past without much trouble and with positive results. I plan to bump this up to 2 days a week. Fasting is one of the topics that 2013 taught me about. This is for health benefits and to test the effects on my mood, energy, and weight.
  2. I am applying the same fasting principles to the vitamins and supplements I take. So 1 day a week I will go without any pills. This is to make sure that my body does not become dependent on these. I’ve never really heard of anyone recommending this, but I have a feeling there is something to it. I haven’t done much research about supplement cycling so I am starting here. This may get more detailed…especially if I get a micronutrient test in the near future.
  3. Plan my morning the night before. I will pick out which clothes I am wearing the next day, my breakfast and lunch, and have my vitamins/supplements ready, and basically turn my first 10-20 minutes into a routine. Everything I do during this period will be planned out the night before. The purpose of this is to eliminate any unnecessary decisions at the very beginning of my day. I want to have a clear mind so I can focus on what I want to and set the tone for the day.

In order to stay on top of the fasting and supplements restriction, I have set reminders on my iPhone Calendar. I will be fasting on Tuesday and not taking supplements on Wednesday. I may adjust this accordingly.

These habits above should not only improve my well-being, but will exercise my very under-utilized “discipline muscle”.