Well kids, our time together is almost over. This is the third and final blog about how we are wired to sleep, what happens when things go wrong, and what steps you can take to fight back. I hope you have already learned some useful information, put it to use, and that those of you who need the help have tried out the Sleep Remedy.
For today, I’d like to start by summarizing the two major sleep regulating pathways that we have discussed so far, and talk a bit more about how to use those principles along with some additional techniques and tools to help you get higher quality sleep. Then, I’ll finish off by discussing the practical application of your new knowledge along with how to leverage a few new tools beyond our Sleep Remedy . Also, I’ll do my best to not overload you with unnecessary medical-science jargon.
So let’s get started! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the two previous posts in this series. In part one we focused on the melatonin pathway (sleep initiation), and part two we talked about the role of GABA (sleep maintenance). These two processes both need to be optimized to get good sleep, and that is why our Sleep Remedy focuses on only these two pathways. There are other ways to “create” sleep, but as we’ve talked about in the past; nothing leads to better sleep than optimizing the normal physiology that dictates sleep.
If you’ll remember, the production of melatonin triggers some changes to neurotransmitters, and decreases the production of stress hormones. Equally important, the increase of GABA in the brain leads to that pre-sleep groggy bliss that we experience, and keeps our environment from undoing all of the good stuff that melatonin production kicked off. It’s easy to understand why both of those pathways have to be active, but let’s talk about what an imbalance in these processes can cause, and how to avoid such an imbalance before it robs you of good, restorative sleep.
If you set up your light regulation well (i.e.- decrease blue light in your eyes, three to four hours before bed) you’ll very likely secrete an adequate amount of melatonin—as long as there are not interfering nutritional deficiencies: great first step. But, if you are still working at your computer up until 10 minutes before bedtime —even with your fancy new blue light blocking glasses —you’re ignoring the equally important GABA effect. The actions of melatonin may have produced plenty of GABA, but GABA can’t do its job in the best way it knows how when you continue to stimulate your brain and body. GABA is present, and decreasing the action potential of your neurons, but “wake promoting neurotransmitters” (See part one blog) are overcoming GABA’s effect.
These same neurotransmitters are likely what wakes you up in the middle of the night, and if this is the only time you have difficulty sleeping, that is the time I would recommend using our sleep remedy—instead of using it right before bedtime. Lack of melatonin production (one reason it’s very important not to overdose on melatonin like most supplements do) also allows adrenal stress hormones to be produced and decrease of GABA production. So, if you fall asleep easily, but wake up in the middle of the night, it is still likely caused by the same two pathways we’ve been focused on optimizing to initiate sleep. If you are using our sleep remedy to help with your sleep, I recommend pre-mixing the drink (with less water if middle of the night urination is a problem for you) and drinking it when you wake up, then lay back, relax, meditate, breathe etc. Let yourself fall back asleep. Don’t “try” to go back to sleep. As always, don’t look at the clock, it doesn’t matter. You’ll wake up when your alarm goes off.
We know this by studying sleeping brains. When we put electrodes all over somebody’s skull, these electrodes can sense areas of the brain where a lot of neurons are firing at the same time (brain waves). This tells us which brain regions are most active, and by knowing which behaviors and activities are associated with various brain regions, we can analyze whether the sleeping brain waves are consistent with optimal sleep. Combined with a few other measurements, we create a graph called a hypnogram or hypnograph, and the visual information on these graphs tell us if you have optimal “sleep architecture”. These represent the various “stages” of sleep. All pathways must be working in unison in order for you brain data to produce an optimal hypnogram.
Of course, that’s not super practical—unless you have some pretty elaborate equipment, and a few sleep scientists in your home. Many of you use sleep apps on your smartphones, and many of you use wearable devices (like jawbone, fitbit, readiband etc.) to measure sleep quality. These are loosely coupled to sleep architecture, but since they are only measuring how much you are moving around, they aren’t exact. These devices are great for tracking sleep duration, and a reasonable approximation of sleep quality, but at the end of the day, you could get the same data by just laying completely still and not sleeping at all.
A more useful tool is a concept known as heart-rate variability monitoring. It’s outside the scope of this blog to explain all of the science behind these devices, but here is the basic concept; several variables affect how fast your heart beats [hormones, sympathetic tone, the heart’s built in pacer neurons (AV/SA nodes), etc.] Since you don’t have to think about contracting your heart muscles, we say that this is an “autonomic” function = automatic. The autonomic nervous system controls things we aren’t thinking about—heart rate, digestion, breathing rate, sweating etc. It is divided into two branches: “Sympathetic” = fight or flight (adrenaline) and “Parasympathetic” = rest and digest.
You could probably guess that the sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate. So, the parasympathetic should do the opposite, and indeed it does. If your autonomic nervous system is balanced, sometimes your heart rate will be slowed by the parasympathetic, and sometimes it will be accelerated by the sympathetic. This change—beat to beat—we call heart rate variability. If you are stressed out, anxious, or sleep deprived the sympathetic nervous system dominates and therefore reduces your heart rate variability (HRV). So, if you are sleep deprived you will have a low HRV, and that tells us that you are not in optimal health.
As luck would have it, some really smart people have invented products to help you train your heart rate variability (HRVT), and you can find these by putting “HRVT” into google, and read until you are sleepy (wearing blue-blockers if this is in the evening!). These are devices that measure HRV and recommend techniques that help you improve your HRV. While these training techniques can help you mitigate your poor HRV, they are mainly helping you mitigate against sub-optimal lifestyle choices—with sleep deprivation being one of the biggest. In fact, a fire-fighter just emailed me last week about his HRVT. He had been training for multiple months with a device, but after an initial rapid improvement he had plateaued in his score for multiple months. After taking our sleep product for one night, his HRVT score jumped by 20 points, and has stayed there. That is a HUGE improvement!!! In his case it was about a 40% improvement. So there! Sleep is KING!!!
Please review the tips from the first and second blog posts in this series and further incorporate some sort of tracking program to help optimize your time asleep, and the quality of that sleep. Something as simple as a pen and paper sleep log will help, but wearable devices, and HRVT are considerable improvements over writing down your approximate sleep time.
In my fantasy world I imagine everyone prioritizing sleep as number one, and building their lives around sleep. However, I am a realist. I recognize that sleep time and duration are often driven by work, kids, traffic, etc. But that’s no excuse not to optimize to the extent that your reality allows. The rest can be mitigated by leveraging our Sleep Remedy, taking naps, reduced/smart use of stimulants, eating a low inflammation diet, biofeedback, breathing techniques, meditation, HRVT and the like. All you can do is all you can do, but I promise—if you give it your best—all you can do will be enough!
As Porky Pig says; that’s all folks! But, don’t fear. This is just one blog series. We’ve covered a lot of ground in three blogs, and have only begun to scratch the surface. You’ll be seeing many more guest blogs from me, and many blogs populating my site. There is so much to cover about sleep, that I suspect I will have plenty of material to keep me busy for at least a few years. I hope you have found value in spending your time reading these first few blogs. I feel sincerely honored that you have invested your time in reading this information, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. My passion is to get people excited about the value of sleep, and the use of sleep as one of the biggest bats in your performance enhancing bag of bad-assery. Keep an eye out, check out our Sleep Remedy, give us some feedback, and Get Some Sleep!
How long before someone chews you out for that not being a cheetah? 🙂
Thanks for the reminder Robb. It’s interesting how we can let simple things we know are important slip without realising it.
I’m just getting back into checking my HRV every morning after falling out of the habit back in Nov last year after having abdominal surgery, which also stopped me training for a few months too. While I’ve gotten back into regularly training BJJ 2 to 3 times per week, I haven’t gotten back into the groove with my strength and conditioning training yet, with recent niggling injuries contributing to that.
In Oct last year my rested HRV (ie. on a day where I had a green light to train with full intensity) was in the high 70’s to high 80’s. At this time I was rolling 3 times per week, doing Pavel Tsatsouline’s ‘Simple & Sinister’ KB program 4 to 6 days per week, plus walking up and down over 36 flights of stairs a day, but taking tailoring how hard I trained based on what my HRV was saying. Sleep was definitely a factor and the impact on my HRV as a result of a couple of nights poor sleep was apparent in the readings.
In the past month it’s been sitting in the 70’s, peaking one day at 80, and while this probably still isn’t too bad for a 40 y/o with a sedentary day job, I’m going to start paying closer attention to how long I sleep and the quality of my sleep in relation to my HRV too.
Looking at it now, my sleep has dropped from approx 8 hrs to an average of around 7 hrs per night in the past year. While I don’t have trouble falling asleep, usually sleeping right the way through until I normally wake up naturally before my alarm, I often just don’t feel like I’ve had a good sleep and feel generally tired (though I have plenty of energy to train as soon as I hit the mat 😉 ). I don’t have much choice about what time I have to get up, but I’m going to start experimenting with getting to bed an hour or so earlier to see what difference that makes.
I’ve tried supplementing magnesium on it’s own plus a magnesium & 5htp supplement, I can’t really say I’ve noticed any benefit from the mag and the mag + 5htp just seems to disturb my sleep if anything. I guess that could be due to the dosage, as I see your sleep cocktail is all about low dosages. I’ll have to check what the dose in my supplement is.
I occasionally supplement with vit d3 during winter (last spring my levels were tested and found to be high optimal in the test range, but I can’t remember what that was.), but never thought to take it before bed.
I’ll try increasing my sleep for a few weeks and see what difference that makes, if that doesn’t work I’ll give the sleep cocktail a bash. Do you ship to New Zealand?
P.s. Sorry, what started out as a short comment turned into a bit of a brain dump 🙂
Robb Wolf says
I plan all my blog post to be short but brain dump inevitably ensues! Keep me posted on the HRV. I’ve scuttled my tracking since Sagan arrived…I just know I’m hosed and have dialed back accordingly.
Evan Hobson says
Glad to see I’m not the only one noticing a restful leopard in a tree….Thanks for the posts, this series has been great. I’ve added the blue light filters (mentioned in the first post) to my pc and have found it to be quite useful. Not only does it serve to change the screen colour, but also acts as a reminder that it’s getting late and I should be moving away from the tech.
I really appreciate your warning along the lines of ‘blue blocking is not enough, you need to not stimulate the mind with information/images.’ Good info to remember! Also, I will try Doc Parsley’s Sleep Cocktail (DPSC) when I wake up in the middle of the night, as suggested. I have not had good results with DPSC so far, but I’ve only taken it four times (each time before initial sleep) and will continue to experiment. I have a few questions:
 The DPSC package says “Vitamin D…1000%.” If this means 1000% of RDA (which is 600 IU), then a dose of the Cocktail would have 6000 IU of Vitamin D (!). Am I misreading this?
 Given Doc Parsley’s specific career context, I wonder if he tested DPSC primarily on people who are extremely physically active weight lifters. I wonder if it’s possible the product is geared toward such individuals, and not deskbound persons such as myself?
 When you first discussed the sleep cocktail in Podcast #85 (23:30 ff), you mentioned some research by your pharmacist friend, indicating that there is no significant down-regulation of melatonin production. Do you still accept that view?
 Is DPSC designed to have a day-to-day cumulative effect, such that a fair test of DPSC would require using it every day (for a week, or other period)? (Doc Parsley refers, in the DPSC FAQ, to DPSC’s effects as “subtle and progressive.”)
Robb Wolf says
1-We had some…”issues” with the packaging. It’s a mess. Vit-d is about 400 IU
2-The product was mainly tested on SEALS, who tend to be pretty damn tough but when they break, they break in a big way. they are experiencing time zone change, completely flipped circadian rhythm, bad food, stress etc. I’d put them at one extreme end of a spectrum and if this concoction helps their sleep…it’ll help just about anyone. Pulling a quote from the movie Dodgeball: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!”
3-I’m honestly not sure as the literature is inconclusive. In an effort to avoid down-regulation however, the dosage of melatonin is sub-physiologic.
4-THAT is a great question and I do not have a great answer other than the following: Some folks notice immediate improvement in sleep, others seem to need multiple exposures to get the desired effect. Many people use it on an “as needed” basis,others use it almost nightly. We are working on clinical studies to ferret out some answers to things like this.
Robb, Understood and thanks!
Great article series – thanks! One question, what do you recommend for kids? My 8 year old always seems to have trouble sleeping, and in the summer it seems even harder to help him get the sleep he needs given that the sun rises earlier and stays up so much longer (but his sleep requirements seem to stay the same).
I’m working on incorporating things you have discussed in this series along with some advice from Dan Pardi, but was also curious to know if you have any specific recommendations specifically for kids to sleep better? Thanks!
Bradley Hasse says
I really appreciated your three part series – well written with immense value. I am creating a lifestyle reset program based on nutrition, sleep, movement, and stress. The sleep series was extremely helpful. You’ve had a huge influence on me since 2009 – keep up the great work. Don’t mind the “discouragers”.
Robb Wolf says
Is the Sleep Cocktail okay for someone on an autoimmune Paleo diet?
Robb Wolf says
Thank goodness because I love the Sleep Cocktail. But had to have emergency surgery to have my gallbladder removed last week. I have a little autoimmune work to do now!
Robb Wolf says
GB bladder issue are usually precipitated by a gluten exposure…you fall in that camp?
Yep! I’ve been able to sneak gluten in without any immediate noticeable affects and so I let it get a bit out of hand.
I also have been diagnosed with dermographism which is also autoimmune. Sooooo now I need to grow up and stick to what I know is best for me. No grains, no dairy and possibly experiment with cutting eggs, night shades and nuts/seeds.
Starting with plain old strict Paleo first.
Jake Ring says
20 points in one night and stable? That guy must’ve been hammered!
I’ve noticed a definite improvement in sleep quality since I taken DPSC. I take it in conjunction w/ potato starch right before bed, which I’d been doing if I haven’t had much fiber during the day, which is usual, unfortunately. I noticed an improvement not only in HRV, but also by the lucidity of my dreams. I almost pissed the bed the dream was so real :p.
The lucid dreams are great. They stopped almost completely my first day at USMA, 16 years ago. I’ve had them only recently again.
HRV is great too. I knew from the egg chair thing at school that I couldn’t seem to ever relax. After doing HRV for a bit, I brought my RHR down into the 50s, on a regular basis, for the first time in forever. It’s also helped me finally listen to my body. I know when I’m knackered and don’t bother taking a reading and make sure I have a good restorative day.
I’m glad, by the way, you called it Doc Parsley’s Sleep Cocktail. You should make a Robb Wolf Sleep Aid. It’ll just be a washcloth and a bottle of ether.
On the general topic of biofeedback and sleep, have you heard of Dr. Villaneuva? USAR MAJ went to the ‘ghan on a combat stress team and brought his neurobiofeedback equipment with him. Started getting folks to come in as an aid for sleep and performance. PTSD rates amongst that cohort were way below average. He’s a video with one of his subjects at Ft Hood a bit later. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cb3fbriq2SU. A friend of mine has worked with him. There is, apparently, quite a bit of folks out there doing this, but there is a large variation in quality of practitioners, and a lot of holes in the understanding of how this works to fill it. It ain’t rocket surgery, but it is brain science.
Robb Wolf says
Super interesting, will check it out.
Michael Pope says
If you want to know more about neurofeedback interview Nora G. She’s been at it for years. On another note wanted to let you know that while you were at Bastyr I was on the board and trying w/o success to get rid of the Kool Aid. Alas it was not to be. I’m glad you jumped ship and took the direction you did. Your great work has been a major contribution to many.
I’ve recently started testing my HRV upon waking using the eliteHRV app. I noticed I got very low numbers (~50) and this raised my suspicion that I might be a bit over trained. Thus I took a week off from training and really focused on getting enough sleep and calories. I have been tracking my HRV since and it basically did not change (still in the 50-52’s). I’m 27 years old and pretty active, but the truth is that also I have not been feeling quite up to par lately, could these consistently low HRVs indicate some underlying cause? Or might I just have a naturally low HRV?
Robb Wolf says
Hmmm…I honestly do not know where to go with that. I’m a newb with HRV and NOT qualified to give much direction from here. I’d check the 8weeksout.com forums as those folks are wired on this.
Peter Kalksma says
Is it ok to have a double dose (2 sachets) of DPSC?
Peter Kalksma says
just found your answer to that question( yes you can have a double dose ) in earlier comments.
Hopefully my mild retardation is sleep related.
Robb Wolf says
Rob, great article. I agree, sleep is numero uno in my book and also preach this to clients. I have been using HRVT and a fitbit to help track my sleep for some time now. By now I am pretty dialed in to how I feel and perhaps don’t need to use these devices anymore but still use them. Since I’ve made sleep a priority (which was about 1.5 yrs ago) it has changed my life! From improved stress management, cognitive function to favorable body composition and overall just a better person. I average 7.5 hrs a night but after reading this article, I am going to closely monitor the quality because I think there could be some room for improvement on a more day to day basis. Thanks. Joe.
HRV: i think it is high HRV that is good, not low
Thanks for this wonderful post. One of the things that I liked the most from this series of yours’ is the application of blue light filter. As I spend my entire day in front of screens, so this advice has really helped.