How to Hack (And Optimize) Your Sleep

how to hack and optimize your sleepWhat are your best tips for hacking and optimizing your sleep, ladies? We’ve talked about different types of insomnia and using sleep cycles wisely, with lots of advice on sleep detractors like anxiety loops as well as some sleep tools like weighted blankets — but I don’t think we’ve ever had a general discussion on how to hack and optimize your sleep. (Oh, and we’ve got a TON of sleep advice for working moms — for both the sleep-deprived kids and sleep-deprived parents — over at CorporetteMoms.)

The Big Fish: The Big Things That Help You Optimize Your Sleep

“Good sleep hygiene” is the best way to get reliably good sleep, and that is all about having habits. Going to bed at the same time. Getting up at the same time. Keeping your bedroom dark enough to shut out street lights or other sources of light. Not drinking caffeine after 4PM. Not using devices or screentime right before bedtime. (I have my iPhone set so pushing the Home button 3x gives my screen a red cast, which I read about somewhere as a good halfway point if you’re the kind of person who needs to check your phone right before bed. (Here’s our last discussion on how to deal with a boss who emails you at all hours.)
Now, if you have sleep problems you might want to add other things to your routine — for example, if you can’t fall asleep you may want to try a weighted blanket, melatonin, or listening to Gentle Whispering Maria (so many readers gave her a shoutout in our post on insomnia!). If your problem is wake up in the middle of the night you may want to try a spoonful of peanut butter before bed. If you wish you could sleep “longer” in the mornings, try drinking tart cherry juice. (For my $.02, my biggest (controllable) problem right now is discipline in turning off devices and going to bed at a reliable time, but in the past I’ve suffered from that horrible 3 AM-wake-and-be-anxious form of insomnia. Of course, my youngest sleeps horribly and often comes to bed with us; his preferred sleeping position is on my head — so that sometimes negatively affects my sleep.)

The Little Fish – Smaller Things that May Affect Your Sleep

Like a lot of people, I use the app Sleep Cycle for my alarm (with a nice long iPhone cord) — the theory is that it listens to your breathing (not creepy at alllll), detects where you are in your REM cycles, and wakes you up at an optimal time (if possible — it doesn’t let you oversleep). One of the things that I like best about the app is the ability to set up your own “Sleep Notes” — essentially, a way for you to track certain things and see how they affect sleep. If you haven’t tried some of the things we mentioned above (particularly to solve problems, like weighted blankets, peanut butter, or cherry juice) this a great way to get some data on how those things affect you. I mostly track smaller things that I suspect affect my sleep:
  • taking vitamins B12 or D
  • Working out with weights
  • Eating late
  • Eating too much salt
  • Turning off WiFi on devices near my bed
  • Taking a shower before bed
  • PMS
A few interesting notes from my own statistics:
  • working out didn’t affect my sleep one way or another
  • PMS, which always FEELS like it affects my sleep, did not actually seem to affect my sleep (1% more negative sleep when I reported I was having PMS). Still, I wish there were a way to sync my sleep tracking app with my period tracking app (I’m using Clue right now).
  • Things that did have an impact over the past 6 months:
    • Vitamin D boosted sleep performance by 5%
    • B12 boosted sleep performance by 4% (although when I take B12 reliably I feel like the main benefit is that I get to have my brain for the last few hours of the day instead of staring at the wall/TV in sheer exhaustion)
    • Turning off WiFi: I saw a random thing on FB about how plants had stilted growth if they were placed near a WiFi router (Snopes notes that this is totally unverified.) After some thought I realized that my general sleep habit of having 4 WiFi enabled devices on my bedside table (Chromebook, Kindle, iPad, and iPhone) probably wasn’t the best. I changed all of them to airplane mode (even for the Chromebook, the default setting was that it was searching for WiFi even if the book was closed!) and I actively turn off WiFi on my phone before bed (but not cell service) — and saw a 3% boost in sleep performance. Not a huge trend — but it might be worth thinking about if you, like me, have a crazy number of devices near your pillow.
    • Eating “a lot of salt” – As I get older I start to get more wary of eating a lot of salt, so I was super surprised to see that this one is in the “positive” category — but over the past 6 months when I reported eating a lot of salt it showed a 7% improvement in sleep. (!)
Things that negatively affected sleep:
  • eating late (7% worse sleep)
Surprisingly the trends don’t show any real difference between stressful days, days where I didn’t drink alcohol vs days where I DID drink, days where I worked out (usually meaning walking/running but occasionally aerobics) vs days where I lifted weights, etc. I wouldn’t have suspected the weather would affect my sleep at all, but Sleep Cycle tracks the weather as a matter of course, so I can now say that I sleep 7% better during foggy nights.
How about you guys — what do you do to hack and optimize your sleep? What are your biggest challenges regarding sleep right now (or what challenges regarding sleep did you face) — and how are you trying to fix them? What are your biggest game changers as far as sleep goes?

Further reading on general sleep hygiene:

  • 20 Tips for Better Sleep [WebMD]
  • Sleep tips: 6 steps to better sleep [Mayo Clinic]
  • 37 Science-Backed Tips For Better Sleep Tonight [HuffPost]

Social media images via Stencil. 

 Wondering how to optimize your sleep so you get the best sleep of your LIFE? Great discussion with the readers on all the different things they've tried to solve different sleep problems, from trouble falling asleep, to waking up in the middle of the night, to not sleeping long enough.


  1. Gentle plea:for the love of all that is good, stop using the word “hack” to describe solutions. It had its day in the sun, and that day was 2016.

  2. Wearing earplugs and a sleep mask drastically improves my sleep quality. I resisted doing it for YEARS because I had to do it in college, and I adamently refused to re-live dorm life as an adult. I finally gave in when I couldn’t overcome the noise obstacles, and had to admit that waiting for perfect conditions to get a good night’s rest was just not viable.

    • +1 to ear plugs. Someone (husband, our dogs, neighbors’ dogs, cat) is always making noise. If I waited for silence I would never sleep. The cheap soft foam ones they sell at any CVS or whatever work like a charm.

      • Elegant Giraffe :

        I swear by my ear plugs. I have to use the slimmer cut ones, otherwise my ears are in serious pain by 4 or 5 AM. My worry is that I am so dependent on them…if I forget them on a trip or something, I’ll be in a world of trouble.

    • MsMaryMary :

      I can’t handle having something in my ears while I try to sleep, but white noise is a lifesaver. There are a ton of free apps available. I don’t like nature sounds, but YMMV. I actually use brown noise or pink noise more thanwhite noise, depending on what sounds I want to block out.

  3. I will never succumb to the “get up and go to bed at the same time every day” rule, and I just don’t care how effective it is. I work my a$$ off all week, and I’ll be damned if I’m getting up at 5:00 AM on a weekend. I want to enjoy a social life, and I’m not tucking myself into bed at 9:00 at night on a Saturday so I can be up with the roosters on Sunday.

    • Anonymous :

      AMEN. I do tend to naturally wake up early on weekends, but I always go back to bed for a few more hours AND I usually have naps too. It does make it harder to fall sleep on Sunday nights which means I’m tired on Mondays, but I don’t care. I need my weekend sleep.

    • Me too. I sleep in on weekends until at least 8:00 am, which is late, considering I get up at 5:30 am during the weekday’s to get ready for work, shower, dress, and primp! FOOEY on getting up at 5:30 on the Weekends! And when I was dateing, I looked like a mess in the morning, so I would NOT want my ex to see me looking like that! DOUBEL FOOEY!

  4. Anonymous :

    Speaking of weighted blankets, can anyone recommend something that provides weight but not warmth? I have to have something significant on top of me (so a sheet + thin coverlet won’t do), but I sleep hot. Every night is a battle – I love winter when I just leave the windows open!

    • HotatNight :

      Anything made by Sheex. It’s like the UnderArmour of bedsheets and duvets. If you don’t use their sheets, I prefer bamboo to keep things cool.

    • And FWIW, I tried a weighted blanket and absolutely hated it–and so did two of my friends. Not only was it not at all calming, it actually made all my joints hurt more in the morning. I was using the correct weight for my size. It was awful! And I’m only mid-30s–there’s no reason I should be hurting every morning from my BLANKETS.

  5. Anonymous :

    I’m a champion sleeper. I fall asleep fast and I sleep like the dead for 8 hours. My tips are:

    1) Earplugs – can’t sleep without them
    2) Shower before bed – it’s so relaxing. Showering in the morning is weird
    3) Read before bed

  6. New Tampanian :

    Kat, the fitbit app (which tracks sleep if you have the right one) ALSO now has a period tracker interface! I just discovered it recently. I think it may be really new.

  7. In-House in Texas :

    Bath & Body Works has shower steamers in different scents that I use all the time. They have one with lavender that you can use if you shower a night. It really helps!! They also have some with energizing scents that help wake you up.

  8. Anonymous :

    I’ve always had a hard time sleeping, but something with my work is making it worse right now. I’m expected to take call 1-2 weeks/month. I get middle of the night phone calls maybe 2-3 nights/week on those weeks. Also, my husband snores (different rooms aren’t an option). I have a white noise machine by my side of the bed, but it’s not great at blocking out all the snoring. I’ve been tempted by the bose in-ear white noise headphones but then I’m worried that by effectively blocking out the snoring I will also be blocking out the phone ringing that I need to deal with. Any ideas?

    • Anonymous :

      Can you wear a smartwatch that would vibrate to wake you if the phone rings?

    • Elegant Giraffe :

      I don’t use in ear headphones, but I use cheap foam ear plugs. A phone call would definitely wake me up. I think it’s because the ring is a sudden unexpected noise…but my body gets used to the ongoing noise (like a snoring husband) and I’m not woken by it so long as I have the plugs in. I would turn the ringer way up and try it one night.

    • Anonymous :

      You’re a doc, yes? About time your husband gets his snoring addressed? Could he have sleep apnea, or some other reversible problem?

  9. Anonymous :

    My issue is that I often can’t push my thoughts out of my head. I’ve found that listening to certain audio books or podcasts helps me fall asleep because I’m forced to listen to them and it pushes my worries out of my head. I like the aucoustic sleep headphones which basically are a flat headband and don’t put anything “in” your ears. I like the Bluetooth ones.

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