What’s “Natural” Sleep? (more)

This morning I woke up feeling very refreshed and in a good mood. I’d slept about six hours. I’d fallen asleep within seconds of turning off my bedside light. This is what usually happens. I almost always sleep this well. Yet I don’t avoid caffeine during the day (I drink a lot of tea) nor artificial light at night (I do avoid fluorescent light at night). For a large chunk of my life my sleep was much worse. I never woke up feeling well-rested. I often woke up quite tired but unable to fall back asleep. A few hours later I’d fall back asleep and sleep a few more hours, much like the biphasic sleep called segmented sleep. Which is more natural — my current sleep or segmented sleep? As I blogged, several scientists have said that segmented sleep is more natural.

I’m returning to this topic and sort of repeating myself because sleep is so important, “almost everyone I [a NY Times writer] know complains about sleep,” and the common cold so common. (When I improved my sleep I stopped getting colds.) Here, in chronological order of discovery, is what I’ve learned improves my sleep:

1. Aerobic exercise. When I started swimming, I noticed that I fell asleep much faster — within a minute rather than within several minutes. Aerobic exercise didn’t solve the bigger problem of waking up tired, however.

2. Skipping breakfast. This reduced early awakening. If you have any doubts about this, read about anticipatory activity in lab animals.

3. Seeing faces in the morning. Perhaps this deepens my sleep. It certainly makes it easier to go to bed in the evening (I stop wanting to do anything) and makes me wake up optimistic and looking forward to the day. The difference in how I feel when I wake up is like the difference between black and white and color. These days I watch about an hour of bloggingheads on a 22″ monitor starting around 6 am.

4. Standing. I stand on one bent leg to exhaustion at least twice. Before that I got a similar effect by standing 8 hours or more, which was too hard to do every day.

5. Morning light. Every morning I go outside about 8 am. I try to stay outside at least 1 hour and ideally more.

6. Animal fat. I eat half a stick of butter (60 g) per day.

Maybe the 3 tablespoons of flaxseed oil I drink every day also helps.

Each one of these six factors probably reproduces Stone Age life, when people got a lot more exercise, didn’t eat breakfast, chatted with their neighbors in the morning, etc. Were all six factors set at Stone Age levels for the Western Europeans that Ekirch writes about or Thomas Wehr’s subjects (both of whom had segmented sleep)? Of course not. Had all six been at Stone Age levels, the segmented sleep seen by Ekirch and Wehr might have disappeared. As my segmented sleep disappeared.

My sleep still has room for improvement. When I stood for 9 or 10 hours I woke up astonishingly well-rested. I felt scrubbed free of tiredness. In the middle of the day, eight hours later, I would marvel how rested I felt. The problem with standing more now is that if I stand on one bent leg more than twice per day my legs get stronger and stronger and it starts to take a long time (e.g., 20 minutes) to reach exhaustion. I’m also unsure about the best amount of animal fat. More might be better.

Comments that the night is long and sleep is short ignore that we can see by moonlight and starlight and that people chat after dark. In contrast to this experiment with no artificial light, by J. D. Moyer, the things I do to improve my sleep produce no bad effects. And I sleep only six hours per night, which Moyer found isn’t nearly enough.

Thanks to Heidi for the Moyer and NY Times links.

14 Replies to “What’s “Natural” Sleep? (more)”

  1. Did you try my suggestion of bending your leg more? I assure you, you can easily make this exercise more difficult and keep the time down without losing relevant verisimilitude in the kind of stimulus.

    At the extreme strength-level imaginable, you could do ten or twenty minutes of continuous pistol-squats. I’m not sure any human is capable of this. Indian pelwanhi wrestlers do oodles of this particular type of squat every day:


    You’re just doing a low-intensity one-legged squat, mate – you can optimize this without losing any of the effects you’re after; I’d almost lay money on it. After all, you know that walking and standing does as well, so you can probably safely narrow the required type of stimulus down to ‘long-duration lower-body exercise’.

    Who specifically doesn’t want strong legs? If you do them with good form they won’t necessitate your doing a load of other exercises to balance out – I guess you would end up resembling a cyclist rather than a typical bodybuilder.

  2. I’ve been doing more of these things, over time. Because of the posts I’ve read here, I started standing 8 hours a day at work for two semesters. I also started skipping breakfast because of the shangri-la diet (i take the oil in the mornings). I am very active throughout the day and I go to the RSF gym at night, though. A coworker calls me a vampire, since I am up most of the night. I don’t need to sleep a lot. I see faces in the mornings, since I work at about 6 am. I don’t get much morning light, though, because I am indoors at a cafe, where I work. I started eating 1/4 stick of butter every night. It actually also makes food taste very good, too!

    This has helped me be more productive and sleep a lot less. Also, since I am taking 3 tbsp of flaxseed oil everyday, I don’t have to worry about eating food. I could eat very little in a day, so this helps me put my energy into doing things that have value to me, instead of thinking of what I will eat when I get hungry.

    Incorporating these ideas into my life has allowed me to save my job, which I was about to lose due to anxiety, and to move out of my parent’s house. Also, it has kept me out of the hospital.

    Thank you, Seth and all the people who contribute/comment on this blog!! I love all of your ideas!!!

  3. “Did you try my suggestion of bending your leg more?” No. To make it more about how long one muscle can hold out is to make it more about stressing only one muscle. Which will produce less muscle-stress signal than stressing several muscles. But perhaps there are more rounded (involving many muscles) ways to make it more difficult, as you say.

  4. I previously mentioned pistol squats and variations as well and still think they make sense. They would enlist a similar, if not identical, number of muscles and it would be simple to test with little downside and a potentailly large upside — if it worked you could perhaps get the total-refreshment feeling you got from longer periods of standing. If more challenge didn’t work, it would be clear within a few nights. Consistent with the general principles of self-experimentation you outline Seth.

    I’d do it, but I tried the 9 hr standing experiment and it did not improve my sleep, nor did the one-leg to exhaustion technique.

  5. I’ve experienced a bizarre shift in sleep habits.

    For my whole life I was a 10-hour sleeper. If I didn’t get 10 hours, I’d fall asleep in class. I could never stay awake in meetings or lectures. About 30% of every movie I saw in a theater I accidentally slept through.

    Then came a slew of intense anxiety episodes, which were probably exacerbated by malnutrition. At some point I experienced a severe shift in how I slept.

    Since then, my body is never drowsy and I can only get 5 hours of sleep per night. I wake up in the middle of the night often, sometimes taking 1-2 hours to fall back asleep. I never feel rested.

    I mention this because I find it interesting that before this occurred, I broke every “rule” in the book of sleep (drank caffeine at night, kept inconsistent sleep schedules, lots of artificial light, etc).

    Now I follow every rule in the book, yet it has no effect.

    I suspect something permanently changed in my hypothalamus (which can be damaged from stress and malnutrition), or my HPA-axis at large — permanent in the same way a type 1 diabetic undergoes a permanent biological change.

    This has been going on for about 2 years. The only relief I get is from trazodone. I will start trying some of these ideas to see how they affect my sleep. Aerobic exercise is something that had no subjective impact on sleep quality prior to my change; after, however, it does have an impact — I do sleep better if I exercise during the day. I find this interesting.

  6. @Seth

    Excellent post. Riffing on your thoughts here:

    1. Aerobic exercise. When I started swimming, I noticed that I fell asleep much faster — within a minute rather than within several minutes. Aerobic exercise didn’t solve the bigger problem of waking up tired, however.

    I think the benefits you received from swimming have to do with being in water at some temperature that was considerably less then your own body temperature.

    Reason I think this is that I used to sleep quite well after swimming pratice, playing water polo, surfing or swimming in the ocean.

    Also, Tim Ferris talks about hacking his sleep with ice baths.


    Last thing, when I do CrossFit too late in the afternoon, say 5pm, I have a very hard time falling asleep.

  7. Even though some studies [1] [2] found that skipping breakfast is associated with weight gain, the association does not mean that the first causes the second. One plausible explanation for the association, for example, is that heavier people are more likely to skip breakfast, hoping to keep their weight down.

    [1] Association between Eating Patterns and Obesity in a Free-living US Adult Population

    [2]Energy Intake at Breakfast and Weight Change: Prospective Study of 6,764 Middle-aged Men and Women

  8. Quick clarification: I should have written “One plausible explanation for the association, for example, is that people prone to gaining weight are more likely to skip breakfast, hoping to keep their weight down.”


  9. Seth, have you tried standing on a BOSU or wobble board?

    I have a inflatable blue pancake type thing called a J Fit that I got off of Amazon for about $15. I first got it to sit on at work, on the theory that maybe strengthening my core would help my back problems. (At first I could use it for only 20 minutes at a time, but now I sit on it most of the day. As a bonus, I have excellent posture. Also, my back problems are gone, but I think some other things–such as switching to flat shoes–made more of a difference.)

    Anyway, you can also stand on the JFit, or do sit ups on it, and it’s designed to put you a little bit off balance and make your muscles work harder. One legged standing would definitely be more difficult, even using the same exact stance.

  10. I am trying to figure out my sleep problems too. I live in the northwest (rainy gray Washington). I made an observation. On a sunny day, I laid out in the sun, with maximum exposure on my body, for about an hour and I DID sleep better that night. We don’t get many days that I can do that.

    I just recently came back from California where I got lots of sun exposure so I assume that my Vit D is up there (also take supplements and eat nutrient dense foods) but my sleep is still poor. Waking many times throughout the night and feeling less rested in the morning.

    So, I really think that the “sun” exposure has more effects/affects than providing the Vitamin D for me. It might be the “light” itself. Wondering if I got one of the those lights for people with Seasonal Affective Syndrome would help my sleep?

    I would like to try the standing on one leg. I will let you know how that goes.

  11. I have insomnia where I can fall asleep very easily but awaken two hours later and cant fall back asleep until dawn, it which case its time to get up.

    I have done quite a few experiments on my self with food and have found that oils or foods high in omega 3 will wake me up early. Worst offenders are flax, fish oil, chia seed. I also discovered inadvertently that omega 3 oils in lotions and other topicals are absorbed and will wake me up early even in the tiniest amounts (Im talking a few drops of flax or fish oil!).

    I should note that my insomnia began about 8 months after starting a program for acne which included 1-3 tablespoons per day of fish oil.
    Im pretty sure I messed up my omega 3 to omega 6 balance. I had symptoms of omega 6 deficiency that went away after I quit taking fish oil, but the insomnia persists. Supplementing with omega 6 oils helps somewhat but is not a cure. I fall asleep very easily but awaken two hours later and cant fall back asleep until dawn, it which case its time to get up.

    Any ideas?

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