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Sleep hacking [ace your learning by doing nothing]

    Sleep hacking is an important component of learning. If you don’t sleep well, you don’t learn! Which in turn reduces the chances of doing well in exams. What if you can improve your sleep to do better in school. And during sleep, you really do nothing but have a better outcome anyway!

    So what does sleep do to the brain?

    2 things. (Disclaimer here, I am writing about sleep with focus on learning. It will not encompass the entirety of what sleep does).

    First, think of waking hours like sitting in a restaurant and having a meal.

    Serving plates, bowls and cutlery are strewn everywhere. Condiment jars are open and food scraps drip onto the table. Tissues containing human secretions…

    Once the diners leave, the wait staff clears the rubbish tidies everything up and refills condiments. Also placing a fresh set of cutlery.

    That is exactly what sleep does.

    And it does so during NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. There are 3 phases, the last of which is most important. Some call it stage 3/N3/deep/delta sleep whilst others call it slow wave sleep.

    At this stage the body repairs, organizes itself, directs a return to the optimal body conditions.

    Second, remember the times you have dreams during sleep?

    This occurs during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. A transition from NREM sleep.

    During this phase, the brain is very active. The brain forms new memories at this stage. And scientists call this procedural memory.

    Long term memory is a type of this memory. A key component students need to leverage on for their exams.

    A specialty of this type of long term memory is in aiding problem solving and creativity.

    Remember times when one sleep on a problem only to solve it when you wake up subsequently? That’s what this type of memory contributes.

    Long term memory formation is not exclusive to REM sleep. It also forms during the the NREM stage 3 phase. And scientists call this explicit memory.

    This type of memory tries to process personal experiences (such as that in classroom learning) and factual learning into long term memory.

    The infographic below summarizes it nicely:

    sleep hacking

    Sleep hacking, a constant experiment

    I frequently remind my students they can do sleep hacking to get better sleep.

    However, because we are genetically unique, everyone’s optimal sleep conditions are different. What may work for others may not work for you.

    So there needs to be a consistent way to measuring sleep so that you know what works what doesn’t.

    I tell my students it is like a science experiment!

    You can measure sleep quality with sleep monitoring devices.

    Usually in the form of a wearable or a phone with a sleep app.

    I prefer the earlier method as it is more private.

    You wear it heading to bed and sleep as per normal. As such, the device detects your movement throughout the night to correlate it to the phase of sleep you are in.

    With the phone app, you need to follow the instructions. Many of them require you to plug-in the device to prevent the complete draining and then placed close to the bed or under the pillow.

    Either way, they have the collect the data and analyze your sleep and return a score.

    Once you are ready, you will need to set a baseline with your normal sleeping patterns.

    I recommend finding 5 random nights to measure your sleep. And the average of the 5 nights will be your baseline score.

    Now you can add an independent variable (see below) one at a time. Repeat for 5 nights and check if it increases over your baseline scores.

    If it does, then you are sleep hacking your way to a better quality sleep! Remember the better your sleep, the better you remember and learn!

    Sleep hacking, quick reminder

    For those of you who have preliminary data, you’d realize that there is big fluctuations in your sleep efficiency.

    This is likely because whilst you are adding an independent variable at a time, you are also changing something else.

    Most frequently, this is the number of hours of sleep.

    If this variable fluctuates drastically, the sleep data will skew and the readings will not be reliable.

    Therefore, try to ensure close to if not maintain consistent hours on a daily basis (including weekends!).

    What I am suggesting here is a instead of working on quantity improve the quality of sleep.

    Many laymen talk about improving sleep quantity. Although this may sound great, it may not be feasible since students are busy and cannot afford much if any additional hours to sleep.

    Independent variables to try: the sleeping drink

    This is one of the things that is easy to implement and you may see results quickly.

    I make a drink before bed comprising of 1 tablespoon each of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar and raw organic honey. Mixed in and top up with warm water to half a cup. And drink an hour before bed.

    There have been scientists trying to ascertain the science behind this. Unfortunately there has yet to be any explanation as to how it works.

    Those who try this report lesser awakenings in the middle of the sleep cycle. Awakenings in the middle of a sleep cycle interferes with the progression through the stages of sleep. Making it harder to get to Stage 3 or REM sleep.

    Independent variables to try: light exposure

    There are photo-receptors in our retina. These capture light so as to modulate our circadian rhythm.

    During sleep, a lot of biological processes are shut down so as to let restorative activities proceed.

    The circadian rhythm therefore acts like a ‘master’ switch. It modulates between the restorative activities as well as priming the body to get ready for the rigors of life.

    And light is an environmental stimuli that tells the molecular mechanisms governing the circadian rhythm to switch on. Its vice versa if there is little to no light.

    Which can become a problem when one is exposed to light during sleep.

    This can come in a variety of ways. Such as mobile phone/tablet/TV usage on the bed prior to sleep. Or even something innocuous like the LED light on the air con panel.

    But they do affect sleep.

    What I do is to reduce the bedroom environment to pitch darkness.

    I paste blackout stickers on LED panels on my air-con, have blackout curtains covering the windows, as well as eye masks to improve my sleep quality.

    In addition, a few hours before bed, all my electronic devices remove blue lights from the screens.

    Blue light resembles daylight which can have potent negative effects on sleep.

    On iOS devices, bring up the control center and hold on the light intensity to bring up the night shift option. Switch it on or automate it to switch on at night!

    sleep hacking night shift


    On computers or Android, one can download the f.lux app for the same effect.

    Independent variables to try: mouth taping

    sleep hacking mouth taping

    Mouth taping is an important sleep hacking behavior to prevent mouth breathing.

    There are several reasons why I do nose breathing instead.

    The nose has several anatomical adaptations which are crucial.

    First, nose hair filters particles in the air even small ones like pollen from getting into the lower respiratory tract (LRT).

    Second, it adds moisture into the air prior to entering into the lower respiratory tract. Moisture that is crucial in gaseous exchange at the alveoli.

    Third, it adds resistance of the air during the inhale and exhale. The ratio of which is crucial to hemoglobin releasing oxygen subsequently. This is primary reason I ask my students to try nose breathing instead.

    Because the less oxygenation one gets during sleep, the less efficient aerobic respiration. And consequently, less restorative activities powered by ATP production.

    Of course, some dental scientists says the anatomical consequences of mouth breathing is the ‘long’ face.

    So to ensure nose breathing during sleep, I will tape my mouth up.

    I usually do this by buying masking tape that has a big enough diameter to cover my mouth.

    Other kinds of tape are too sticky and will be painful to remove.

    If you find the tape torn apart the next morning, you are definitely a mouth breather.

    It may then take a few subsequent nights to adjust (in some cases even more) and thereafter sleep quality may improve.

    If however, you don’t there may be an underlying medical cause, do consider a ENT doctor consult tp explore this further.

    Independent variables to try: temperature

    This is another sleep hacking trick that may make a significant difference for some of you.

    Temperature is an important component of sleep. Because the body temperature fluctuates throughout the day.

    This is contrary to the popular belief that the temperature remains fixed at 37 0C.

    As the clock approaches daylight hours, the circadian rhythm dictates a gradual increase.

    And as night approaches, the reverse happens can you can see in the graph below.

    sleep hacking temperature

    The core temperature can drop to as low as 36.4 0C.

    This study, even identifies a gene that promotes the timing of sleep an activity.

    Hence, modifying the environment may improve sleep.

    One will have to experiment with the ambient temperatures to confirm what is optimal.

    Most recommend temperatures less than 20 0C.

    What not to do in sleep hacking

    Whilst there are drugs that induces sleep.

    Most of them interferes with REM sleep. So it is not desirable to get a prescription to help induce sleep.

    Since one cannot experience the most beneficial part of sleep in such states.

    Bottom-line on sleep hacking

    Do note I am not a sleep doctor although I have been sleep hacking my way to better quality sleep in the past few years.

    There are some medical situations that may exceed the methods of sleep hacking. In such cases you may want to consult a sleep, ENT doctor, or an alternative medicine practitioner with experience in treating sleep instead.

    Also, I will be updating the article. Do check back for the most current concepts of sleep hacking you can try out. I wish you every success in your upcoming exams.

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