March 30, 2015
I remember the very first night I couldn't fall asleep.
It was a Tuesday night six years ago, and I had a big flight on Wednesday morning to travel to Kona for Ironman Hawaii. I knew I needed a solid night of sleep to feel good during the next day of travel, and to arrive at the Big Island ready to race. But ironically, the knowledge of my ensuing flight, my ever-approaching alarm clock sound, and the worries racing through my head about whether I'd remembered to pack everything kept me tossing, turning, staring at the ceiling, trying different combinations of pillows, adjusting the room temperature, putting earplugs in, taking earplugs out, and trying every basic resting strategy I knew of so that I could squeeze in a few precious hours of shut-eye. If I'd have known then what I know now, I could have easily beaten the insomnia within just a few minutes, but at that point in my life, my biggest biohack didn't go much further than flipping to the cold side of the pillow.
Of course, since that night, I've taken many a deep dive into hacking a good night's sleep. I've written an entire book on training, nutrition and biohacking, along with articles like How To Hack Your Sleep, Beat Insomnia & Get Into A Deep Sleep Phase As Fast As Possible, creepy melatonin vaporizing videos like this, and plenty of podcasts like this that discuss just about every sleep-enhancing nutrient and tactic known to man.
But maybe you want to skip the drugs. Let's just say you're tired of powders, oils, capsules, liquids, teas, herbal formulations or chemical cocktails to manage your sleep, and you're simply wanting to pop fewer pills.
Or perhaps you're perfectly happy with the “better living through science” that supplementation can give you and you're already trying the latest and the greatest, but you're interested in sleep strategies that go beyond encapsulated formulas.
Or maybe you're already experimenting with not only supplements, but also phone apps, lights, sound and more, and you're just one of those people who is on a constant quest to gain even more tidbits of knowledge that give you a sleeping edge or just a bit more time in your deep sleep phase.
Either way, keep reading, because in this article, I'm going to reveal 5 biohacks to beat insomnia, sleep better on airplanes and shut down stress.
Sleepstream is an app that contains over 8 hours of downloadable audio based around the concept of binaural beats, but also including calming sounds such as rain, wind, waves, etc. that have been handpicked and crafted to remove irritating frequencies and volume inconsistencies, along with guided voice meditations for sleep, relaxation and energy.
There are over 140 options for “Binaural & Isochronic Brainwave Programs” within the app, and these are split into 15 separate brainwave categories that include sleep, relaxation, energy, focus, meditation, hypnosis, learning, mood, motivation, creativity, lucid dreaming and more. To me, this initially seemed like a dizzying and confusing array of options, but after about 20 minutes of playing with different sound, music and binaural beat combinations (and annoying my wife with combinations of piano music, lucid dreaming binaural beats, and crackling fire sounds) I settled upon 1) the pre-programmed 8 hour sleep phase download available within the app (this cost me an extra 99 cents), which begins with light sleep phase beats and gradually lulls you into deeper phases and 2) the pre-programmed “Power Nap” setting. Both of these work like a charm for their intended purpose.
Now here is something important to understand about binaural beats in apps like Sleepstream: they work best with headphones, as opposed to simply pumping out the beats via an audio player next to your bed. Since I'm not a fan of using wireless bluetooth radiation technology next to your head all night while you sleep, I personally use a wired solution, and the best I've found so far are called “SleepPhones“, which allow me to sleep on my side without an earbud or a bulky noise-isolating headphone getting in my way or digging annoyingly into my ear.
My single biggest complaint about SleepPhones is that they don't do a great job blocking out external noise. While this typically isn't a problem in the bedroom, it can be an issue in airplanes and other public places where you may want to catch some zzz's or do any other form of meditation. What I have found, though, is that when I combine SleepPhones with my favorite Sleep Master sleep mask, I'm amazed how well the ambient noise is blocked!
Finally, if you're scratching your head about binaural beats and have no clue what I'm referring to, then please reference the article “How You Can Use Sound And Music To Change Your Brain Waves With Laser Accuracy And Achieve Huge Focus And Performance Gains“, and/or read up about them on this binaural beats wiki page. When you first hear them, they sound like a gentle, quiet, oscillating hum that hypnotically wanders back and forth between each of your ears.
At first glance, Pzizz and Sleepstream seem similar. Both are sleep apps, both have options for music, voices, and binaural beats, and both are adjustable for everything from a 10 minute power nap to 12 hours of steady sleep.
But there is one major difference: compared to the hundreds of noise combinations in Sleepstream, Pzizz is relatively simple. It simply has one Power Nap module and one Sleep module. That's it. About the only other thing to fiddle around with on the Pzizz app is that you can choose to have the deep, soothing, mildly hypnotic male voice turned on or off (or just have the voice at the beginning, after which it gradually disappears – which is what I do).
Like Sleepstream, Pzizz is a relatively bulky download to your phone. This is because it's not streaming the sounds from an internet source as it plays. You should actually be happy about this, because it means you can play Pzizz sounds as you nap or sleep with your phone in airplane mode, which is important if you want to avoid constant exposure to WiFi and Bluetooth.
Now here is where Pzizz comes in quite handy: when I'm traveling, at conferences, speaking, or have an extremely busy or stressful day, I'll often try to nap but simply can't fall asleep. And it can be frustrating when you're just laying there in bed with you're eyes closed knowing that your brain isn't experiencing any semblance of relaxing delta or theta waves, and is in fact distracted by thoughts about where you need to be when actually do finish attempting your nap, or frustrated about the fact that you can't fall asleep.
But when you turn on Pzizz on anywhere from a 5 minute to a 60 minute power nap mode, it lulls you into the same brain wave patterns as you'd normally be experiencing during sleep, even if you can't fall asleep. And when the app finishes it's power nap module, it gradually plays sounds that amp you back up into alpha brain wave production. So you can lay there on your back in bed, completely relaxed, experience a similar sensation to sleep, and wake up feeling just as refreshed and awake as if you had taken a nap. Interestingly, I've increasingly found that since using Pzizz I fall asleep during power nap mode anyways, even during a busy, stressful day. From what I understand, this is due to brainwave entrainment, which is the process via which my brain has actually been trained to go into a deeper state of relaxation when I turn Pzizz on.
Here's the thing I didn't understand about Pzizz until recently: it generally plays a 2-5 minute relaxing soundtrack, then shifts into a different soundtrack. There are in fact so many soundtracks within the random algorithm in the app that it creates a different soundtrack every time you use it, and can technically playover over 100 billion combinations. But I always thought this was somewhat strange, compared to just looping the same soundtrack (e.g. a track I “favorited”) repeatedly. So I wrote to the good folks at Pzizz and asked them why the soundtracks are so randomized and if there was a way I could just loop the same soundtrack over and over again, and this was their reply:
“Thanks for emailing support. You can save favorite settings, but the track will still randomize. This is why Pzizz works – it gives you a unique track every time so that your subconscious never starts to anticipate what’s coming next. There are a few areas in each track that are the same to provide a “hook” of familiarity, but the randomness is really what makes Pzizz work so well. So, the short answer, I guess, is that no, there is no way to have it stay on exactly the same track.”
So there you have it. The brain can be fooled by randomness. Anyways, aside from an unfortunate name that sounds like a descriptive term for urination, Pzizz is a very useful app, and until I discovered SleepStream, was actually my favorite. For my own purposes, I now rank SleepStream slightly higher, but if you're one of those people with a very busy mind who fall asleep faster when your subconscious is distracted and unable to grab onto that hook of familiarity, Pzizz may be a better pick for you. As with most of these biohacks, experiment with both and see which works best for you.
3. The EarthPulse
The EarthPulse is not a phone app, but is rather a completely inaudible (and admittedly expensive) magnet which emits a Pulsed Electromagnetic Frequency (PEMF). You place the magnet under your mattress with the North pole side of the magnet facing up, and then select your desired mode from the small controller attached to the magnet. The mode is dependent upon which sleep (or wake) cycle you prefer, and each mode will emit a slightly different frequency that both vibrates your cells (good for recovery, removal of inflammation, bone and soft tissue healing, and cellular metabolism) and also elicits either alpha, delta, or theta brain wave production (many of the modes below walk you through each in a stepwise fashion).
Problem is, this thing can get pretty dang complex. The modes you can select are as follows:
RECOVER-MODE – Up to 12 hours 9.6 Hz with wake up phase and 1 extra hour alert at 14.1 Hz buffer, whether set for 8 hour or 12 hours. Also perfect for power naps.
SLEEPEASY – 9.6 Hz for 10 Minutes (when set for 8 hours) then stepping down to 3 Hz in 60 seconds then stepping down further to to 1 Hz over course of during following 15 Hz – back up to 3 Hz for total of 4 cycles then wake up phase and 1 hour 14.1 Hz buffer.
SLEEP-MODE 1 – 9.6 Hz stepping down to 1 Hz over 45 minutes (when set for 8 hours) then back to 5 Hz stepping down to 1 Hz – back to 5 Hz for total of 4 cycles then wake up phase and 1 hour 14.1 Hz buffer to nag user to wake.
SLEEP-MODE 2 – 9.6 Hz stepping down to 1 Hz over course of 45 minutes (when set for 8 hours) then stepping back up to 3 Hz / down to 1 Hz / back to 3 Hz for total of 4 cycles then wake up phase and 1 hour 14.1 Hz buffer.
SLEEP-MODE 3 – 3 Hz stepping down to 1 Hz back to 3 Hz for total of 4 cycles then wake up phase and 1 hour 14.1 Hz buffer.
SLEEP-MODE 4 – 1 Hz start to finish; plus 1 hour 14.1 Hz wake up phase.
ALERT-MODE – 12 Hz to 14.1 Hz back down to 12 Hz for up to 12 hours (our choice as an interuptive field for EMF protection during waking hours).
MANUAL-FREQUENCY-MODE – Set for 1/2 hz – 14.1 Hz for up to 12 hours w/additional 1 hour 14.1 Hz buffer to help you wake when used for sleep.
ENTRAINMENT-UP – 9.6 Hz to 1/2 Hz back up to 14.1 Hz in 30 minutes or 1 hour then shuts off.
ENTRAINMENT-DOWN – 9.6 hz to 1/2 Hz and shutting down. 1 hour setting only.
Holy hell. That's a fair bit of complexity if all you want to do is settle down for a good snooze. So while you can certainly knock yourself out with the manual and the dizzying amount of information on the EarthPulse website, I can give you a few simple tips based on works well for me and my clients who have used the EarthPulse:
-Don't use it every night that you sleep. I only use mine for the first 2 nights when I've returned from domestic airline travel and the first week after I've returned from international airline travel. I also take it on international trips and use it every night under my mattress when traveling internationally.
-Use Recovery mode for naps (this mode is OK to use every day). Use SleepEasy or Sleep Mode 4 for sleep. I still don't quite understand the reasons why, but almost everybody I talk to feels best with these two modes, whereas I've found that some people wake up in the middle of the night when using the other modes.
-If you're a true biohacker, get a double whammy by purchasing a cheap headphone splitter like this and then order an extra magnet with your EarthPulse so that you can plug two magnets in and have one under your mattress near your head and one under your mattress near your legs.
And of course, the other cool thing about the EarthPulse is that A) it's totally silent, but if you want PEMF under you and binaural beats in your ears, it can be combined with Pzizz, SleepStream or Omharmonics; B) if you ever break a bone or get a stress fracture, PEMF is a research-proven therapy to help an injury like that heal faster.
OK, we're back to sound-based biohacks. OmHarmonics is described as “next-generation binaural beats meditation audio technology” that “unlike other existing meditation audios, is augmented with heartbeat synchronization and ambient sound technology that’s so advanced, it belongs 50 years in the future with flying cars and robotic butlers”.
Whatever. I have no clue if it's that proprietary, and frankly, at the time that I'm writing this, I've only been experimenting with OmHarmonics for two weeks. But it is based on the idea that guided sounds can help to teach you how to meditate properly if that's something you want to learn how to do, and it is comprised of the following combination:
1. Binaural beats;
2. Adjusting the beats that it plays based on the brainwaves you're producing;
3. Engineered audio tunes that lull you into either alpha brain wave production and focused meditation, relaxation, creativity, or a deep sleep state, depending on the audio you choose.
But at it's core, the purpose of the OmHarmonics app is to teach you to meditate, and that's why I got it. See, I'm personally perfectly happy using Pzizz and Sleepstream to sleep (occasionally combined with an EarthPulse if I've been traveling or I want a biohacked power nap) but none of these options actually do a very good job walking me through a guided meditation process. So OmHarmonics kinda gives you the full package, and includes a guided meditation for:
-The start of the day, when you want to wake up;
-Times when you need to focus, such as before you dive into a complex book or start into a game of tennis or golf;
-Times when you want a spark of creativity, like before a business meeting or when you're staring at a blank page of an essay;
-The end of the day, when you need to relax;
You may be wondering why I'm using OmHarmonics if I've got my morning routine dialed in, and the other options above are working just fine for me for sleep?
Simply because I want to learn how to meditate, I want the confidence that I am meditating properly, I want to be guided through meditation by the closest thing I can get to an actual meditation teacher, and I want to see if this whole “learn to meditate like a monk who has spent their entire life practicing meditation in just 1/1000 of the time that poor robed man on the mountaintop took to do it” thing actually works.
I do have one beef with OmHarmonics: I don't see any way that it is (as it claims) actually recognizing and adjusting to my brainwave production…because last I checked, you need to have electrodes strapped to your head in order to do that. But nonetheless, it seems to be working so far, and it's the longest I've sat in a long time for more than 30 minutes without a good movie or a gripping book.
Anyways, you can order the OmHarmonics package as five sets of audios that come as a digital download, 6 CD's shipped to your door (does anyone use CD's anymore?), or both an instant download along with the set of CD's, for the same price as a digital download – along with a full refund if it doesn't do the trick for your needs, whether those be wakefulness, sleep, relaxation, creativity, or meditation (*cough*, sales and marketing 101, *cough*).
In podcast 312, I described a study that I recently discovered entitled “meditation acutely improves psychomotor vigilance, and may decrease sleep need“. The study, which relied upon transcendental meditation (furthermore abbreviated TM for the sake of my sanity), found that individuals who engaged in a TM practice were able to function fine on less sleep than their non-TM'ing counterparts – particularly by performing just as high on tasks of cognitive performance, despite being sleep deprived.
This certainly grabbed my attention, because there are many days in my life during which I simply don't have as much time as I'd like to sleep, but know that if I don't sleep, I'm going to be an absolutely cognitive mess the next day, no matter how much caffeine and how many smart drugs I shove into my gaping maw. Of course, there are other reports of meditation as a replacement for or an adjunct to sleep, such as:
–Sleep quality could be improved with mindfulness meditation
–Meditation and Its Regulatory Role on Sleep
–Experienced Mindfulness Meditators Exhibit Higher Parietal-Occipital EEG Gamma Activity during NREM Sleep
So what is TM?
Best as I can understand, it is a specific form of meditation which involves the use of a mantra and is practiced for 15–20 minutes twice per day while sitting with one's eyes closed. Apparently, you should only select specific suitable mantras such as “eng”, “em”, “ema”, “shama”, etc. I think the closest I've come to this is during some yoga classes in which we've simply sat for long periods of time saying “ommmmm….”.
The TM technique is supposedly quite simple: you close your eyes – wait about half a minute, then start thinking the mantra over and over again. At the end of meditation, you stop thinking the mantra and wait about 2 minutes before opening the eyes. You don't try to control your thoughts, and if a thought comes, you do not try to push it out. You simply become aware that you are not thinking the mantra, then you quietly come back to the mantra.
From my own personal research, there doesn't appear to be a good app or book to learn TM by yourself, but TM instructors and courses exist (and yes, they are likely cringing at my extremely rough description of TM). So this December, I'll be taking a TM course, and launching into an N=1 experiment on whether a daily 20-30 minute mantra meditation practice can actually replace a bad night's sleep or chronic sleep deprivation. If so, TM could come in quite handy as a productivity and sleep biohack, and if not, I'll at least have learned a great deal of patience, a little bit more about my own mind and body, and discovered yet one more technique I can tell you about.
This is one of the more enjoyable parts about what I do: I experiment with stuff that affects your performance, recovery, fat loss, digestion, brain, sleep and hormones, and then fill you in from the trenches about what actually works, and what doesn't.
At this point I can say, in summary, that if you want some weapons against insomnia and some good power-napping tools in your arsenal, I'd absolutely download Sleepstream and Pzizz. Then, if you have the extra money, add in an EarthPulse and get the OmHarmonics audios. And finally, although I have yet to speak from personal experience, it may be worth your time to invest in a TM course if you want to learn a form of meditation that seems to have some good sleep-based research behind it.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about these 5 biohacks to beat insomnia, sleep better on airplanes and shut down stress? Do you have your own tips to add? Leave your thoughts below!