27th of March 2014

The Mating Grounds Guide: Sleep

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The Mating Grounds Guide: Sleep

Writing about sleep is a little weird, simply because you’ve been doing it your whole life. And (except for insomniacs who have a whole different set of issues to worry about) everyone thinks they’re perfectly fine at it.

And they’re almost all wrong. The fact is, most Americans are sleep deprived. And the ones that are sleeping, usually don’t get enough quality sleep.

But so what? Who cares if sleep isn’t perfect, as long as it’s good enough, right?

The reality is, sleep is possibly the most important thing you can do for your health (along with eat right). Intelligence, emotions, decision making, weight, overall attractiveness—they are all heavily determined by the length and quality of your sleep.

It may seem a bit outlandish, but it’s not: How well you sleep can determine how well you do everything else in your life, including deal with women.

This guide will explain why that is so, how to get the best sleep possible, and how to troubleshoot your sleep if you are still having issues.

The Science Of Sleep

Here’s what’s crazy about sleep: We know almost nothing about why we need sleep, what purpose it serves, how it works, or even how or why it evolved. Lots of theories, no real understanding. The reality is, there hasn’t been a ton of research into sleep, simply because it can’t be patented or sold, so there is little financial incentive to understand it.

Here’s what we are certain about:

1. All mammals require sleep. We don’t know why, but we do know it’s crucial to survival for all mammals.

2. If you don’t get enough sleep, you die. You can actually go far longer without food than you can without sleep before dying. It can’t really be cheated or manipulated. If you don’t pay your sleep debt, you perish.

3. The quality of your sleep is one of the strongest correlations to health known. Good sleep is one of strongest correlations to all factors of good health, and bad sleep is one of the strongest correlations to bad health.

But you probably knew this, even if you don’t “know” it. How do you feel after you miss a bunch of sleep. Shitty right? And how do you feel when you get a great, long nights sleep? Fantastic, right?

Well, there is a metric shit ton of science that backs this up. I won’t bore you with lots of writing here; I’m just going to link the research and explain the basic finding.

– Lack of sleep sacrifices memory abilities and even impairs the generation of nerve cells.
– A full night of sleep will enhance your memory performance and creative problem solving skills the next day
– Sleeping 6 hours or less per night leads cognitive performance deficits equivalent to up to 2 nights of total sleep deprivation.
– Going a full day without sleep makes your cognitive and motor skills roughly equivalent to someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.10.
– One night of sleep loss impairs innovate thinking and decision making.
– Sleep deprivation can lead to riskier decision making.
– The best violinists in the world do one big thing differently than the violinist who become music teachers: they slept much more. An average of 0.8 hours per night longer than the students who went on to become music teachers (8.6 h vs. 7.8 h), and were far more likely to nap during the day.
– Students who sleep less do worse in school tests and on IQ tests.
This study (pdf) has a good summary of the existing literature on the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation, and lists:

  • involuntary microsleeps
  • unstable attention-sensitive performance, with increased errors and omissions
  • cognitive slowing
  • increased effort required to remain behaviourally effective
  • slower response times
  • short-term recall and working memory get worse
  • reduced learning of cognitive tasks
  • decreased performance in tasks requiring divergent thinking
  • >Response suppression errors increase in tasks primarily subserved by prefrontal cortex
  • Growing neglect of activities judged to be nonessential (loss of situational awareness)

– Lack of sleep can lead to depression and exacerbate pre-existing psychological illnesses.
– Lack of sleep can mean you respond more emotionally to problems rather than with reason (more context on this paper here).
– Sleep deprivation is linked with an increase in people’s dissatisfaction with their primary relationships.
– Sleep helps you to see the positive in your interactions.
– Mood is affected more by sleep deprivation than either cognitive performance or motor function
– Chronic sleep problems put you at higher risk of suicide.
– Depression and anxiety are closely linked to insomnia.

Physical Health:
– One night of sleep loss increases systemic inflammation.
– One study found that skipped sleep led to a shrinking brain.
– Sleep loss hurts your heart and kidneys and your blood pressure.
– Sleep loss greatly increases risk of obesity and diabetes.
– Numerous studies link partial sleep deprivation/disruption to an increased risk of death
– Sleep helps with cutting your risk for the common cold and other basic illnesses
– Sleep makes you more resilient to daily stress
– Insufficient sleep is linked to the development of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression.
– Short sleep duration is a risk factor in hypertension and increased blood pressure.
– Lack of sleep can make you eat more.
– Working night shifts has been linked to increased risk of cancer (although this study only looked at breast cancer, so don’t know if it applies more widely).

– Sleep spurs the release of human growth hormone (HGH), an essential player in cellular regeneration and muscle growth
– Lack of sleep can increase levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and decreased levels of leptin, according to this study
– A good night’s sleep will further boost your athletic performance, including speed, accuracy, mood and overall energy.

How To Sleep Better

There are about 7 key areas to focus on to get good sleep (and all the benefits that come from it). I’ll list them and tell you the ideal situation for each. The closer you get to following the suggestions, the better for you.

But this is important: Don’t worry about being perfect. No one is a “perfect” sleeper. Just be good at sleep, and that’ll be fine.

1. Time asleep:
This might seem obvious to you, but for many people, it’s not: You need to spend enough time asleep. For most people, this means 8-9 hours of sleep a night. Some people can do really well on 7, but very few people can be healthy on less sleep than that. Set 8 as your benchmark, try to get 9, and you’ll be good.

If you’re not sure how much sleep you need: Listen to your body. If you are tired when you’re waking up, you need more sleep. Unless you are seriously depressed or have some other health issue, you can’t actually oversleep–your body will wake you up when you have paid your sleep debt.

Sleep is not lazy, it’s not a waste, it’s crucial to your health, so count it that way, and give your body all that it needs.

2. Darkness:
This is just as important as the time you spend asleep: You really, really should sleep in a pitch black room. And by pitch black, I mean no light at all. Not a single photon if you can swing it.

This makes a huge difference. I recently moved my bed into my walk-in closet (which is big enough for my bed) that has no windows, and now that I sleep in pitch black, I easily fall asleep, stay asleep for 8 to 9 hours a night, and wake up every morning feeling refreshed and energized. That was VERY hard for me before. Blackout curtains also work really well if you can’t move into your closet (those are the type most hotels have).

If you can’t swing a truly pitch black room, at the very least use a sleep mask over your eyes. Or anything that limits the amount of ambient light when you sleep. That means your alarm clock with the red light. That means your iPhone light. That means ALL LIGHT.  This is so important to getting good, healthy sleep: eliminating (or severely limiting) ambient light.

3. Night time light exposure:
This is the other way your body gets the wrong kind of light at night: screens. Electronic devices–like the computer you are reading this on right now–produce a blue light that has a similar effect on our melatonin as high-intensity light like sunlight. This makes it much harder to fall asleep. I thought it was bullshit, until I tested it and was amazed by the results. I found myself falling asleep much quicker when I figured out how to eliminate the blue lights of electronic screens (see below).

Ideally, avoid screens for 1.5-2 hours before going to sleep. I know that’s unrealistic for most people, even me; it’s 10pm as I type this.

The easier solution is what I use: f.lux software. It’s free, and it converts your computers blue light to soft candle light, which doesn’t inhibit sleep.

Or, you can buy Blue Light Blocking Shades. Yes, they’re kinda goofy, but they really, really work.

4. Consumption:
What you eat has a huge impact on how you sleep. I’ll cover the big things here, most of them should be obvious:

–Stimulants: Minimize all stimulants past 4pm, especially caffeine, as it is one of the biggest. This includes chocolate, which has a lot of caffeine, though not as much as coffee

–Alcohol: Limit your alcohol to 1-2 drinks, make sure the last drink is about 2 hours before bed (alcohol it’s a stimulant first, then a depressant once you drink a lot). Alcohol suppresses deep and REM sleep, and it can cause dehydration, which also interrupts sleep.

–Eating: Be careful eating too much right before you go to bed. It’s never easy to sleep on a super full stomach.

5. Temperature:
Humans sleep best at cooler temperatures, mainly because it lowers our body temperature, which occurs naturally during sleep anyway. Most people sleep best between 65-70 degrees. I keep my bedroom at 65 degrees.

NOTE: Exercise increases body temperature, which makes us more awake and higher energy during the day, and therefore, hit lower troughs at night. No exercise within 3 hours of sleeping (because the increased body temperature will make deep sleep more difficult).

6. Consistency:
Our bodies work on a very consistent day-night cycle (called a circadian rhythm). The simplistic explanation is that humans are designed to wake up when the sun comes up, and go to sleep when it goes down. This is genetically programmed. We do it even when locked into places where we can’t see the sun. If you can set your sleep schedule like this, it’s ideal for your hormonal health.

Now, of course, this is utterly unrealistic for most people. I don’t even do this. Only old retired people and people without electricity can live a sunup-to-sundown existence.

So here’s the next best thing: Create a consistent time you go to bed every night. If you can establish a consistent bedtime, say midnight, then your body will inevitably adjust and you’ll wake up at the same time every day too, in that case 8 or 9am. If you can do that, it’s almost as good as living a true day/night circadian rhythm.

7. Sleep Environment:
The conventional wisdom is to not engage in any other activities in bed besides sleeping and sex. The science suggests that it helps to teach your brain that the bed is a place for sleep.

I see the logic in this, but I have to be honest: I read every night before I go to bed, and I read in my bed. It doesn’t seem to bother me. I grew up reading in my bed before I went to sleep, and at this point, it feels weird not to do it. But again, most evidence indicates that this inhibits sleep for some people.

You should test this on yourself, and see how it works for you. My guess is that if you’re one of the people who have problems falling asleep, this is important for you. If you don’t have that issue, this isn’t a big deal.

I Still Can’t Fall Asleep: Anxiety & Sleep

Aside from actual, neurological sleep disorders–which should be addressed by specialized doctors–the vast majority of insomnia is the result of unaddressed anxiety. Basically, the emotions that you won’t face during the day are keeping you up at night. Seriously, that is why you’re tossing and turning in your bed.

This is explained in depth here, and here.

How do you solve this? The best solution is to address the problem at the source: fix your anxiety. Granted, that is often a difficult and long process, and beyond the scope of this piece (though we’ll address this in other pieces soon).

So what can you do in the short term? Here are some pretty effective short-term solutions not being able to fall asleep:

Medications/Sleep aids
In my experience, I have found two over the counter drugs to work really well. There are two others that don’t work for us, but work for other we will list. But generally speaking, using pills to help you fall asleep should only be short term solution. Long term reliance on any of these things is not good for you or your sleep:

1. Doxylamine (often called Unisom): Doxylamine is sedating antihistamine. This stuff is not overly strong, but generally puts me out within the hour, and can induce long sleeps, up to 12 hours. I will use this sparingly, only if I know I’m going to have problems sleeping, or if I have slept poorly for a few nights and want to make up my sleep debt.

2. Melatonin: Melatonin is a “natural” sleep aid. It is actually a hormone, and it influences your natural sleep-wake cycle. It definitely makes me tired and helps calm anxiety, but since it is a hormone, it impacts other hormones and is much less effective with long term reliance. I use this only very rarely, usually when traveling or when I need to sleep, but can’t spend 10+ hours asleep like I tend to use Doxylamine for.

3. Diphenhydramine (usually called Benadryl): Diphenhydramine is anothing sedating antihistamine. This is an unusual drug; it works very well on some people, has no sedating impact on others, and has counter-impacts on many people as well–meaning it makes them more alert.

4. Valerian root: A lot of people swear by valerian root. I’ve used it and it had little to no effect on me. This could be because it was a bad batch (remember that supplement quality is unregulated by the FDA), or it could be other reasons. The active ingredient isn’t clear, and we have no real idea how or why it induces sleep, but many people use it effectively.

Psychological Tricks
This is not an exhaustive list, just a few things that have worked for us and lots of other people that have problems falling asleep at times:

1. Write down everything you have to do tomorrow before getting into bed, externalizing these thoughts and reducing the need to dwell on them as you fall asleep.

2. Focus the hour before on things that don’t make your mind race. For example, if you are a reader, non-fiction usually make you think, so read fiction instead.

3. Meditate. Spending even just 10 minutes sitting still, breathing deeply and letting your mind wander where it will can usually calm most of your thoughts and center you. Then get up and go to bed.

4. If you lie in bed awake for over 30 minutes, create a state change. Do another activity to eliminate the frustration/anxiety of not falling asleep. When you start to feel tired, give it another go.

Unusual (but effective) Solutions
Here are a few things we’ve found that are unconventional, but work really well if you’re having problems sleeping:

1. A 5-10 minute ice cold shower: I know, it sounds fucking crazy, but I do it for two reasons:

–Nothing puts me out faster. If I can make it through five minutes of freezing cold water, 99% of the time I am completely out within 10 minutes. It’s like taking an Ambien, but you don’t wake up naked walking around on the freeway.

–It spikes testosterone: Seriously, the research on this is very clear, it has great hormonal health benefits, especially for men.

2. Honey & Vinegar/Cheese: Combined with cheese, honey makes me tired. This is very common in other people as well. Cheese alone works OK, and honey alone works OK, but together–with nothing else–I am usually out in about 20 minutes.

No one is precisely sure why this is, but there is research validating the idea here, and here, and Seth Roberts has some idea why, you can check his blog out.

I have also used honey mixed with apple cider vinegar. I will warm up a cup of water, put in honey, some apple cider vinegar, and maybe lemon if I have it. Helps calm me and get me into a sleepy mood very well.

It appears honey is the key ingredient, but it doesn’t work with any other sweet that I’ve tested.


We get questions about this a lot: Yes, napping during the day is fine. If you’re tired, sleep. The ideal time is the natural slump in circadian rhythm that occurs 6-8 hours after waking up, which usually coincides with 2-4pm in the afternoon. There is nothing lazy or bad about napping; its good for you. Listen to your body and give it what it needs.

One thing to watch out for is overnapping. Sleeping too much during the day can mess up your sleep schedule. It seems that the maximum nap time is about 45 minutes or less. Anything more starts tends to mess with the sleep of most people.

Sleep Debt

One last word about sleep “debt”: Sleep loss is cumulative. Meaning that if you sleep 5 hours one night, you “owe” your body those 3 lost hours, and need to find a way to get it back.

This is why, after a long night out, you will not only sleep late that day, but still feel tired and end up sleeping late the next day as well. Your body has a certain amount of sleep it needs each day (an average of about 8.5 hours person), and if you don’t get it at night, you should either get it through naps, or sleep later the next day.

Don’t think this is weakness or laziness. This is very crucial to health.

Further Resources

Sleep deficit: the performance killer (HBR)
Can a person every catch up on a sleep deficit? (reddit AskScience discussion – actually a good discussion on sleep with sources cited etc.)
The science of sleep (Farnam Street – long post, drawn from a number of different books)
SleepDex – good resource on benefits of sleep, sleep hygiene, sleep disorders (although few sources cited)
Mark’s Daily Apple: The Definitive Guide to Sleep
Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep


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