Waking Up In Between Sleep Cycles

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My Sleep Hygiene Sucks


Berlin party characters

Yeah right, sleep matters. Sleep quality matters even more. We all know it and yet often times the first thing we sacrifice when trying to get more stuff done is our sleep. We have no problem abusing our circadian rhythms and thereby disrupting our sleep hygiene by staying up too late, waking up when our phone tells us to or by not sleeping at all.

I am guilty of that myself: living in Berlin, arguably the world’s party capital, a night out usually means being out till 4-5 AM and occassionally even till 9 AM. I certainly have a blast and wouldn’t wanna miss the fun but at the same time I definitely notice that my sleep and recovery suffer noticeably for the next 2 days. The long nights out are here to stay and I am not willing to exclude from my lifestyle in the near future.

Therefore, to compensate for my irrgeular sleep patterns, I have started integrating naps (especially power naps) during the day. If you want to learn why naps are fantastic and why your body loves them, check out Eric Barker’s outstanding research summary on 5 Scientific Secrets To Naps That Will Make You Happier And Smarter.

I particularly like to lie down on my Acupressure Yogi Mat as I feel that after the initial shock of getting used to the spikes, it takes my body roughly 10 min to transition into a complete relaxation mode. The duration of my Yogi Mat Naps is usually in the range from 20-40 min. While I always feel more refreshed and energy-boosted after napping, I have noticed that the quality of my naps can vary. The same is true for my nighttime sleep. Even though I sometimes get 9+ hours of uninterrupted sleep, I tend to wake up feeling beaten up and with a noticeable brain fog on these days.


Measuring Sleep in Cycles – Not in Hours

The following excerpt from the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies gives you an insight why completed sleep cycles are a better predictor for assessing your sleep quality than total hours spent sleeping:

“Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy. Each sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, which exhibit different brain- wave patterns. For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep.

The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less than 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes). If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes–for example, after 4.5 hours, 6 hours, 7.5 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes.

In the period between cycles we are not actually sleeping: it is a sort of twilight zone from which, if we are not disturbed (by light, cold, a full bladder, noise), we move into another 90-minute cycle. A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8 to 10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed… ”

I have re-examined the data when I still used to track my sleep duration giving it subjective quality ratings each morning (5 stars being highest quality sleep).

I have found that my best rated average sleep duration lasted 7:40 h.

Doing the maths one can see that 7:30 h is a multiple of 90 min. My average sleep duration is just off by roughly 10 min. This is an interesting finding for me as I can see that with little bit of quantitative biohacking (using a simple sleep app), I was able to find my most optimal sleep duration. My ratings were lowest for sleep durations lasting approximately 6:30 h, 8:30 h, 10:00 h.

I have previosuly mentioned the sleepyti.me website. Nothing fancy but it will do the maths telling you when to wake up/go to bed such that you wake up in between sleep cycles.

Bearing in mind that good sleep is to be found in multiples of a 90 min sleep cycle, it probably makes sense to shoot for the following sleep durations:

  • 1.5 h

  • 3 h

  • 4.5 h

  • 6 h

  • 7.5 h

  • 9 h

  • 10.5 h

However, please note that 90 min is the average. I want to emphasise that the duration of a sleep cycle will be slightly different for everybody. For some it may be 70 min, for others 100 min. Find out your own by when you first wake up naturally without external time-setters like alarm clocks.

Even though my current lifestyle doesn’t like regular sleep patterns, I am still going to pay even more attention to boost my sleep quality by not waking up in the middle of an ongoing sleep cycle.

Anybody else experiencing similar benefits to waking up after a sleep cycle is completed?


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  • http://criticalmas.com/ MIchael Allen Smith

    If I ever visit Berlin, can I meet up with your party group about 6 AM? I’l be the guy with the coffee. :)

    • http://www.biohacks.net/ Stephan R

      You’re on board. You will be the guy on the dancefloor grinding fresh beans and with everyone loving you because of the coffee smell. :)