5 Reasons Why Sleep Hacks Don’t Always Work

Close-up of alarm clock on night table
It seems that sleep is the new black. Almost every day, I see more and more books, articles, and media coverage touting the health benefits of sleep. You know that sleep is now a mainstream topic when Ariana Huffington publishes a book about sleep: “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.” 
Shortcuts and quick fixes are a dime a dozen with various other life skills, so it’s no wonder that you see so many more articles on various sleep “hacks.” Having gone through as many of these tips as I can, I have not found anything new under the sun. 
Here are 5 reasons why sleep hacks don’t always work:
1. Many of the hacks requires that you change your daily habits or life-work schedules. For example, your job ends at 10 PM, so you come home by 11 PM and you have to eat just before getting to bed at midnight. This can be very challenging for many people, unless you can change your work hours.
2. Many options involve taking a pill, herb, or supplement. All of the over-the-counter options to help you sleep have inconsistent effects. Granted it may work for some people, but it’s not going to work in everyone. Most ingredients are relatively harmless, so it may be worth trying, but not everything that you ingest may be completely safe.
3. Any time you take a pill, hoping that it will work, it may work in up to 32% of the time. Here’s the classic study on the placebo effect. Related to #2, this is why it’s important to do prospective randomized placebo-controlled studies.
4. Some or many of the medications you are taking may be negatively affecting your sleep. For example, many high blood pressure medications can lower the sympathetic nervous system, which indirectly can lower the pathway for melatonin production. Many mood stabilizing medications or antidepressants can cause significant weight gain, which can aggravate obstructive sleep apneas if you’re already predisposed.
5. Many cases of insomnia can really be breathing problems. Almost every time I see someone with a diagnosis of classic insomnia, I see very small upper airways. Dr. Barry Krakow reported that in a series of patients with severe insomnia who were resistant to sleep medications, 75% of patients had significant obstructive sleep apnea (average AHI was 19.5). Not only will people with obstructive sleep apnea keep waking up in the middle of the night, but will also urinate more due to a hormone that’s created by the heart in response to frequent obstructions and arousals. Multiple arousals and poor sleep with cause your stress response (sympathetic nervous system) to become overly active, and you won’t be able to shut down your brain just when you’re about to go to sleep.
Notice that for people who keep waking up in the middle of the night, it’s usually at the same time. If you wake up multiple times, it’s usually around 1.5 to 2 hour intervals. Notice that this is the same interval for one sleep cycle. As you go into deeper levels of sleep (especially REM sleep when your muscles are completely relaxed), you’re more likely to stop breathing and wake up. This is why you may keep waking up anywhere from 3 to 5 AM, when you’re most likely to go into longer periods of REM sleep.
If you stop breathing at night, no sleeping pill, herb, supplement or “hack” will work. The only way to treat this condition is to help you breathe better. 
Unfortunately, many of these “hacks” are steps you can take when you are about to fall asleep or when you can’t fall asleep. Just like everything else in life, you have to prepare early and have the discipline to get into a regular routine to get a great night’s sleep. There’s nothing wrong with trying some or all of these sleep hacks, but don’t be surprised if they don’t work at all, or they stop working after a while.
What’s worked or hasn’t worked for you? Please enter your question in the text area below.

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One thought on “5 Reasons Why Sleep Hacks Don’t Always Work

  1. Hi,

    # 1 and 3 can’t work with me. Neither changing work schedule nor taking a bill can help to improve my sleep. I haven’t heard about # 5, but do try # 2 and 4. I have tried some traditional medicine herbs which is good for removal of insomnia. It’s called Kava kava (Piper methysticum), I don’t use the extract substance which have been made into supplement, but use the real fresh leaves. Boil the leaves into water and drink like tea. It seems effective to me but not much. Anyway, this remedy will offer few or no side effects to my health. Every 2 days, I use my medication software to reduce stress with the hope that I can have good and sound sleep later on. I hardly see any positive impact but at least it could bring me comfortable feeling. Finally, I still struggle with my sleep!!!