Hacking Sleep: How to Get by on Less Sleep

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Pop quiz: How much sleep do we really need?


(Oooo, oooo, oooo pick me, pick me!” you say)


“8 hours! 8 hours! 8 hours!” you say (hey, I didn’t call on you yet!)


It’s been ingrained in our brains: “8 hours is the GOLD standard.”



HOWEVER…What if the “Gold Standard” is actually NOT the case?


What if you (or I) don’t really need 8 hours?


Sure. There is NO denying that we humans need sleep. Like a plant that needs water and sunshine, we need good food, water and sleep.


And, there’s NO DOUBT as well that you notice the difference when you get a night of quality sleep vs. little or no-quality sleep.


Studies even confirm this—showing that, generally, cognitive function, performance and alertness is directly affected by our sleep—or lack thereof.


For instance, perhaps you’ve heard the stat: Getting less than 6 hours per night has shown to produce similar brain function as if you had a blood alcohol content of 0.05% – 0.1% (i.e. ‘drunk’) with response speeds to a stimulus up to 50% slower and accuracy measure significantly worse.


Even so…we humans are always trying to break codes; find loop holes…and what if we can feel amazing without necessarily logging in 8 hours most nights?




It may be possible…



Question: when was the last time you got 8-hours of sleep?

• The average American sleeps 6.9 hours each night.

• More than half (55%) of all Americans feel that they do not have enough time in the day

• About half of adults (49%) do not feel they get enough sleep;

• Close to one-third of adults (31%) always turn to coffee or caffeinated beverages as their way to make up for lost sleep.

• We spend 33% of our lives asleep

• Currently, 59% of U.S. adults meet that standard, but in 1942, 84% did. That means four in 10 Americans get less than the recommended amount of nightly sleep http://home/laurynlax/public_html.gallup.com/poll/166553/less-recommended-amount-sleep.aspx

And even if you do log 8-hours of sleep…how much of that is quality sleep?

• Do you wake up, still wishing you could sleep more?

• Toss and turn at night, or get broken sleep? (One in three people suffer from some form of insomnia during their lifetime http://home/laurynlax/public_html.better-sleep-better-life.com/insomnia-statistics.html )

• Get up to go to the bathroom several times per night?

• Use sleep drugs to catch your Zzzz’s? (approximately 10–million of Americans do http://home/laurynlax/public_html.better-sleep-better-life.com/insomnia-statistics.html )


(Cricket. Cricket.)


Yes, I am one in the camp often claiming: “There’s not enough time in the day!”—and consequently, sleep often takes a hit.


(Confession: 6 hours, sometimes even 5ish, most nights; I often wonder: How do people find time to sleep?!)




Chances are…no matter what your own personal sleep routine(s) or patterns are…you have somehow learned to adapt and at least survive (perhaps not thrive) off of the typical amount you log most nights.


Be it 5, 6, 7, 8, 9+ hours…different times (seasons in life) call for different measures…and unfortunately, in our rat-race society, sleep is not always catered to as a top priority with the demands of jobs, deadlines, and daily stressors we let get us down.


That being said…while it is always best to get as much sleep as possible, if you aren’t logging the ‘gold-standard 8-hours of sleep …you are not a completely lost cause.


It all comes down to the quality of your sleep, and working with your circadian rhythms—not against them.



Most people notice that they naturally experience different levels of sleepiness and alertness throughout the day, but what causes these patterns?


Sleep is regulated by two body systems: sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock.


According to the Sleep Foundation, when we have been awake for a long period of time, our sleep/wake homeostasis system tells our body that it is time to sleep (typically at night time after being awake all day). It also helps us maintain enough sleep throughout the night to make up for the hours of being awake.


Our internal circadian biological clocks, on the other hand, regulate the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.


The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day, so adults’ strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 am (deepest sleep cycle) and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 pm (afternoon crash), although there is some variation depending on whether you are a “morning person” or “evening person.”


The sleepiness we experience during these circadian dips will be less intense if we have had sufficient sleep, and more intense when we are sleep deprived. The circadian rhythm also causes us to feel more alert at certain points of the day, even if we have been awake for hours and our sleep/wake restorative process would otherwise make us feel more sleepy.




Recently, I performed a self-experiment


While my 5-6 hour routine is typically my norm amount of sleep each night, I wanted to find out if the TIME OF DAY I woke up affected my energy and how I felt throughout the day.


Night 1:
Bedtime: 2 a.m. (a rare occasion for me, but I was up late working on my new book)
Wakeup: 7 a.m. (total hours of sleep=4 hours 57 minutes)
How I felt: Like Sleeping Beauty. Seriously, I surprised myself with how great I felt, despite my low amount of sleep.


Night 2 (3 Days Later)
Bedtime: 11:58 p.m.
Wakeup: 5:15 a.m. (total hours of sleep=5 hours 17 minutes)
How I felt: So tired! Energy drained by 10 a.m., it was one of those days that all I could think about was going back to sleep that night.


What gives?! I thought.


How can I sleep about the same amount of hours both nights, but feel completely different depending on the time of day I woke up? After all, my daily routine (amount of ‘work’ or stress had not changed, nor had my diet or anything else of significance).


Answer: Circadian Rhythm.


Going back to this point: “The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day, so adults’ strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 am (deepest sleep cycle) and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 pm (afternoon crash)”…it all began to make more sense.


Around my 5 a.m. wake time, my body was still closer to my ‘deeper’ sleep cycle (biologically), as opposed to my 7 a.m. wake up time.


Although this may be personally how my body is wired, I challenge you to reflect on your own sleep habits and note the times you FEEL your best.


How much sleep do you really need?


While it is perhaps safe to say that 7-9 hours of sleep each night is the “ideal”, every BODY is different (not only when it comes to food, or fitness—how you thrive in the way you move), and that includes your sleep and energy levels.


Moreover, it also includes you quality of sleep.


If you are “in bed” for 7-9 hours, but tossing and turning through the night; waking up to go to the restroom or get a snack; or otherwise counting sheep…it perhaps may be worth looking into improving your sleep quality with some of these measures:


Regular Exercise. Exercise—particularly morning and afternoon exercise, has been coined as the ‘natural remedy’ for enhancing your sleep.  For one: Exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop later in the day (in body temperature) may promote falling asleep (Horne & Staff, 1983). Exercise also reduces insomnia (inability to sleep) by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Finally, exercise can also positively impact your circadian rhythms: Increasing your energy during the time of exercise, then shifting into ‘recovery’ mode during sleep time—with more quality sleep in order to rejuvenate from your sweat session.


Don’t Eat Tooooo Close to Bad. “Late night” eating is not bad (contrary to popular belief, it does not make you fat). But eating tooooo close to bed is…uncomfortable and does not allow for optimal digestion to occur. That being the case, if ‘late to eat and late to bed’ are in the cards for you, try sleeping with your head propped up on 2 pillows to allow for a better north-to-south process with your digestion.


Probiotic Up. Probiotics work to decrease inflammation in the body and kill out bad bacteria lingering in your gut. Since the metabolic processes of restoration happen at nighttime, there’s no time like before bed to boost your gut health (and decrease inflammation from the various stresses, toxins and even gut-irritating foods consumed during the day). Pop one before bed to enhance your health.


Dim Down. You’ve heard it before, but study after study all point to the notion that electronic devices harm our sleep cycles. A general rule of thumb is to turn off your gadgets at least 1-2 hours before bedtime. The screens on tablets, laptops, phones, and TV’s are so bright, that they confuse the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. Bright light too late at night can confuse the brain into thinking it is 2pm when it is 2am. And, even if sleep does happen, it will not be as deep, and in turn, less restorative. If anything…there’s always an app for that: F.lux for instance, is a free app that controls your screen and reduces blue light colors after the sun goes down. It is virtually unnoticeable when you’re using your computer, but it helps your body know when it’s time to go to bed. Given the fact that your body won’t make melatonin for up to four hours after you stare at your laptop, this is very helpful application. https://justgetflux.com


Black Out. Prior to the end of the stone age, humans were exposed to two different kinds of natural light responsible for regulating our circadian rhythms: During the day we had the sun, and at night we had the moon, stars, and perhaps the light from campfires. The binary day/night pattern was constant, and our biological clocks followed suit. On this note, our cortisol levels (stress) are ideally relatively low at night, allowing us to sleep, and higher during the day, allowing for the stabilization of energy levels and the modulation of immune function. However…Fast forward to today, and like the lights from your computers and devices, we have artificial light everywhere else as well (street lamps outside your windows, bedside lamps, fluorescent lights, etc.) that mess with our cortisol levels and circadian rhythms. An answer to promoting better sleep then? Total darkness! Hand some blackout curtains or heavy curtains in your room and turn the nightlights off. Sleep soundly.


Invest in a “Sun” Wake Alarm. Hands down one of the best investments I’ve ever made for more quality sleep! This alarm, in essence, acts like ‘natural sunlight’ rising in your room—all before the alarming noise of that “beep, beep, beep” goes off. The point? It taps into your natural circadian rhythms—tricking your body that you are in the ‘good ol’ days’, rising to the natural sunlight in your farmhouse or from the confines of your ‘cave.’ Your circadian rhythms are welcomed to the idea that you will be waking up soon (the ‘sun’ starts rising about 30 minutes before your alarm goes off), and therefore begins to prepare your bod (and brain) to come out of your slumber. Try this one or this one.


Ditch the alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes. I am not going to beat a dead horse here; you know these things aren’t best for you. But WHY? This one study approached all three topics, concluding that:
• Alcohol can be relaxing and help you get to sleep, but it’s damaging to the sleep cycle once you’re out. The end result is a broken, restless night where you wake more frequently than you would.
• Caffeine lengthens the second phase of your sleep cycle (where your brain starts reorganizing itself and processing the day)—which is great for taking naps, but not for a night of deep sleep. Caffeine shortens phases three and four, where REM sleep and dreaming occur.
• Lastly, cigarettes (nicotine), can actually be relaxing in small doses, but too much keep you awake and prevents the onset of sleep entirely.


Here’s to becoming a Sleeping Beauty—completely rejuvenated and revitalized for a new day ahead.


Weekly Workouts




Rest as needed, then

3 Rounds for time of:
30 Deadlifts
20 Burpees over the bar
10 Pullups



Strict Press 1-1-1-1-1
Push Press 3-3-3-3-3
Push Jerk 5-5-5-5-5

Rest as needed, then:

5 Rounds for time of:
12 Toes to bar
12 Push Jerks
12 Box Jumps



Backsquat 5 x 10

Rest as needed, then:

27-21-15-9 reps for time:
Calories Rowing
Dumbbell Snatches



AMRAP 7 Minutes
7 Power Cleans 75/55
7 Thrusters 75/55
7 Pull-ups

AMRAP 7 Minutes
7 Kettlebell Swings
7 Box Jumps
7 Hand-Release Pushups

AMRAP 7 Minutes




6 rounds

3-5 Strict Pullups (or if no pullups-20-30 second chin over the bar holds)
3-5 Strict Dips

Rest as needed, then:

5 Rounds for time of:
60 Double-unders (OR 120 Single-unders)
15 Kettle Bell Swings
15 Hollow Rocks



For time:

5 Rounds: 5 Strict Pullups/Ring Rows + 10 Pushups + 15 Air Squats
30 Dumbbell Snatches
5 Rounds: 5 Strict Pullups/Ring Rows + 10 Pushups + 15 Air Squats
30 Dumbbell Thrusters
5 Rounds: 5 Strict Pullups/Ring Rows + 10 Pushups + 15 Air Squats
30 Dumbbell Deadlifts




5 Rounds
10-12 Dumbbell Bench Press
8-10 each arm: Bent over 1-Arm dumbbell row

Rest as needed, then:

15-minute AMRAP
10 Wallballs
10 Burpees
10 Russian Kettlebell Swings

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