Habits and Supplements to Master Your Sleep

Sleep, the often sacrificed aspect of our training regimen. Sleep is hugely important to athletes: it’s a time when we recover and recharge. Additionally shorter periods of sleep are typically associated with increased levels of obesity in and adults. Honestly, it doesn’t take a thesis level article to explain to you why you should be getting quality sleep, you already know a lot of the benefits.

I have always enjoyed my sleep a little too much. I was your typical teenager that’d sleep as long as possible, the only grade schooler I knew that could sleep 12 straight hours, and even as an adult I tried to maintain 8-9 hours of sleep a night. The point is I liked to sleep A LOT and if I didn’t get a lot of it I didn’t feel very rested.

As you can imagine needing a lot of sleep requires being able to go to bed at a regular time, being able to fall asleep efficiently, and waking up well rested. In this article I’m going to share the habits and supplements I’ve been using to ensure quality rest.


In my article in Habits I listed out the four major antecedents to forming any new habit:

  1. Reward
  2. Consistency
  3. Behavioral Cues
  4. Simplicity

To effectively battle insomnia and ensure quality sleep we need to make going to sleep a habit that adheres to these four aspects. We can do this through the process of ritualization.

Firstly, pick something you can regularly do before bed that you find enjoyable and rewarding. It is extremely important that what you pick is extremely simple as this will ensure regular consistency.

For example; at 9:00 pm every night I put a kettle on the stove and make a cup of herbal tea for my wife and I. Since we regularly try to go to sleep by 10:30 pm this acts as a simple cue that we need to begin winding down: turning off TV, brushing teeth, read a book, etc.

Personally, I really enjoy herbal tea and have a few that I keep around that are quite relaxing. The tea in and of itself is a reward and a behavioral cue. It’s simplicity lends itself to being repeated nightly.

Rituals like this don’t work right from the onset. Typically it’s going to take some time to establish it before you can yield its benefits. But once it is in place it becomes a strong physical tool to alter your mental state towards preparing for sleep, which ultimately will lead to better and more consistent sleep.


Zinc, Magnesium, and Melatonin

I’ve had my fair share of bouts with insomnia. During college I was a little too familiar with pulling all nighters and eventually my body developed this nasty resistance towards wanting to fall asleep.

A few years out of college and into weightlifting the majority of nights spent tossing and turning seemed to have subsided. This was a huge upgrade, showing that a change in lifestyle was what was needed most, but I was still have trouble falling asleep quickly and staying asleep.

On nights that I could feel that sleep would not come easily I would take 3-5 mg of melatonin and this would help me get to sleep quickly, however it did not help me feel like I was getting quality sleep. Shortly after I met my wife she introduced the idea of supplementing with zinc and magnesium prior to sleep to more restful sleep.

Research has shown that zinc, magnesium, and melatonin cocktails can successfully aid insomniacs with getting to sleep quickly and actually resting during sleep.

While I don’t have a study on hand to back this; I believe that melatonin stimulates that body’s desire to sleep, however encourages more levels of stage 4, deep, sleep which is good but not wholly restful. The inclusion of zinc and magnesium is able to shift this stimulation somewhat to promote greater levels of stage 5, REM, sleep. REM sleep is typically associated with dreaming and one of the primary subjective changes people experience with including zinc and magnesium is a sudden increase in vividness and frequency of their dreams.

Personally I try to take the melatonin sparingly so I don’t develop a tolerance/dependence on exogenous melatonin. Additionally, I will take a week or two off of zinc after a while as regular zinc supplementation has been known to drain trace mineral reserves such as copper.


Recently I’ve been experimenting with taking an amino acid supplement before bed: Glycine. Research has shown that taking 3 grams of glycine an hour before bed produces a positive subjective feeling upon waking.

In my own personal experience glycine appears to work almost as effectively as advertised (which is stellar in the supplement industry). I have noticed a clearer effect when I take closer to 5 grams but this could simply be due to my size. Also beaware that it took about 4 days before I noticed a regular effect.

The addition of glycine into my bedtime supplementation has dramatically increased my ability to wake up and get after it. It’s essentially taken that feeling of “oh, bed so comfy, just 5 more minutes” and has replaced it with a eagerness to start the day. Which is much more than I get out of the majority of supplements I have taken.

How do I take these?

The most effective method I’ve found for ingesting these supplements so far is to put all items in a shaker cup. Unfortunately I can only find zinc and magnesium in tablets that are somewhat resistant to dissolving in water so this takes a lot of forethought and planning.

Regularly I add 3-5 grams of glycine, 3 mg of melatonin (the tablets will dissolve in water), and propel for flavoring to a regular shaker cup. Drink this 30-60 minutes before sleep.

Additionally I will take 400 mg of Magnesiumand 30 mg of Zinc in tablet form when I drink the aforementioned cocktail. I have experimented with crushing the tablets and adding them to the shaker. Unfortunately these minerals take a very long time to dissolve in water and it’s much easier to leave them in tablet form.

In Summary

Sleep is important and sadly it seems to be the first thing high performing people are willing to sacrifice to get the job done. Sleep is not an inconvenient time waster, it is primary component of our daily recovery, both physical and mental, and deserves to be prioritized.

Regular oversleeping or insomnia are likely caused by people with irregular sleeping schedules (except for in cases diagnosed by a medical professional). Ritualization can help correct this and provide a structure for establishing a regular sleeping schedule.

Some supplements are worthwhile when trying to get the most out of sleep. Glycine, Zinc, and Magnesium are great supplements to take nightly before bed and sparingly including melatonin can help ensure falling asleep in a timely manner.


Biology of Stress – An overview of Cortisol and Allostasis

We’ve all experienced stress.  A little bit is great as you can attest to after you waited until the last minute to write that paper and it only took a minute because such a fire was lit under your ass…

But a lot of it is horrible.  Ask anyone that’s dealt with the chronic headaches, bad nights of sleep, and constant worries.  When you’re over stressed it can be hard to carry on with the rest of the world.

That constant stress is commonly associated with high levels of the hormone cortisol.  What’s worse is that even though the human body is a brilliant machine, it’s kind of slow to react, endocrinologically speaking.  So when the stressor is removed that heightened level of cortisol may remain leaving with it the generally feeling of being “stressed out.”

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol, commonly known as “the stress hormone,” is a glucocorticoid hormone released from the adrenal glands (which sit atop the kidneys for reference sake) (1). At optimal levels cortisol contributes to stabilized neuronal excitability (2),  maintenance of neuronal integrity (3), suppression of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal activity (4) and facilitation of behavior adaptation. Normally cortisol tends to remain at optimal levels through a circadian cycle, however outside stimuli may trigger release through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (1).

Cortisol is the end result of a cascade of hormones working via the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and is regulated by negative feedback (1). That is, as cortisol is released from the adrenal glands another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), is inhibited suppressing further output. This is a wonderfully simple system; the system is triggered and the final product is what eventually shuts the system down. However, when our cortisol levels remain spiked the sensitivity of the system is decreased leading to a greater concentration of cortisol in the body.

A more general way to say “chronically elevated cortisol,” clinically called “Allostatic Overload,” is to say “over stressed.” It is well known that stress isn’t all bad and we need to learn how to maximize its positive effects while decreasing its negative effects. Feelings of stress have strong correlation to some hormonal underpinnings and by identifying and defining the problem at a physiological level we can develop a greater understanding of the system, it’s benefits and how to maintain allostasis (homeostasis of stress responses).

There is no better example of allostatic overload than sleep deprivation; cortisol is elevated, blood pressure is elevated, there is reduced parasympathetic activity and an increased hunger for comfort foods due to the hormone ghrelin (3).  When considering this extreme example it’s easy to associate over eating, low sex drive, bad memory, depression and anxiety with elevated cortisol; these are things we typically associate with someone that hasn’t slept well in days.  Balancing allostatic load means stepping away from that extreme to mitigate the deleterious effects.

Balancing Allostatic load


Sleep doesn’t just decrease cortisol levels, it optimizes them. When you gets restful night of sleep your morning cortisol levels are actually  elevated (5) and this is a good thing.  This is that heightened awareness we hear “morning people” going on about. Subjects experiencing sleep deprivation are likely to have decreased morning cortisol but increased evening levels (5). This leads to overtired and exhausted mornings and frustrating nights.

As you may have intuitively surmised from the former paragraph, the first step in reducing levels of cortisol is getting more sleep.  Getting more sleep is that simple-in-theory and nearly impossible in execution aspect of life that never seems to go away.  This is typically because we are in front of stimulating screens most of the day and suddenly we try to lay down in a dark room and go to sleep.  You can begin to condition yourself to sleep easier by utilizing environmental cues and reward systems to create a ritual that you perform before lying down to sleep.  The more consistent you remain with this ritual then more effective it will become.
Alcohol and Caffeine

In addition to sleeping more cutting back on substances like caffeine and alcohol is one of those things you knew before you came here to read is article, nonetheless we’re still going to cover it. Caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressive, while these two may not be your poison the  guidelines laid out below are good to follow for anything in those two categories.  Both caffeine and alcohol will increase allostatic overload when taken too close to going to sleep and when overconsumed.

In one study participants were randomly dosed with varying amounts of caffeine prior to resistance exercise (6). Cortisol output rose linearly with caffine consumption with an 800mg dose of caffeine resulting in a whopping 52% increase in cortisol levels.

The Mayo Clinic recommends not exceeding 500-600 mg of caffeine a day and according to the half life of caffeine may be about 6 hours.  With regards to caffeine try to keep consumption under 250-300 mg a day, there may be stressful times when you find yourself consuming more.  This is fine, just do not allow it to become the new normal, try to keep caffeine consumption in check and do not imbibe caffeine 6-8 hours before your planned bed time.

Alcohol, like smoking, is associated with a large array of stress related issues even though it can give the user some level of relaxation, again like smoking.  While I do believe alcohol in low doses can alleviate stress effectively I’d like to address some guidelines for not going over the threshold and turning it into a source of stress:

This is the most perfect moment for a beer


  • Don’t drink every night (If you’ve had a drink the last two nights, then skip it)
  • Stop at least 2 hours before you plan to go to bed (Alcohol inhibits vasopressin, a key component in memory and dreaming)
  • Drink for quality, not quantity (enjoy what you drink, don’t just drink a lot)

Behavioral Changes

Lastly, I want to address the methods of decreasing allostatic overload that may become overlooked because they may seem somewhat “New-age” or “Hippy Dippy.”  Despite this initial appearance I encourage you to read on and try to apply each of these methods.

The first is to become more present in what you are doing; multitasking can quickly turn into visual and auditory inundation.  For instance over the course of writing this article I found myself frequently stopping because I felt stressed (ironic, right?) but then I did something simple: I turned my music off.  Even though it was instrumental and supposedly would help me focus, turning off all outside noise had the most benefit of my productivity and my perceived levels of stress.

When becoming more present in what you’re doing you may find that meditation helps.  While I do try to engage in meditation, I don’t feel as though I’m in a position to give advice.  If you’re interested in meditation check out Tara Brach.  Another thing I’ve come across designed to stimulate mindfulness is the 21-Day No Complaint Challenge.

Trying to be more social and this doesn’t have to be in the classical sense of talking to more people (introverts rejoice!).  It can be as simple as purposefully engaging playtime with a pet, meeting people in an online game, being more mindful and present in conversation with your significant other or as standard as meeting friends from work for dinner and drinks.  The more we interact with the beings around us, humans or animals, the more we feel ourselves as part of a supported network which will in turn alleviate our stress.

 Lastly I want to end this article with a recommendation of being more creative.  Whatever your chosen medium; painting, music, comedy or cooking, putting your emotions into something you create will never cease to decrease the stress from life.  I’m going to end this article with a video of Neil Gaiman giving a commencement speech entitled “Make Good Art.”  Watch it, be mindful of it, share it with your friends, make art and be well.

Did you enjoy the aritlce? Like us on Facebook!

[wpdevart_like_box profile_id=”BrawnforBrains” connections=”show” width=”300″ height=”550″ header=”small” cover_photo=”show” locale=”en_US”]


1. Marta Gonzalez-Alvarez, Victor Mangas-Sanjuan, Carmen Navarro-Fontestad, Isabel Gonzalez-Alvarez & Marival Bermejo. Cortisol Transport Across Biological Barriers. Cortisol : Physiology, Regulation and Health Implications. 2012.

2. Joels M, de Kloet ER.  Mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptors in the brain.  Implications for ion permeability and transmitter systems.  Progress in Neurobiology. 1994.

3. Bruce S. McEwen. Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European Journal of Pharmacology. 2008.

4. Dallman, et. al. Stress, Feedback and Facilitation in the hypothalamio-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.  Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 1992.

5. Eek, Frida, et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology: Cortisol, Sleep, and Recovery – some Gender Differences but no Straight Associations. 37 Vol. Elsevier, 01/01/2012. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.

6. BEAVEN, CM; et al. Dose Effect of Caffeine on Testosterone and Cortisol Responses to Resistance Exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism. 18, 2, 131-141, Apr. 2008.