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  • Hartley


Updated: May 5

text that reads "Exhasted? 7 biohacks to feel more awake" with a woman standing in front of a pink background
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Last night I fell asleep at 4am, clocking a grand total of 4.5 hours. This pathetic bit of sleep was only made possible by over the counter sleep aids. Sigh. Life with insomnia.

This isn’t to b*tch and moan, but rather to lay out my credentials on the topic at hand: you see, I’m a bit of an expert on navigating sleep deprivation. 

Enter bio hacking: aka “do-it-yourself” biology. This means making small changes to your lifestyle to promote improvements in your wellbeing.

Before I knew what biohacking was, I had a few tricks up my sleeve for perking up when I was running on empty. Turns out, my little secrets were actually backed by science.

Compensating for a poor night’s sleep involves a lot more than taking naps and slamming back coffee–which often only perpetuates the sleepless cycle.

When you’re in zombie-mode there are some stellar biohacks to feeling more awake and alert–and cheating a bit of that sleep deprivation. 

So bookmark for next time you feel like crap.

blonde woman sipping coffee in the sun
via @cassdimicco

Biohack 1 - Get sun within the first hour of waking up

This step is key. Exposure to sunlight helps regulate your body's internal clock: basically, it signals to your brain, “hey, wake up.” It’s a powerful trigger due to the low solar angle and ratio of blue light to yellow light that is unique to sunrise and sunset. 

Why is it so important to get sun as early as you can? Because mid-day sun does not have that same yellow-blue contrast, hence it is coined the “circadian dead zone” by Dr Mark Huberman.

If sunlight reaches your eyes soon after you wake, it triggers a neural circuit. The intensity of morning light helps suppress melatonin (a hormone associated with sleep) production–and then there’s added benefits of Vitamin D synthesis (essential in overall well-being and energy levels) and increased serotonin production (which contributes to wakefulness and alertness). It also increases early day cortisol release (the ideal time for elevated cortisol) and prepares the body for sleep later that night.

Believe it or not, this even works when there’s cloud cover. Though you may wish to spend a bit longer outside to reap the benefits.

Pro-tip: try to get outside within the first hour of waking and spend 15-30 minutes facing the sun without sunglasses…obviously don’t stare directly at it!

If going outside immediately after waking up isn't realistic for you, open all your curtains and let natural light into your living space—or invest in a sun lamp (I love this hack in the darker months). That hit of blue light helps synchronize your biological clock, leading to improved sleep-wake cycles and overall better energy levels as you go about your day.

woman doing yoga
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Biohack 2 - Get moving

Even if all you can manage is a walk, movement (and fresh air) will give you a second wind. But if you can walk briskly or do some short aerobic exercise, your body will thank you by releasing endorphins. These chemicals stimulate brain activity that combat feelings of fatigue.

By moving your body, not only do you release adrenaline but your core body temperature signals to your inner clock that it’s time to be awake. This bit of physical activity increases oxygen intake and circulation, promoting overall alertness and cognitive function.

Pro-tip: like habit stacking? Get your movement outdoors in the morning for added circadian rhythm benefits.

Just don’t schedule vigorous cardio workouts before bed: it’s important to give endorphin levels time to “wash out,” for your adrenaline levels to re-balance, and your heartbeat to return to its normal resting rate so you can actually wind-down (at least two hours before you hit the hay).

Even a little movement will put you in better stead: studies show that people who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night.

shower gel in a running shower
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Biohack 3 - Brave some cold exposure

This one may not be your cup of tea BUT a blast of cold water at the end of your morning shower will jump-start your sympathetic nervous system. 

Why is that a good thing? Because this shock to your body will release hormones such as norepinephrine and cortisol. The rush of hormones, particularly adrenaline, wakes you up and can help increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate, all of which can help improve mental alertness and focus.

One study found that people who took cold showers reported boosted energy levels, with effects of the cold shower being similar to caffeine.

It’s key to do this in the morning: that’s because cortisol naturally peaks at around 9 a.m. and decreases to its lowest point around midnight. So this further signals to your inner clock that it’s morning.

How cold and how long? Any water below 70 degrees Fahrenheit is considered a cold shower. Start with 30 seconds, and slowly work your way up. If you can, aim for 3-5 minutes (deep breaths!).

water and lemon slices
via pinterest

Biohack 4  - Hydrate!

There’s a maaajah link between your hydration status and your brain’s ability to function: studies show that even mild dehydration can impair your energy levels, concentration and mood.

It actually slows down your circulation and affects the flow of oxygen to your brain. It also puts your heart to work, making it harder to pump oxygen throughout your body. This translates to expended energy—making you feel more sluggish, tired and unfocused.

That is something tired brains can’t afford.

And it’s an ugly cycle: lack of sleep may also contribute to dehydration. If sleep is cut short, the hormone signals for water retention in our bodies may be impacted. In a study of nearly 20,000 adults, people who slept only six hours per night were found to have significantly higher rates of dehydration than people who slept eight hours.

So–remember that 8 glasses of water a day rule? Don’t skip it on groggy days. 

If hydration is difficult for you, like it is for me, here’s some ways to make water more appealing:  Pour it in a tumblr with a straw

Add slices of citrus

Infuse it with melon or mint, ginger or rosemary

Opt for sparkling 

Brew a batch of (caffeine-free) iced tea

It can be helpful to set up a jug first in the morning with 8 glasses (64 ounces/2 liters) of water, so you’re keenly on top of your hydration throughout the day.

Biohack 5 - Set the room temperature to cool

Picture a hot summer day: do you ever find yourself craving a mid-day siesta? Turns out temperature affects everything from eating, to our activity levels and sleep-wake cycles.

And likewise: notice how you feel more alert in cool environments? A cooler temperature can improve your circulation, stimulate brain activity and your body’s metabolic rate. All of this leads to increased alertness and a feeling of wakefulness.

The ideal room temperature falls somewhere between 68° and 76°F.

Clearly, you gotta strike a balance: an excessively cold environment is uncomfortable but if you can bring down the thermometer just a few degrees, you’re less likely to feel like a zombie in your 3pm Teams meeting.

a plate with egg, toast, cheese and spinach
via pinterest

Biohack 6  - Eat balanced meals

I can turn into a carb monster when I’m tired. My low energy leaves me craving fattening, quick, easy and readily available calories. But heavy or sugary meals set you up for a crash.

It’s amazing how much more alive you feel when you eat balanced meals. A diet rich in whole foods (fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains) increases energy levels for several reasons.

Mainly, it provides your body with slower and more sustained releases of glucose in your bloodstream. This translates to consistent energy throughout the day.

Protein provides the body with amino acids, which are essential for the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. These both play a role in alertness and focus. 

Then there’s nutrient supply, vitamins and minerals, all of which are crucial for proper functioning of enzymes, hormones, and other biochemical processes in your body, that contribute to overall health and energy.

If you’ve ever been bloated, you can attest that it makes you feel gross and sluggish. A happy digestive system = a happy and more alert you.

Biohack 7 - Try slow breathing exercises

Slow breathing exercises, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing or mindfulness-based breathing techniques, can have a powerful effect on how awake you feel.

These slow and deep breaths allow you to take in more oxygen and improve your circulation, which directly enhances your cognitive function and alertness.

It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting the relaxation response. While this may seem counterintuitive to feeling more awake, the relaxation response helps reduce stress and anxiety, allowing for a calm and focused state of mind. 

It reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol and releases endorphins, which we know positively impacts alertness and mood.

Pretty good for something you can do for free at any time! 

Hey, this reminds me of Gwyeneth Paltrow’s wind-down ritual: jump on over to my article to learn how to practice the “square breathing exercises” she learned from Brené Brown. 

Bottom Line

Don’t let the tech bros fool you: biohacking is powerful stuff but nothing beats a good night’s sleep.

If coffee and naps are your jam, just keep your snooze to under 20 minutes (the idea is a quick refresh, not allowing yourself to enter the deeper stages of sleep) and cut off your coffee intake at noon so you don’t screw up your quality of sleep in the night ahead.

But THE most important thing I've done to avoid feeling like tired garbage is to get an evening routine in place.

I've put together a free checklist of 40 relaxing evening activitites and an hourly planner to help you get better habits in place. Check it out.


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