Sleep: James Schmachtenberger of Neurohacker On Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen
Reduce stress. The main reason for sleeping challenges is too much stress and worry. Though there are supplements and drugs that people can take to help get sleep even when stressed, ultimately they’re mostly going to be a bandaid if you aren’t addressing the underlying cause. If there are major stressors in your life with work, relationships, etc. it’s important to acknowledge them and address them so the underlying cause of sleep disturbances can go away.
Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?
In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.
As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview James Schmactenberger.
James Schmactenberger ended up buying Body Mind College in San Diego and operating it for nine years until he exited in 2010.
After starting a dispensary, he forayed in film making and James produced Medicinal Cannabis and Its Impact on Human Health, one of the most viewed documentaries on medical cannabis as well as The Science of Weed, the most comprehensive documentary ever made on medicinal marijuana.
But by 2015, he started the Neurohacker Collective. Neurohacker Collective was founded with the mission of creating best in class well-being products by employing a unique methodology to research and development based on complex systems science. The company began with a focus on cognitive products with the launch of its Qualia nootropic line and will continue to provide comprehensive products for overall peak performance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?
When I was about 10 years old my parents had me start doing fundraising for Greenpeace, and a little while later with the Human Rights Campaign. This and a number of other early life experiences caused me to identify as an activist. As I got older and continued to do non-profit activist projects, I realized that there were limits on how much I could affect people’s lives when my work is dependent on people’s willingness to donate. From there, I started looking at ways of developing businesses that could help improve the quality of life, while generating enough extra income to support other non-profit projects that I was still passionate about. Being a guiding force throughout my career, I focus mainly on developing companies that directly help people, or the planet, and leveraging the position to provide as many additional benefits to humanity as possible.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?
When I was about 5 years old, my mom was part of a drug trial that ended up hospitalizing her and almost taking her life. While she was in the hospital, someone gave her a book on alternative medicine where she found a treatment that allowed her to get back on her feet. A year later, she was performing in ice skating shows again. This taught my family a valuable lesson about the power that natural medicine can possess. Since then, health and medicine has always been a central theme in my life and career.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
Sleep is an area that I’ve needed to invest a lot of time and energy into throughout my adult life. I started my first business at 17, and was the CEO of an alternative health college by the time I was 18. Starting with big projects so young in life meant that my stress levels were extremely high because I was trying to take on projects that were years beyond experience level. The result is that I suffered with sleep disorders for many years, which truly compromised my quality of life and my energy to continue my work. I’ve spent the last 20 years learning about sleep and sleep science so I could improve my own quality of life as well as develop better solutions for others that struggle with sleep.
I’m not a scientist, but I have enough understanding of medicine to know what’s possible when the right minds are brought together and are continuously supported. To that end, I’ve spent the last several years building a research and development team that uses a fundamentally different approach to studying human physiology, which is based on complex systems modeling. This unique approach to research, along with recruiting some of the best minds in the field, has allowed us to create products and education that dramatically improve quality of life around brain function, longevity and sleep. I think that curating such an extraordinary research team is probably my greatest contribution to the field.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Illusions by Richard Bach was one of the most impactful books in my life. I read it initially as a child and have read it a few more times since. The book starts off with a story about these creatures that live in a river, clinging onto the rocks so they don’t get swept away by the current. One day, one of the creatures decides to let go and all the other creatures begin calling him a messiah as they see him floating through the water above them. The lesson was that the people we idolize and look up to aren’t inherently special but are just choosing slightly different things than the rest of us. When I first read this it stuck with me, having me question what choices I could make differently than most people that would allow me to live a great life, but also to have as much positive impact on the world around me as possible. Living life by a different set of rules has definitely been a theme in my life as I’ve navigated many different startups and non-profit ventures.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman
This particular quote has always resonated with me. Because I spent most of my life ignoring this idea and trying to push myself to work harder so I could have a more positive impact on the world, it took me years to realize that when I pushed myself too hard, where I was exhausted and unhappy, I wasn’t actually having as positive of an impact on the world as when I allowed myself to shift some attention to resting and to doing things that light me up. Over the years I’ve come to understand more and more, how much of a greater difference I can make when I feel alive and well resourced.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?
There’s a lot of conflicting ideas and research around how many hours of sleep people need. The general guidance from most schools of thought is that it’s between 7–9 hours per night. However, I don’t think that the amount of time is the right thing to focus on. The best guidepost for how much sleep you need is how well resourced and rested you feel the next day. If you’re regularly tired or are running out of energy throughout the day, it’s safe to say that you’re not getting enough sleep or at least not enough high-quality sleep. We’re all going to feel tired at times, but if it’s a regular occurrence, then that is a good sign that you need to sleep more. There are differences in individual physiology that can significantly affect how much sleep someone needs. For some people it can be as little as 4–5 hours, and for others they need 10 hours. That’s why it’s important to use how you feel as a guidepost more so than a specific amount of time.
Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?
The human body has what’s known as circadian rhythm which determines, among other things, when your body produces increased amounts of melatonin as well as cortisol. These are both chemicals the body naturally produces to induce sleep and wakefulness. Each person’s circadian rhythm is a little different and will naturally be adapted towards an earlier or later schedule. It’s important to pay attention to your body to know when the right time to sleep and wake is because it’s not the same for each person. However, if you’re not sure it’s usually better to err on the earlier side of things. Our bodies are naturally oriented to be awake during the daylight, and sleeping or relaxing in the evening hours. Because of lightbulbs and screens, etc most people’s natural rhythms have been thrown off, so it can be easy to believe you’re a night owl even if that’s not what’s best for you. For many years, I thought I was a night owl and it wasn’t until I started going to bed earlier that I realized that was actually my natural orientation. Once I started going to bed between 10–11pm, I was able to sleep longer and get a better quality of sleep than what I had experienced for years as a result of going to bed at 2–3am.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?
There are so many benefits that come from getting enough high-quality sleep. Sleep is the primary time where the body repairs itself, so getting enough sleep will cause benefits in most parts of life.
Proper sleep helps with recovery of all kinds. This would include things like recovering more quickly from an injury or even soreness from exercise. It also supports recovery of illness. Most people have likely noticed in their lives that they recover from colds and flus faster when they sleep a lot vs. trying to push through them with minimal sleep. Sleep is probably the single most important factor in cognitive function. Quality sleep will allow for clearer thinking, faster processing times, better memory, etc. Not only does it help brain function on a day to day basis, but it’s critical for reducing age related cognitive decline as well. Many people who experience anxiety and depression on a regular basis will also see improvements in how they feel when getting enough quality sleep. Most cravings and addictive orientations reduce or go away when someone is well rested. Sleep is so fundamental to health that there’s almost no part of life that doesn’t improve when sleep is prioritized.
Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?
In my opinion, getting enough high-quality sleep is either the first or second main priority in supporting overall health and quality of life. The other most important factor is exercise. For many people, they struggle to get enough sleep because of too much stress or anxiety. In those cases, I often think it’s a good idea to prioritize exercise as the most important thing because exercise will not only increase your need to sleep more, but it usually reduces the amount of anxious energy- which can make it easier to fall and stay asleep.
Without good sleep, it’s almost impossible to feel healthy or live a deeply fulfilling life, and therefore, sleep needs to be a major priority for everyone. If you’re someone who can sleep and just doesn’t prioritize it, then prioritizing sleep is the best thing to focus on. If falling asleep or staying asleep is a big challenge for you, then prioritizing exercise to support better sleep is often what I’ve found to be most effective.
The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?
For most people, the 3 main things that get in the way of prioritizing sleep include too much stress, too much busyness and too much technology. When we’re stressed or under pressure from being too busy, it’s easy to think sleep can be put off to get 1 more project done. Most of us seem to think that if we get more things off our plate, it’ll be easier to rest. Sometimes that’s true, but usually it’s the other way around. When we get enough rest, we have the energy and clarity to get everything done faster and more easily, which ultimately reduces busyness and stress more than trying to push through it. Technology is another major issue for most people. Looking at screens increases cortisol, which makes it hard to sleep. Quickly moving from one kind of content to the next, or from screen to screen, also causes the brain to be in a state of heightened alertness which is the opposite of what’s needed when trying to relax the nervous system for a good night’s sleep. Avoiding technology in the evening hours is one of the best things you can do to improve sleep quality. Ideally, take the last 1–2 hours of the evening away from screens and instead use that time for quality connection with the people in your life or for relaxation practices like meditation, breathing exercises or even a hot bath.
Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?
Absolutely! The effects of screens and particularly the blue light that comes from them is something that our ancestors didn’t have to deal with and it affects sleep in pretty dramatic ways. Also, the pace of life has sped up for most people over the last few decades, which triggers a stress response and makes it harder to get good sleep. Sleep is associated with slowing down and relaxing, yet the world we live in today is largely oriented around doing more things faster, better and bigger which are all very stimulating. Because of the constant societal pressure to do more and be more, I think it takes a focused effort to slow down, relax and let ourselves rest. Overall, it’s worth the effort because life is much more enjoyable and fulfilling when we’re rested enough to really appreciate the world around us.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.
There are many things that are important when thinking about how to get the best night’s sleep but if I have to narrow it down to 5 I think these are likely the most important ones.
- Reduce stress. The main reason for sleeping challenges is too much stress and worry. Though there are supplements and drugs that people can take to help get sleep even when stressed, ultimately they’re mostly going to be a bandaid if you aren’t addressing the underlying cause. If there are major stressors in your life with work, relationships, etc. it’s important to acknowledge them and address them so the underlying cause of sleep disturbances can go away.
- After addressing stress, the most important thing is to avoid screens in the evening hours, especially the last 1–2 hours before bed. The light frequency from screens as well as the flickering that occurs stimulates the nervous system and makes it very hard to unwind. Rather than watching a show to wind down, try switching to a book or quality time with a loved one for your last hour of being awake. It can make a major difference in your sleep quality, especially after you’ve had a couple weeks for your body to adjust to the change.
- Regular exercise, especially in the morning hours is very important for improving sleep quality. It’s possible to exercise too much where it can actually have a negative effect on sleep, but that’s not the case for most people. For most of us, we don’t get enough regular exercise to optimize our sleep or overall health. Most people will notice a tangible change in falling asleep and staying asleep within 2–3 weeks of starting a regular exercise routine. Exercise also helps many other aspects of health and mental wellbeing, so even if you don’t struggle with sleep it’s still an important area to prioritize.
- Paying attention to when you’re eating can make a big difference in your sleep. Digestion takes a lot of energy so when you eat close to bed your body prioritizes energy going into your digestive system, which then takes energy away from your ability to rest and recover. Everyone’s digestion is a little different, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid eating for 3 hours before going to sleep- that way your bodies are already able to complete digestion and all of your energy can go into restoration. What you eat is important as well. Having high sugar foods before bed can cause blood sugar instability which is a common cause of sleep troubles. But even more important than what you eat, is when you eat (at least for how it affects your sleep quality).
- Lastly, getting early morning sunlight can be a big help. Like I mentioned before, we have what are called circadian rhythms which tell the body when it’s supposed to be sleepy and when it’s supposed to be wakeful. Our bodies are naturally adapted to have early morning sunlight, which helps teach our bodies when we’re supposed to be alert. This helps set the body’s clock to also know when it’s supposed to rest. 5–10 minutes of sunlight in the morning is enough for most people. If you can make a few small changes to your morning routine that allows you to spend a few minutes outside while getting ready, even if that’s while you eat breakfast or have your morning coffee, it can support better sleep and improve your overall mood.
What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?
For most people, when they wake up in the night and can’t fall back asleep it’s because there’s something on their mind that they can’t let go of. Oftentimes people will just lay there, hoping to fall back asleep which works sometimes but oftentimes, laying there just allows the mind to spin. Getting up and doing a relaxation practice, like slow breathing or self massage, can be enough of a change that your mind can settle and let you go back to sleep. I’ve also found that getting up and journaling can be really helpful. For me personally, sometimes when I wake up and can’t fall back asleep because I have so many projects to do that I can’t stop thinking about them. In that case, I’ll spend a few minutes writing a task list of everything I know I need to get done that’s keeping me up. The simple act of writing it down allows my brain to relax, knowing that I wont forget about something important and that can be enough to fall asleep. If it’s not projects or tasks keeping you up, it can often be something that doesn’t feel right in your life. Spending a few minutes journaling about what’s on your mind, how you’re feeling about it and reflecting on what you need to feel differently, is enough to allow most people’s minds to relax and be ready for sleep again.
What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?
I think naps are great in general. But it depends on what time and how long the nap is. Our bodies produce what is often referred to as sleep pressure. This is the feeling that builds as the day/night goes on that causes you to feel tired. If you get too much rest from naps, it can cause the sleep pressure not to build and make it harder to fall asleep or at least cause it to build later than your ideal bedtime. For most people though, this only happens if your nap is over an hour. Short naps of under an hour can be a great idea for most people, though the timing is also important. If your nap is within 4 hours of when you’re planning to go to sleep, it can affect your ability to get tired and fall asleep. Late morning or afternoon naps are ideal for most people. More important than the timing or how long you nap is how you feel. Paying attention to your body is usually the best way to know what you need. If you feel tired part of the way through the day and you have the ability to nap, it’s probably the best thing for you. If you don’t feel tired then there is no need to make yourself nap.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
It’s hard to narrow it down to just 1 person, but since that’s the question I’d probably say Tim Ferris. His work and particularly his way of thinking has had a big influence on my life and my work. I read 4 Hour Work Week when it first came out, and it made me think about my work very differently than I used to. I started prioritizing projects differently and focusing most of my energy on a small number of things that could provide the most leverage. Not only has he had a big impact on how I work, but in recent years he’s become one of the main advocates for the advancement of psychedelic medicines which is one of the most interesting topics in the world to me. I spent the first several years of my career focused on psychology and personal development. I’ve always had a strong drive to want to help people improve the quality of their lives and the quality of their connections. Through my own research and self-experimentation with psychedelics, I’ve come to believe that they’re one of the most powerful tools for improving mental health and quality of life. I tend to think that psychedelics will reshape most of what we know about psychiatry over the next 10–15 years. Tim’s work and advocacy in this area has accelerated changes in laws and advancements in science. I’d love to grab lunch with him and talk about how we can collaborate to make even more progress in this area.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way to see more of my work and the work we do at Neurohacker Collective is to visit www.neurohacker.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!