I worry my sleep quality isn’t great. On weekends, no matter when I go to bed, I sleep until 11 or 12. When I wake up, I feel like I’ve overslept. But if I try to make myself get up earlier, I feel angry and want to go back to sleep.
A supplement company I trust, Nootropics Depot, recently released a new product called Sleep Support. It advertises that, along with helping you fall asleep faster, it can “improve sleep quality” by “improv[ing] sleep architecture, allowing you to achieve higher quality and more refreshing sleep.” I decided to try it.
The first night I took it, I woke up naturally at 9 the next morning, with no desire to go back to sleep. This has never happened before. It shocked me. And the next morning, the same thing happened. I started recommending the supplement to all my friends, some of whom also reported good results.
I decided the next step was to do a randomized controlled trial. I obtained sugar pills, and put both the sugar pills and the Sleep Support pills inside bigger capsules so I couldn’t tell which was which. The recommended dose was two Sleep Support pills per night, so for my 24 night trial I created 12 groups of two Sleep Support pills and 12 groups of two placebo pills.
Then I asked a friend to flip a coin 24 times, and depending on the result place either a pair of Sleep Support pills or a pair of placebo pills in each slot of a monthly pill planner, and record which slot contained which pills on a secret piece of paper I could see at the end of the experiment. Then every weekend night for three months I took the next pair of pills in the planner and recorded:
– the time I went to bed
– the time I woke up
– my subjective rating of how well-rested I was upon waking
– my subjective rating of how much energy I felt like I’d had that day
– my subjective rating of how vivid my dreams were that night
– my subjective guess about whether I’d taken placebo or experimental that night
The time I went to bed wasn’t intended to be a dependent variable; I generally took the pills just before going to bed, so they couldn’t affect that. And I had no way of measuring what time I went to sleep. It was just so that I could measure my total time in bed that night.
The time I woke up was the hardest to operationalize. Usually I wake up a few times in the morning, groggily check the clock, and decide to go back to bed, then wake up for good once it becomes so late I start feeling guilty about how much of the day I’m wasting. I considered setting wake-up time as the very first time I woke up to check the clock, but sometimes I wake up at 5 AM to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t want that to get recorded as me “waking up” at 5 AM. And if I used a cutoff like “the first time I wake up after 7”, then a night I wake up at 6:59 and go back to bed and wake up for good at 11 would get recorded completely differently from a night I wake up at 7:01 and go back to bed and wake up for good at 11. But if I defined wake-up time as the time I finally woke up for good, then it would be too easy for me to subconsciously bias the experiment. “This feels like a night I took placebo, better stay in bed until at least 11:30”.
I decided to eliminate the whole problem by forbidding myself to check the clock while in bed. I would go to sleep, wake up, either decide to go back to sleep or not, and I wasn’t allowed to check the clock until I had gotten out of bed and gotten dressed.
Here’s the headline results of the experiment – number of hours I slept during experimental vs. control nights, and wake up time during experimental vs. control nights
On average there was no difference between the two groups on either measurement. There was also no difference on any of the subjective measures. My subjective guess about whether I’d taken experimental or placebo capsules that night had no correlation with the reality.
My conclusion isn’t that Sleep Support doesn’t work; I didn’t even try it for its main indication of helping with insomnia. My study was too underpowered to detect even medium-sized effects. And just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for somebody else.
My conclusion is that the effect I thought that I observed – a consistent change of two hours in my otherwise stable wake-up time – wasn’t real. This shocked me. What’s going on?
I think my original strategy of “wake up a few times in the morning, check the clock, and finally get out of bed when you really feel like it” is very susceptible to the placebo effect. Usually I might wake up at 9, decide that was too early to face the world, and go back to bed. Maybe I wouldn’t even remember doing this. Part of this was probably inertia – I wasn’t used to getting up at 9, I figured I must not have gotten enough sleep to feel good, and so I didn’t want to do it today. Once I had an exciting new sleep supplement in my system, I woke up at 9, actually checked whether or not I felt ready to wake up, and absent my usual prior that I wasn’t, I found that I was, and woke up.
This hypothesis is supported by the results of the experiment. On about a third of days, I woke up before 10 – again, something I never would have done before starting Sleep Support. I think the active ingredient here was not letting myself look at the clock. Without external cues to tell me how tired I should feel, I was forced to rely on how tired I actually felt, which in many cases was “not tired at all”. This happened regardless of whether I was taking Sleep Support or placebo that day.
Ironically, even though the supplement failed to differentiate itself from placebo, I think this is one of the most successful biohacking experiments I’ve ever done. I’m getting up on average an hour or so earlier than I did before, getting more done, and not feeling any more tired by the evening.
Future research: see if this keeps working even now that I know what’s going on.
You can download my raw data here. If you want to replicate this experiment, you can buy Sleep Support capsules here. There are lots of ways to make a placebo; I found these very large empty capsules helpful.
I’m interested in hearing about anyone else’s experience conducting controlled trials of supplements on themselves; if you do something like this and want to publish it on a blog, let me know.