The World's Simplest Sleep Hack, Backed by Science

by TC Luoma

Two Important Sleep Discoveries

A simple tool to get more out of your sleep, in addition to a study that gives peace of mind to people who don't get enough sleep.

I suspect most of you never spent a lot of time considering a sleep mask.

Me neither.

They’re something women named Tallulah wear, or maybe women of libidinous nature in general who tiptoe home at dawn, heels in hand, and, lacking a dark, cozy coffin to crawl into, don a sleep mask to block out the cursed light while they rest until darkness falls and they can again prowl the earth.

But really, other than day sleepers, who wears those things? Unless your bedroom is so electron-ified that it’s lit up like the command center for the Artemis moon mission, shouldn’t your g-damn eyelids shut out the light?

That’s what I used to think. It turns out, though, that completely blocking out ambient light by wearing a sleep mask improves memory and alertness the following day. At least that’s what two new concurrently conducted studies revealed.

The idea of wearing a sleep mask may seem weenie to you, but I offer up the age-old wisdom that’s been tossed in the face of every naysayer since the dawn of invention:

“Hey, I know, but if it works…”

Also, I wouldn’t be laying this info on you if I hadn’t tried it for several weeks and found that sleep masks do seem to have merit. (I like this one (Buy at Amazon) the best.)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The authors of the study, researchers from the U.S., Italy, and England, set out to explore “how wearing an eye mask to block light during overnight sleep impacts memory and alertness, changes that could benefit everyday tasks like studying or driving.”

The first study included 89 adults aged 18 to 35 and was conducted during the summers of 2018 and 2019. (Summer months were chosen because the researchers suspected the masks would be more useful when the sun came up early.) All were asked to wear masks at night for a week.

The subjects’ sleep-replenishing qualities during this mask-wearing phase were then compared to what they experienced when they then slept without a mask for a week, or, alternately, how well they slept while wearing a mask with holes (to factor in whether any discomfort caused by the mask skewed the results) the week after the mask-wearing week.

The subjects were then challenged with word-association tasks and tests that measured reaction times (the Psychomotor Vigilance Test, or PVT, and a motor-skill learning analysis, or MSL). Tests were conducted on the last two days of each mask/no-mask week.

Experiment 2 was conducted over the summer of 2020 and consisted of four nights (two for habituation, i.e., getting used to the masks, and two spent conducting experiments). The study involved 33 adults between the ages of 18 and 35, all of whom were wired up with devices to measure brain activity while they slept.

So Maybe Batman’s Mask is a Sleep Mask?

“Our results demonstrate that wearing an eye mask during an overnight sleep can facilitate both new learning and alertness the next day,” concluded the researchers.

To be specific, the participants performed much better in PVTs, which can transfer over to real-world activities like driving, sports performance, or any activities that require rapid responses. Mask wearers also displayed superior memory performance.

Interestingly, these increases in performance don’t appear to be directly related to sleep quality. If anything, wearing a mask was obviously more uncomfortable than going without, but it didn’t impact self-reported assessment of how well participants slept or morning alertness.

Instead, the researchers speculate that wearing an eye mask increased time spent experiencing slow-wave activity (SWA), which is kind of where nature empties the brain’s cache of memes and assorted superfluous crap and then restructures the “files.” During SWA sleep, saturated synapses are scaled down and their capacity to encode new information is restored, hence better memory and improved reaction times.

“Enhanced” Sleep, but Not Necessarily Better Sleep Quality

While not explicitly discussed in their paper, the definition of a dark room is open to interpretation. We may turn the lights off, but in many cases, there must still be enough light pollution leaking through the drapes and enough light from the glow of multiple electronic devices to affect the time we spend in SWA sleep.

Hence the use of a sleep mask seems a simple hack to ensure enhanced sleep. And, at least from this writer’s experience, a sleep mask does seem to affect sleep quality as I found myself waking up fewer times at night.

But this simple sleep hack may offer little help to those that are crappy sleepers in general. To them, a mask most likely won’t prove to be much of a sleep hack at all. Crappy sleepers, even though they might not feel horrible all the time, no doubt worry about the effects of chronically poor sleep on their health, whether that poor sleep be from work demands, social desires, or demons that keep them awake at night. If that’s you, take heart because the results of another study may offer you some comfort.

Can Training Mitigate the Negative Health Effects of Rotten Sleep?

Yeah, you know that not getting enough sleep can, if it continues long enough, contribute to heart disease and cancer, as can physical inactivity. Both topics have been studied extensively, but rarely has anyone looked at the synergistic effects of these separate mortality factors.

The good news is that someone’s finally compared the two head-to-head and done it right. This new long-term study of 380,000 men and women in the United Kingdom directly compared quality of sleep (using complex categorizations of sleep characteristics) to complex categories of physical activity.

The great news is that physical activity may be able to counter the negative health effects of poor sleep, which I find comforting. In other words, you may be cursed with rotten sleep abilities, but as long as you’re exercising, the effects may cancel out, i.e., the very fact that you exercise may save you from the horrible health repercussions of sleep-deprivation.

“Metabolic Equivalent Task Minutes” vs. Sleep Quality

The participants were interviewed and filled out questionnaires, along with having various physical measurements taken to determine their baseline health condition, their level of physical activity, and sleep behaviors.

Their physical activity was assessed using “metabolic equivalent task minutes (MET),” where the minutes roughly equate with number of calories expended per minute of physical activity. The numbers were determined by multiplying the MET value of the activity by the number of physical activity ¶ hours per week. The categories broke down as follows:

  • High (1200 or more MET-minutes per week)
  • Medium (600 to less than 1200 MET-minutes per week)
  • Low (0 to less than 600 MET-minutes per week)

They then came up with a novel scale to determine sleep quality. The sleep “score” was comprised of five sleep characteristics: chronotype (night owl vs. annoying morning person tendencies), sleep duration, presences of insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and snoring. Participants were given values between 0 and 5.

Poor sleepers were those that earned a 0 or 1; intermediate sleepers scored between 2-3; and healthy sleepers got a 4 or higher.

The researchers then used these scoring methods, combined with information from the questionnaires and interviews, to come up with a dozen physical activity/sleep combos.

Then came the morbid part: The scientists tracked the participants’ health until May 2020, or, of course, until they died. They were interested in death from any cause, but deaths from cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease and stroke) or cancer in particular caught their analytical eyes.

Some Comforting Findings

Approximately 15,500 participants died during the study: 4095 succumbed to CVD and 9064 to cancer, while 1932 died from coronary heart disease, 359 from hemorrhagic stroke, 450 from ischemic stroke, and 1595 from lung cancer.

We thank them for their service.

As you likely guessed, the lower a participant’s sleep score, the higher their risk of death from any cause, and poor sleep combined with little-to-no physical activity? Dead man, or dead woman, walking.

But yeah, no surprise. And sure, you’d likely expect that regular physical activity helped mitigate the detrimental effects of rotten sleep, but the degree to which it helped was surprising. Here, I’ll let the researchers say it themselves:

“Compared with no MVPA (moderate-to-vigorous physical activity), levels of physical activity at or above the lower threshold recommended by the WHO (600 MET-mins/week), appeared to eliminate most of the detrimental associations of poor sleep and mortality.”

You catch that? They’re suggesting that a moderate amount of physical activity put the kibosh on the detrimental effects of rotten sleep. That means all you lifters/exercisers out there, assuming you’re expending the bare minimum of effort/time in the gym, are helping to bullet-proof yourself against the ill effects of poor sleep.

And yes, this was just an observational study, but it was a large one, and sure, if horrible sleep persists for years, all bets are likely off, regardless of exercise habits.

Still, this study gave me some comfort, as a bad night’s sleep often gave me the same kind of gnawing feeling I’d get if I knew I was running my car a half-quart short of oil. Oh, I knew in the short run that it wouldn’t cause any harm, but it sure as hell wasn’t good for the engine in the long run.

A Pressure Relief Valve

Sleep is a funny thing – the more you want it, the more elusive it is. However, this study about physical activity and sleep takes some of the pressure off. If I can’t get to sleep right away, it isn’t as much of a concern anymore. I know that my morning workout will act as a mortality Band-Aid, and, if I wear my sleep mask (Buy at Amazon), I’ll enhance whatever sleep hours I do manage to get in.

For more tips, check out 26 Sleep Hacks: What Works, What Doesn’t.

ElitePro Minerals



  1. Viviana Greco, et al, Wearing an eye mask during overnight sleep improves episodic learning and alertness, Sleep Research Society, 15 December 2022.
  2. Bo-Huei Huang, et al, Sleep and physical activity in relation to all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality, BMJ, 2022;56:718-724.

T Nation earns from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate. Read more about our policy.


I can’t sleep at all, but I go to the gym when I get out of bed, so this is comforting!


I’m the same and have been for years


I maybe get 3-5 every night cant seem to find a solution.

1 Like

I’ve been sleeping with an eye mask and earplugs almost every night for five years now. I can’t recommend this combo highly enough for people who struggle with poor sleep.

A couple tips: get silk masks, they feel the best on the skin and are the least bothersome. Get at least two masks so you can rotate and wash them; don’t let them get nasty with eye bogeys and skin oil–I would begin with one each of double and single strap to find out which you like more, secure vs comfort.

Soft ear plugs are more important than maximum attenuation ear plugs. 28dB attenuation reduces sound by ~630x and 31dB attenuation reduces sound by ~1200x, but being more comfortable is more important for good sleep than reaching for the last bit of sound reduction. Like with the masks get a couple different plugs and experiment to find your favorites, also throw your plugs out when you see ear gunk on them.


I have found these to be the best - MINDFOLD MASK. They have have foam surrounds as well to hug to your face, they stay on all night and keep their shape really well.

1 Like

Thanks for the tip, I have just ordered a silk one!

1 Like

Hi TC. Have you ever looked into nasal strips for improved sleep? I’ve been using them and it seems there’s something to it. I wake up feeling more “ready to go” vs not wearing them with everything else being equal. They are pretty cheap and worth a try, I think. I hope they can help others too!

1 Like

Well, dang. Looks like I might need to pick one up. I feel like I sleep better now than I have in the past few years, but it also feel like it could still be improved. Hoping this will help!

Wow, I completely forgot that I tried sleeping with a nasal strip on years ago. I don’t recall why I stopped, but thinking back I do feel like it helped a little. :man_shrugging:

Hi i sleep with blackout blinds and blackout curtains but still have poor sleep on occasions i go to the gym regularly and do a mix of pull ups chin ups press ups bodyweight pressups as in a heightened workout cube and using heavy kettlebells compound exercises i am 57 in May and i have packed on the muscle so basically i am future proofing myself

I end up ripping off the mask because it bugs me, but I do use one on a plane.

This article had me picturing the T-Nation staff in Audrey Hepburn’s sleep mask and tassel ear plugs from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you care to picture this jaunty look, here’s a link to the movie still, with the added benefit of the jarring contrast of an article on a military sleep technique featured in Teen Vogue. While I never really thought about it, I guess I would have imagined a military sleep aid would involve a sergeant with a flat top, like my childhood coach in a red state, screaming, “EYES SHUT, MAGGOTS” rather than the risibly simplistic yoga lady advice to jUSt CLeaR yoUr heAD. Right-o🫡Sleeping Technique Reportedly Used by the Military Can Help You Fall Asleep in 2 Minutes | Teen Vogue

Reporting back after what, three weeks, maybe? I LOVE THE MASK. I don’t wear it all night, though if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, I’ll try it and sometimes it helps. But generally I put it on when I wake at 3 or 4 to prevent being bothered by the shift to daylight, and OMG, does it help. The last 2-3 hours of sleep are just so much better with it.

I use the mask TC linked, which is silk. I’ve used and disliked cheap cotton masks (like international flight freebies) in the past for daytime sleep. This is a whole ‘nother animal.

Thanks, TC.

You mean those things that sort of spread your nostrils? No, haven’t tried them, but I’ll look into it. Thanks!

Hey, that’s great to hear!