Better Sleep for the Too Early Riser

I was recently asked about what tips I had for better sleep. Instead of responding directly to the email, I thought it might make for a good post where others could read and comment. Most of the sleep advice you read online is written for the person who has trouble falling asleep and not for my fellow early risers. Before I begin, I thought I’d provide a little background on my sleep.

For as long as I remember, I’ve never had trouble falling asleep. I would estimate that there have been less than 20 times in my entire life when I couldn’t fall asleep in under 30 minutes. 99% of the time, I fall asleep in under 3 minutes. In the morning, I don’t oversleep. I haven’t used an alarm clock since the 1990s. Even in a dark room, I wake up either just before or just after sunrise. I’ve been like this my entire life.

If you are like me, then your sleep challenge is not being able to return to sleep after waking up too early. It is common to wake between 3 AM and 4 AM, still be extremely tired, but unable to return to sleep.

The good news is I have solved this riddle. I now sleep better than I have my entire adult life. This is how I did it.

MAS Sleeping

Me sleeping as a kid. Probably not a good idea to leave your shoes on.

#1 Sleep Before Other Goals

You may wish to gain muscle, lose weight, or both. Maybe you have performance goals. Until you are sleeping like a champion, put them aside. Once you are sleeping better, body re-composition goals will become much easier. You do not want to stack stressors. This is a concept I explained in the post Rejecting the Seasonal Approach to Nutrition.

Trying to lose weight or gain muscle while tired is next to impossible. And if you do pull it off, it is likely unsustainable. Focus on improving sleep first, even if it means delaying your diet. Some exercise is good, but don’t overdo it during this period.

#2 Morning or Mid Day Sun Exposure

Shoot for 20-30 minutes of sun exposure a day. Besides my personal experience and lots of online anecdotal evidence, the health study Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health states:

When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night.

As a side note, I never get jet lag. Wherever I land, I make it a point to explore that location on foot during the day. I am instantly converted to the new time zone.

#3 Respecting My Morning Nature

I am a morning person. Have been since birth. I don’t expect that to change. This means that although I could push myself to participate in late-night events, I know that I will still rise with the sun and feel tired the next day. Instead of fighting it, I pick sleep. This absolutely can be a social cramp, so it is up to me to plan social events that occur earlier in the day. In the past 6 years, I’ve hosted over 400 events with the Coffee Club of Seattle, most of which met just after lunch.

If alcohol was my thing, I’d be organizing happy hour events. Then I could have my fun, and my food, and still be in bed by 10 PM. 🙂

If I want to sleep for 8 hours and I know my body will wake up at 6 AM, then I need to get in bed by 10 PM. Staying up later and hoping my body will sleep in never works. I need to respect my morning nature.

#4 Dial-in Caffeine Level

Every article on sleep will tell you to reduce caffeine and not to drink coffee late in the day. My take is that we are all individuals who respond differently to caffeine and we need to figure out what works best for us. For me, I discovered my best sleep happened when I had coffee in the mid-afternoon. If I stopped drinking coffee before Noon, my sleep was worse. Go figure.

Dialing in your caffeine level is not a one-time thing. We change. We can become more or less sensitive to caffeine throughout the years, seasons, or even the week.

Because I adore the taste of black coffee, I do not add milk and sugar. However, it might be a good idea for the highly stressed body to avoid black coffee, especially on an empty stomach. The article Coffee Done Right explains why having coffee with food or milk and sugar will dampen the stress response. A body less stressed will get better sleep.


#5 Minimize Evening Liquid

I used to drink water and coffee all day long and then I’d have to get up a few times each night to pee. This disrupts sleep and increases the risk that you will be unable to return to sleep. It can also lower your body temperature, which places greater stress on your body and can make you more likely to get sick. The book Eat for Heat by Matt Stone explores this topic in great detail.

Eat for Heat: The Metabolic Approach to Food and Drink
Eat for Heat: The Metabolic Approach to Food and Drink by Matt Stone

#5 Prepare Sleep Dust

Pay attention to this one. This is the GREATEST SLEEP HACK ever for the too-early riser! Get a bowl. Mix 5 parts sugar with 1 part salt. Nothing fancy. Regular sugar. Regular salt. Place this mixture in a container within arm’s reach of your bed. If you wake up, place a pinch under your tongue. Let it dissolve. Take a sip of water. Lie back down. Odds are you will be falling asleep. I have found this trick works 80% of the time for me.

The post An Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack covers why this hack works.

#6 Eat Carbs, Sugar, and Salt Before Sleep

Ignore the standard advice to not eat after a certain hour. Time your last meal to maximize your sleep quality. For me and I suspect other early risers, we need to eat something right before sleep. If I don’t have enough food, hunger will wake me up.

The reason we are waking up so early and are unable to return to sleep is that adrenaline levels in the body peak around 3 AM – 4 AM. What food suppresses the stress response? Carbs, sugar, and salt. Eating cheese or ice cream before bed has worked great for me.

Another trick is to down spoonfuls of honey before bed. Marcelo told us in January how well it worked for him.

It was about 2 weeks until i discovered the cause. Stress hormones were a river on my body! I was living on cortisol and adrenaline, because this i could be very active during the day, even with 3 hours of sleep a day! But i was feeling crap at night. Then i searched the web to solve this problem, i saw that people often with “high metabolism”, easy stressed, should not be on a regimen that stresses they body: IF + next to zero carb + heavy exercises everyday. Of course!

What i did, to experiment (saw on paleo hacks forum): continued with paleo, but, every night, an hour before bed, ate 5 tablespoons of honey, straight of the spoon. WORKED LIKE A MAGIC!!! Slept well first time in almost 3 weeks sleep deprived!

Victor from Brazil sent me information on eating popcorn before bedtime. After battling sleep issues, he is sleeping now sleeping like a rock thanks to popcorn. He also pointed me to a discussion on that topic.

Lots of people are reporting sleep success with carbs, sugar, and salt before bed. Cheese too!

#7 Supplements

Magnesium, Calcium, and Gelatin. Those are the only three supplements/foods that have demonstrated any value in improving my sleep. I do not like melatonin. L-theanine seems interesting if I had trouble falling asleep, but I don’t, so I’ve never tried it.

Natural Vitality Natural Calm plus Magnesium-Calcium Drink, Raspberry Lemon, 16 Ounce
Natural Vitality Natural Calm plus Magnesium-Calcium Drink, Raspberry Lemon, 16 Ounce

#8 Practice Calmness

Spend some time each day practicing calmness. That could be meditation, yoga, or focusing on thoughts of gratitude. I like to do a walking meditation in the sun (#2). The reason for this item is that when we wake too early with our mind racing, we want that skill of calmness to guide us back to sleep. Develop the skill in the day. Use it at night.

#9 No Early Morning Sleep Distractions

If you do wake too early and the sleep dust (#5) fails to work, do not get up and participate in activities that compete with sleep. Don’t boot up the computer. Don’t make coffee. You do not want to reward your body for getting up too early with electronic or chemical stimulation. I used to wake up at 4:30 AM tired but then jump out of bed to read financial news while drinking coffee. Sleep didn’t stand a chance. Now if I wake early, I have a rule not to look at a computer or make any coffee before 6 AM. Now sleep has a fighting chance.

#10 Rejecting Quantified Self

I was an early supporter of the Quantified Self movement. Not anymore. I don’t want this post to go down that path. You can read Some Quantified Self Honesty for my thoughts. Tracking my sleep quality for over 2 years was not healthy. It was stressful. At the time I thought it wasn’t, but only when I fully detached from it did I see how it was negatively impacting my sleep.

We don’t need more data to solve our sleep. We aren’t machines. There is not a data set complex enough to define what it means to be human. Instead, we need to build our intuition. Do your best. Throw anyway the spreadsheets and uninstall your sleep apps. Trust the process and you’ll be fine. Pouring through spreadsheets and staring at your failures is no way to start each morning.

#11 Detach From the Outcome

When you try to improve your sleep or anything in life, it can be easy to blame yourself for failures. Stop that. Show yourself self-compassion as if you were talking to a friend with the same problem. Don’t attach yourself to the outcome. Focus on the process. Getting great sleep takes practice. Focus on the practice and not grading yourself. This is where a little background in Stoicism would help, I highly recommend the book A Guide to the Good Life.

More Ideas?

If your sleep challenges have been staying asleep, add to the comments about what strategies have worked best for you or if you’ve gotten good results from something I listed above.


Add yours

  1. Love the clarity of this article – a synthesis of ideas which is a great reminder. Midday walking in day light is my cure for all kinds of ills, especially if you can make it 30 mins to an hour. Magnesium oil, spray lightly on skin before bedtime. I did not realise you need at least 12 sprays rubbed onto the skin to get the deep sleep effect, more if you body needs it or under stress. Its improved the quality and depth of my sleep a lot. Together with daily walking, magnesium is very calming and improves mood too. Any way you can find to stop the chattering mind, and give yourself a pause from over thinking, I find brief moments of meditation and positive intentions for whatever it is you are going to do next, very helpful too. There are a lot brain studies on the value of quieting the mind, how times of switching off has a renewing effect on the firing and wiring of brain cells. This helps the body/brain to produce it own endorphins, the feel good hormones

  2. The sleep dust doesn’t seem to work for me. What works is getting enough to eat, and getting even more if I’m stressed. If I eat enough I can get to sleep easily, get back to sleep easily if I’m woken up by noisy neighbours (a very common event) and go through the night without having to get up to pee or even to roll over. If I don’t eat enough, all of that goes by the wayside. And counting calories isn’t enough, because if something stresses me out during the day, I need to eat even more (as I discovered last night). I have been known to get up in the middle of the night to eat in a pinch.

    Fluids don’t seem to have an effect, but then I cut way back last spring and only drink something if I’m really thirsty. And not drinking fluids doesn’t guarantee that I won’t need to get up and pee repeatedly.

    I’m still working on getting my body temperature up.

  3. THAT’s a great article about sleep!

    Thanks, MAS.

  4. Great post, MAS!
    Well, yesterday i ate popcorn again and it doesn´t work very weel like the first time when i sleep like a rock. Maybe because it was a really unusual day. I woke at 3 o clock, used the sleep dust and get back to sleep.

    My sucess experiment on monday (almost 7 hours of sleep ininterruply) was: Popcorn with salt and with butter + Slice of parmesan cheese + 1 tablespoon of molasses.

    I don´t know which of the ingredients is the most important or if the combination of them, but here are some theories:

    1-) Popcorn with salt and butter: The combination of carb and fat slows the release of sugar in the blood, keeping it stable providing a good night sleep. The salt is used as anti-strees component.

    2-) Parmesan cheese: This week i started to eat little slices of it as a snack to increase my calcium intake to improce my sleep. I observed an interesting effect: Im much less thirsty than before and i pee much less too. I m doing this because i read this:

    “Eat a calcium rich snack right before bed with a little bit of salt and carbohydrate to fight insomnia. Examples might be ice cream, warm milk with honey/salt, cheese and a piece of fruit, or bone broth and fruit for someone who avoids dairy completely. “Combining milk and cheese with fruits adds to the antistress effect. The additional sugar and potassium and other minerals allow the milk protein to be used more efficiently, by moderating the secretion of cortisol, and helping to inhibit the secretion of PTH,” Ray Peat, PhD.” (source: )

    3-) Molasses: Great source of magnesium.

    Well, im thinking about trying 2 or 3 apples (carbs +sugar) than a slice of parmesan cheese (fat + calcium) and a tablespoon of molasses (magnesium) this night to see how it works…

    PS: sorry for the english, not my native language.

  5. @All – The sleep dust didn’t work for me at first, but gradually started working more and more. So stick with it, even if your early results aren’t great. The way I see this is the dust pushes you closer to sleep. If you are wide awake, it probably won’t help as much. But night after night, reducing your adrenaline spike will pay off.

    @Victor – Thank you for your contribution.

  6. A brilliant post! Who here thinks MAS should expand this post into an eBook? I do!

  7. I wish I had heeded rule #1 before I slipped into this self-diagnosed adrenal exhaustion; especially the stacking stressors part. Weight training on top of fasting on top of lots of caffeine on top of insufficient sleep. Looking back, I cant believe how foolish I was. I like how you mention showing ourselves compassion, the way we would as if helping a friend; I think that’s a concept I need to work on. Love the sound of popcorn before bed. If I find myself awake at 3 am and decide to actually get up and have a bite to eat (I do like the sleep dust as well) I’ve found the sea salt and dark chocolate Kind bars to be a nice blend of sweet/salty/carbs and a little protein and fat to boot. Excellent post!

  8. @Glenn – Thanks. I’m going to keep collecting information and stories from others. Maybe we can uncover more hacks and ideas to expand into an e-book.

    @Jim – Post a comment on if the popcorn or sleep dust idea works for you.

  9. @Jim – The same happened to me. I was training stronglifts 5×5 with really poor sleep and my nutrition was not good.

    Weeks ago, I read a lot about this “adrenal fatigue” because i was thinking it fits perfectly for most of my symptoms.

    Now, i think this thing is not a real condition. I read in several sites that true medicine does not support this ideia (e.g. ). I think that symptoms is just general fatigue (your body shouting to stop to get overstressed) (not a disease).

    Anyway, i believe that the body is a perfect machine made by God and i believe that a good time rest for while and a good nutrition can restore almost everything that is damaged. Thats good for us. The only difficult is to find how to do properly these 2 things.

    By the way, what i consider a good night sleep: When you lay down in your bed, sleep about 7 hours without wake up and wake up energized in the morning before the timer. I really miss this feeling.

    I quit exercise for while and i´m searching now to master my sleep. And i can tell you: my mood is getting better day by day. I feel my body recovering slow but constant. When i feel that i should go back (maybe after months of rest of exercise) i will go back to calisthenics. But for now, i stay way from any form of stress.

    Tonight im trying 2 apples with parmesan cheese and 1 tablespoon of molasses to see what happens!

    Keep the hope, friend!
    God blees you!

  10. My problems with sleep come from working shift work – switching between working and sleeping night and days. painting the walls of the bedroom a dark colour and using light cancelling curtains helps to a point. I’ve also used prescription meds and a herbal supplement called Nocturna. The problem with prescription medication is that you can only use them when you can guarantee 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. anything less and you get a major brain fog. Nocturna doesn’t do that.

    I will definitely try some of the other things listed here, if I don’t have to work the next day.

  11. A good post about probably a less investigated problem!
    My early rise happened for the first time in my life in January this year in a similar way you described above. During last months I have had problems to sleep again after early rise and since then I have collected some experiences which are partly in line with your post.
    I am generally in a healthy status and have no other mental or physical problems.
    About 5 years ago I started to do resistence training and high intensity cardios, 50 y/o, 8%-10% body fat, eat low carb, sugar free since 4 yeras, except fruits.
    I have been reading a lot of things about sleep issues and currently think it has to do any how with the so called “hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal” axis.
    Presumably the body excerts stress hormons in the night or very early as it tries to adapt to the training and stress demands we do every day. In my opinion the hormon production seems to be out of balance.
    Your thoughts listed above are very helpful. Specially increasing carbohydrates is a good idea.
    What did I do? First of all stopped any exhausting sport activities! Then increased carbs, cut coffee and tee, remained in bed after waking up, not looked on the clock, avoided any stress during the day.
    The body has taken probably a long time to adapt to an “active” and low carb life style.
    Going back needs it’s own time and could take even longer.

  12. @Freddy – Just out of curiosity, would you describe your body type as ectomorphic (lanky not stocky) ? Also how much coffee were you drinking a day when your sleep was at its worst?

  13. Daniel Riemer

    Oct 13, 2014 — 6:41 pm

    Best thing I’ve found is glycine. About 2-3 grams before bed. If I wake up, it’s effortless to slip back to sleep. More than 3 grams and and I get a moderate headache. Lower doses seem to produce a headache if alcohol is consumed.

  14. @MAS With a body height of 178 cm and considering my shape I would say my body type is mesomorphic rather than ectomorphic.
    3 cups of coffee every day afternoon between 1 and 5 pm was my coffee intake.
    I cut the coffee but I am not really convienced that caffeine could play a big role.
    The situation improves gradually every time I drop the high intensity training and eat some more carbs. Also sleeping without an alarm clock for example on Sunday has a positive imapct.
    I eat only 3 times a day, which means my lunch time is aroud midday and the dinner comes around 9 pm with 2-3 hours training inbetween.
    It seems late overeating worsen the early rise. What I missed to mention is that when I wake up early I have a feeling of warmth, which improves after a while.

    From what I have gathered the Intense training has a different impact on the nervous system which leads over a time to a specific hormonal path going through hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal cortex. It should be a hormonal change, which also can be caused by age. And thus I am not sure whether more salt could work for me.
    Some weeks ago I was on vacation for 2 weeks (without any sport activities and more carbs) and I slept far better!

  15. Victor, are you from Brazil too?

    Regarding exercise, i asked Michael in other post about insomnia right the day that i “discovered” the “true” HIT. I lied on the floor, catching my breath, after that workout. It was due to the “new” stimulus to me, and my body adapted rather quickly. I now train mostly twice a week, sometimes twice (when sleep and recovery feels super!).

    I discovered when i mess around with volume training, my sleep, recovery and mood changes very quickly. Definitely the ectomorph should not use volume training, even worst to failure.

    Eating, sleeping and exercising is so more enjoyable when you see results day after day.

  16. @Marcelo: Yes man! Im from Brazil too! Nice to see some brazilian here too! I got curious: what is the true hit? How you practice? Now, the only exercise im doing is standing up while im studing/working (im thinking about making a standing desk to me) ( ) . Probably, next month i will return to do some serious exercises. What you recommend, Marcelo?

    By the way, i have some good and bad updates:

    – The sleep dust (salt + sugar) STOPED worked to me. This week, i had an insomnia and i used sleep dust and didn´t work. i Woke up 4 a.m. and didn´t get back to sleep. I got disappointed… then…

    – … I have abandoned all food experiements to improve my sleep. I started these experiments months ago: I cut some food to see if it was that was causing my insomnia (e.g. eggs) and add some food to see if it was some sort of lack of certain nutrients (e.g. cheese, molasses, popcorn, sweet potatos)… BUT NOTHING WORKED ON LONG TERM. Actually, i was more stressful about these restrictions. Now, im eat freely, by the way, i return to eat some french bread (which i really enjoy!)

    Now the good news:

    Yesterday i slept 11 hours (7 hours in a row). What happened?
    After abandoned the foods experiments, i face the real problem: stress.
    I dont know how you guys relax, but for me, my religion save my night (and my life 😉 ). I started listening in my bed some Christian songs that really touches my soul. Man, that was incredible.

    Well, if I had to give you guys a tip to sleep better, it will be not about foods and exercises, it will be about to know deeply our souls. Sometimes, the disease (in our case: wake up early or insomnia) is our body or our soul trying to say something to us… we have to be wise to listening.

    Know im getting back to my delicious coffee!

    God bless you guys!

  17. Victor, by “true” HIT i mean what MAS said when HIT really “clicked” in for him. It’s when you discover the true intensity of a exercise and give it all your power and focus.

    The beauty of training once or twice a week is that you can concentrate more and more on a few exercises, keeping the body fresh the other days, focusing on non-exercise things, like playing with my daughter, a light running just to talk to a friend that runs, some martial arts, etc.

    I recommend Hillfit Training, that MAS recommended to me. It’s HIT with weights or bodyweight. But now i advanced more to gain muscle, and i’m training HIT with unilateral (other member just to support). Example: elevated feet on a chair close push-ups (that works more the inner and upper pecs). One arm do the job and the other just stablize, then i switch arms. Just two sets each arm. And go on to chins, sissy squats, and calves. Done.

    Regarding sleep, i found that relaxing music helps me a lot too! I’m listening to Arcanos (Arcanes) and Para Ouvir e Sonhar (To Listen and Dream) – by Alexandre Guerra, that i downloaded on the web. They are great musics to relax and dream good things!

    And about foods, when i stopped eating gluten (i was on Paleo) e found that my sleep was simple perfect. Until the low-carb diet affected my sleep. But i don’t know now if i drop gluten but maintain carbs normally i will sleep better, need to try this. It’s has been a while that i’m eating two meals a day (lunch and dinner, carbs + fats +protein) and the effect on my body is the best of my life.

  18. Tried the sleep dust twice and it worked both times. the extra two hours sleep certainly helps when working a twelve hour back shift

  19. back from SEA & PDX.

    @Victor – Please read “#11 Detach From the Outcome” again. Keeping score on a day to day basis is not healthy. Focus on the practice and not the results.

    @Ian – Glad it is working for you.

  20. some interessting ideas:
    ‘middle-of-the-night insomnia’, is not a disorder but rather a harking back to a natural form of sleep – a shift in perception that greatly reduced my own concern about night-waking.

  21. I usually go to bed around 11pm. I eat 2 meals/day. My largest meal or the bulk of my caloric intake is around 9pm; it’s usually about a pound of meat with a big serving of starch (cooked and cooled). I usually fall asleep without much trouble but I tend to wake up frequently through the night. Some days I just don’t feel well rested because of this. I often get that stressed, crappy, tired feeling during the day; not drowsy tired but somewhat frazzled. I’m wondering if it’s from my evening meal. Any advice?

  22. Ben Richardson

    Oct 22, 2015 — 5:22 am

    Like Michael, I fall asleep easily and wake up at the same time without ever using any form of wake-up aid. I follow all conventional advice for high quality sleep (regular routine, avoiding blue light and stimulation, cool quiet dark room etc) plus all the tips in this article, except for #7 Supplements.

    However earlier this year I also began waking up somewhere between 0200-0400 on a regular basis and struggling to return to sleep again. This began following a vacation to US from UK (thus a time-zone change) but has persisted for months. My training regimen is HIT twice a week, true Tabata style HIIT twice a week plus one Low Intensity Steady State session per week. I recently begin Intermittent Fasting but the waking issue hasn’t changed in frequency or quality since.

    I’m both delighted and a little worried to report that #5 has “worked” for me two nights in a row. I’ve used the exact 1:5 salt to sugar (rapadura) ratio kept in a little container located bedside and placed a small spoonful of the mixture under my tongue upon waking. On both nights, I’ve returned to sleep within – as far as I can tell – minutes rather than 10s of minutes or hours.

    Prior to this I had tried between 1-10mg melatonin, which never appeared to return me to sleep quickly. Instead once I returned to sleep I either did or would want to sleep longer than my norm and if I woke at my regular time I’d feel and remain groggy after rising whereas my norm is that I awake feeling refreshed and ready to train.

    I also am familiar with and tried using diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation upon waking but whilst relaxing neither of these reliably got me back to sleep either. By contrast I can certainly use these if I want to help guide me to sleep in the evening or even take me into a nap during the day, suggesting that there is something preventing that following early AM wake-ups.

    The delight is from perhaps fighting something that works, only *perhaps* because I don’t have causation here, only correlation. I intend to use the dust several more nights, then stop using it again, then start again, and attempt to deduct something from the outcomes.

    My worry is that if the sleep dust is truly *solving* something then by using it I’m treating a symptom rather than the underlying cause. However even if that’s true there is a net positive in that it gives me some clue as to the cause for further investigation.

    So thank you Michael, and let me ask how frequently you use Sleep Dust since you started? Daily, multiple times per week etc?

  23. @Ben – Your first concern is that waking up in the middle of the night be a symptom and not the problem. I’m guessing it could be either. As we get older our ability to recover gets worse, so the training and IF we did when we were younger may gradually affect us. My vice wasn’t over training, it was (and often still is) coffee on an empty stomach. See this post:

    For me the Sleep Dust taught my body how to relax in the early AM. I need it far less than I used to. But recently I’ve gotten much better about how I consume coffee. I have something salty/sugary prior to each coffee or espresso. This has lowered my stress and stabilized my energy levels. No more spike and crash.

  24. Ben Richardson

    Oct 23, 2015 — 3:28 am

    @Michael, thanks for the reply, and you make a great point about the waking being potentially both a symptom and the cause of the problem which I honestly hadn’t considered. Perhaps reduced sleep from waking could be contributing to fatigue and a hormonal issue which then prompts the waking, a negative feedback loop.

    Since discovering your blog and INeedCoffee site several weeks ago I’ve been devouring your writing and really appreciate it. Thanks to you I now also have a Clever Coffee Dripper at work and home 🙂

  25. @Ben – Thank you. As a coffee drinker you might be like me. Use the drink year in and year out to stabilize energy levels. Then your body develops something like a recovery deficit. Only now we are older and it takes longer. But we still love our coffee. We may love the coffee even more.

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