Sleep to Get Stronger: How to Get More from your Workout and your Life without even Getting out of Bed!
It’s no secret that sleep is an important component for a healthy lifestyle. Yet when someone embarks on a journey to “be healthy,” or “get in shape,” exercise and diet get all of the attention. In a sense this is warranted, since for about 80-85% of us, reaching our genetic potential depends on our eating habits, and the fact that our sedentary lifestyles contribute to a host of health issues and chronic diseases.
But the truth of the matter is: there are four major factors / inputs that determine our level of health and vitality. Mismanaging or ignoring any of them can derail – or at least severely hamper- our efforts in the others.
Of the four inputs,Diet, Exercise, Sleep, and Stress-we tend to be most willing to compromise our sleep, and it is often overlooked as an integral part of any exercise program. A shame really, since quality sleep plays such a vital role in muscle recovery, oxidation of fat, creation and maintenance of lean mass, and overall metabolic health.
From a general health standpoint, improving the quality and duration of our sleep is one of the most powerful changes we can make for our overall well-being.
It is estimated that around 70 million Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder or sleep loss, and 35% of the population is getting less than six hours of sleep a night. This goes hand in hand with our fast-paced, hyper-connected modern lifestyles—just 50 years ago, only 2% of the population was sleeping this same amount.
This chronic disruption of our circadian rhythm (our bodies’ 24 hour clock) can have multiple negative effects on our health, these include depression, obesity, memory loss, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, higher cancer risk, weakened immune function, and overall increased risk of death. People who suffer sleep deprivation also report getting angry more rapidly, these increased levels of stress come as a result of relatively low level stressors (ie, “the WiFi is out!” vs an actual stressor such as the death of a loved one or cross-country move).
Basically, our circadian rhythm is imprinted upon us by our relationship to light. As a species that evolved living outdoors in equatorial regions of the planet, the day was split into periods of light and dark pretty evenly over the course a 24 hour period. The two hormones most affected by our relationship to light and dark, melatonin and cortisol, also have the greatest effect on our sleep. As night falls and the light dims, we secrete melatonin and our nervous system winds down, preparing us for a night of sleep, digestion, and recovery. In the morning, exposure to daylight and sunshine shuts down the release of melatonin and triggers cortisol, transitioning us to wakefulness, readying us to face the day and whatever tasks and challenges it may bring, in a focused, alert state.
In the modern world, humans have spread out, many of us far from the more evenly spaced night/day cycles of the equator, and we have come to rely on artificial light after dark. While this is critical to the function of modern society, the effect on our circadian rhythm is nothing short of devastating.
This is especially true in the last few decades, as our constant use of TVs, computers, mobile phones, and other devices has exposed us to large levels of blue light, which affects us especially after dark, between dinnertime and bedtime. Blue light effectively mimics daylight, signaling to our brain that it’s time to cut off melatonin, produce cortisol, wake up, and get things done at the exact time we need to be doing the opposite.
So how does this all play in with weight loss, strength training, and overall athletic performance?
From a dietary standpoint, increased exposure to artificial light disrupts metabolic signals, leading to cravings, increased hunger, and more frequent snacking at inappropriate times.
In fact, one study indicates that 8 consecutive days of disrupted sleep led to a daily increase of over 500 calories consumed without the subjects even being aware they were doing so.
Without an increase in physical activity, the results of such a phenomenon, over time, should be obvious. As mentioned earlier, sleep loss also increases insulin resistance, which leads to various metabolic derangements like type 2 diabetes and obesity. Obesity has also been linked to poor quality sleep. It is best to avoid this vicious cycle!
A lack of quality sleep is just as deleterious to our muscles and their performance, both in the gym and in other athletic activities. Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase stress hormones,like cortisol, leading to the breakdown of lean tissue, while decreasing anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that create it. Therefore, making it harder to build and maintain lean mass in response to exercise, and facilitating the pathways that lead to muscle loss. Sleep loss also seems to increase urinary excretion of nitrogen and decreases several markers of fat oxidation, both signs that muscle mass is being broken down for energy instead of fat.
From a performance perspective, one night of sleep deprivation reduces the capacity of our lungs to both take in and expel air effectively during exertion. Sleep loss is also linked to lower levels of glycogen (stored glucose) in our muscles, hindering their ability to generate force and energy during higher intensity activities like sprinting, interval training, and weight lifting. Something to consider if you engage in any of these activities with any regularity…
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are several changes you can make rather easily to improve the quality and duration of your sleep that can help you improve your quality of life, and training also.
- Prioritize sleep. Make the time for adequate sleep, otherwise the rest of these suggestions won’t matter. Most people need 7-9 hours per night. Since many of us can’t control what time we have to be up, increasing our sleep duration will most likely mean going to bed earlier.
- Control your exposure to light, especially at night. Light exposure is the primary determinant of circadian rhythm. Limit or eliminate bright, blue sources of light, such as fluorescent bulbs, TV, computers, mobile devices, etc. 1-3 hours before bed. Cover or turn off all light sources in your room (LEDs, clocks, smoke detectors), no matter how small. Try to use softer, dimmer incandescent bulbs after dark. You can even try amber tinted bulbs if it isn’t too weird for you. Speaking of weird, many people (myself included) have improved their sleep quality by wearing orange-tinted glasses at night to filter out melatonin suppressing blue light. It looks ridiculous, but might be worth a try.
- Deliberately expose yourself to bright light in the morning—preferably natural light. It effectively resets your internal clock and will make it easier to fall asleep.
- Get plenty of exercise. There are proven associations between physical activity and a better night’s sleep and also between prolonged sitting and poor sleep.
- Control and/or modify your use of stimulants. Coffee and tea are delicious, they contain healthy polyphenols and antioxidants, and can get us right where we need to be in the morning, but the adrenal reaction to caffeine can really throw us out of whack if used irresponsibly. At the least, try not to consume any caffeine after noon, and if you habitually drink coffee all day, you should consider cutting back, or—even better—eliminating it for around 30 days to see how it affects your sleep.
- Mitigate emotional stressors before bed. We all have a lot on our minds, and a lot that requires our attention. Right before bed, however, is not the time to deal with them. Try to avoid heated discussions or arguments, reading/watching the news, discussing finances, or anything else likely to stress you out in the hour before you go to bed. Try to create an “emotional buffer zone” between the rest of your life and sleep. I like to read fiction before bed to pull me out of the mindset of my daily life and give my head a way to wind down.
As I said above, you need to experiment to find out what works for you and what will be a reasonable, sustainable change to your life.
Whatever the extent of the changes you make, it will be an improvement and a positive step toward taking control of your health and getting the most out of training.
Good luck, and see you at the gym!
Article Written by Graham Olson.