We all get it, we all wish we could have more of it, and teenagers seem to do it all day. Of course, I’m talking about sleep.
Why is sleep so important? The honest answer: scientists don’t fully understand the function of sleep. There are quite a few hypotheses, the most widely accepted being that best-accepted being that sleep is the body’s regeneration and recovery cycle as certain hormones and chemicals are only released by the body during this state.
Sleep plays a huge role in body composition and health. Poor sleep has been shown to negatively affect testosterone levels and insulin metabolism. Mesarwi, Polak, Jun and Polotsky (2013) showed that those who slept less had impaired glucose tolerance which could lead to a person developing type 2 diabetes.
What has happened to our sleep pattern?
In the 1950s, on average, people got around 8 hours of sleep a night. Today, we average 6 to 7 hours of sleep per night, and only 5.8 hours for shift workers (National Sleep Foundation Polls). This could be attributed to a number of things, but the most common are increases in shift work, work and home stress, caffeine and dietary habits. These cause disruptions to our body’s circadian cycle – the cycle of cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol is not an evil beast; it has its place and a job to do. Increasing cortisol levels in the morning naturally wake us up; whereas, low cortisol at night will help us drift off to sleep. But many people have a reversed cortisol curve – they struggle to get up in the morning (low cortisol) and have to use the world’s most popular stimulant, coffee, to get them going and then they struggle to go sleep at night (high cortisol).
What can we do?
As a coach, one of the first things I do with people that I’m working with is look at their sleep. Why? Because if I can get them to increase their quality of the sleep, they can recover quicker and be prepared to complete everyday tasks with efficiency and even train again.
Here are some tips that I employ to aid this:
- Reduce caffeine intake through the day from coffee, tea and energy drinks. Don’t consume any after 4pm or within 6 hours of going to sleep as it can stay in your system for that length of time.
- Try and get to sleep before 12am (ideally 9-10pm) and aim to get 8 hours of sleep.
- Ensure the room is dark. Light pollution can cause disruptions in circadian rhythm (mobile phones, tablets, TV, laptop). Limit all contact with artificial light for 30 minutes prior to bed.
- Reduce exposure to blue light as it has a stimulatory effect on the brain. Blue light is omitted from electrical devices such as iPad, TV, iPhone, etc. If you need to burn the midnight oil there is an application called F.Lux that will automatically shut off the blue light. The app can be downloaded from https://justgetflux.com.
- You could buy a full spectrum bulb for your room but it would need to be positioned on a side cabinet near your head. It will mimic the rising of the sun and slowly bring you round from your slumber. Follow the instructions on the product to get the full effect.
- On weekends don’t go to bed late or sleep in. The body will react like its jet lagged. You will mess up your routine and it will take you a few days to get back into the habit.
- Ensure you are not overtraining as this will affect your sleep pattern due to affecting cortisol levels.
Supplement-wise, you could start looking into these after you’ve tried the pointers first:
ZMA: The most common bodybuilding supplement contains zinc, magnesium and vitamin B, it has been show to help boost our hormones levels and it is hypothesised to maintain healthy cortisol levels. Also, most people are deficient in all of these substances which if brought back up can lead to a greater hormonal environment.
5-HTP: An amino acid 5-Hydroxytryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin has influencing properties with sleep wake cycle, mood and feeling of well being.
Melatonin: A neurohormone secreted by the pineal gland that the body uses to help you fall to sleep in the circadian cycle.
Magnesium: calms nerves and relaxes muscles, aiding in sleep. Most of us are deficient in this mineral, especially the training population, so it’s good to take before bed to help calm us down.
Vitamin D: can remedy daytime drowsiness and improve overall well-being. This will have a knock on effect that can aid sleep.
B vitamins: helps tryptophan in your body convert to niacin and serotonin. This helps regulate sleep and increase REM sleep.
Chamomile tea: has a soothing and calming effect. It also acts as a very mild natural sedative.
Sleep is the elixir of life, if we can get the right balance of sleep we can perform to our optimal standard. Our bodies will function as they should which means we can complete everyday tasks with clear cognitive thoughts and ease. During sleep we release essential hormones that will help develop our physique and aid with losing unwanted body fat. Let’s not employ Margret Thatcher’s theory of ‘Sleep is for wimps’ but instead Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘Innocent sleep. Sleep that soothes away all our worries. Sleep that puts each day to rest. Sleep that relieves the weary laborer and heals hurt minds. Sleep, the main course in life’s feast, and the most nourishing.’
Examine.com – Sleep Supplements.
Sleep Disorders and the Development of Insulin Resistance and Obesity, by Mesarwi, Polak, Jun and Polotsky, in Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, 2013.
TED Talk Russell Foster: Why do we sleep?
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