Health Habits Outside The Gym: Sleep

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Over the next few weeks, I am going to write a series of short posts. They will share some ideas on what you can do outside the gym to maximize your progress and overall health. They will not be covering nutrition, a topic that has been beaten to death in many prior posts!

To start, let’s look at sleep.

In our get-more-stuff-done culture, sleep is often considered an expendable luxury. For some, it’s even bragging rights on how little sleep they “need”. This cultural trait is likely one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, we are one of the sickest nations on earth. What’s more, if you are exercising – in any way – you will fail to reap all the benefits of your hard work.

This is a HUGE topic and I am only going to touch on a few things here.

Lack of sleep alters many hormone levels in your body. It also affects how your body handles food. Heavy lack of sleep disregulates your body to the point of making you functionally diabetic in just a couple of days. However, it’s a steady progression, so if you are chronically sleeping too little, you can be sure it’s affecting you some.

Squeaky-clean eating habits will not undo the damage from sleep loss. In working with many folks over the years, I’ve consistently noticed that those who don’t sleep much have a very difficult time loosing fat or gaining muscle.

Sleep is needed to regenerate the brain and consolidate memories. It also re-charges your central nervous system (CNS). A strong CNS signal is required if you want to get stronger or lift heavy stuff. If you come to the gym with your batteries (CNS) running low, you won’t send a very strong signal to your muscles to contract, and you’ll be lifting at less than your potential. This means less strength gained and less muscle built.

To illustrate this, I have used a portable EEG type device to measure my morning CNS output daily for a few years now. Very reliably, if I sleep less, the output is lower than normal. I also find that anytime I sleep more than 9 hours, the score is higher than normal.

Many type-A, hard charging individuals may be physically trim and lean. Lack of sleep forces the body to run on stress hormones more than normal, and in some this will lead to leanness…for a while. It’s also why these types think they don’t need much sleep – they don’t sleep much and don’t really feel too tired because they are always in fight-or-flight mode.

This comes with a heavy price, as having high stress hormones all the time leads to faster aging and wasting of nutrients. The price to be paid is low testosterone, lack of progress in the gym, inability to fall or stay asleep, stiffness and poor mobility, hypertension, and more.

“But when I do get more sleep, I feel worse and can’t get going”. If this is you, this illustrates how tired you really are. What is going on here is that you are used to running on stress hormones. High stress hormones give us the feeling of energy as I mentioned above. When you finally sleep in, your body finally shuts down the stress response and you go into parasympathetic or rest and digest mode. You have a big debt to pay, so you are deep in recovery mode and your normal energy from stress is gone. So, you feel cooked. When you are properly rested, you can sleep in anytime and wake feeling good and ready to go.

So, what can you do about it?

Easy – sleep more! Of course, we all know that’s easier said than done. For some, this may require big changes on a macro level. I am not going to give advice on how to change careers or get your kids to go to bed earlier, but for some that’s exactly what you may need to do to regain your health.

Here are a few quick points you can use today to improve your results from training and your well-being:

1) Quantity – more than 8 hours is ideal. Human norms (until recent history) were well over 8 hours. This is the first goal; do it what it takes to get it in.

2) Biorythyms – unfortunately, sleep before midnight is more restorative than sleep after midnight. 8 hours of sleep from 9pm to 5am will be better for you than 8 hours from midnight to 8am. Set a regular bedtime and follow it on the weekends also.

3) Quality – sleep in a very dark environment. Black out your windows and cover or remove all little lights (like those on alarm clocks, night lights, etc) Light exposure at night alters hormone levels and disrupt sleep. You will be amazed at how well you sleep when you first do this!

4) Eat enough at night – Eating reduces stress hormones, and if you have trouble falling asleep at night, you may not have eaten enough for the energy you expended that day. Carbs eaten at night are particularly good for this, but not after 8pm.

5) Blue light – stop the use of smartphones, tablets, computers, and TVs 2-3 hours before bedtime. These screens emit blue light, which our body interprets as sunlight. This disrupts nighttime hormonal release that prepares the body for sleep.

6) Get outside every day – Opposite to the above, exposure to outdoor light during the day, even if it’s cloudy, helps anchor our internal clock and improves sleep. A 20-30 minute walk works well, plus it has many other benefits.

7) Electronics – electromagnetic fields disrupt sleep on a low grade level. Remove, or at least move away from your bed, all phones, alarm clocks, etc. Sleep far from your wireless router.

Give these tips a shot, and see if you don’t feel more rested and ready to go!