To-Do List: SLEEP
A common mistake made by people trying to improve their health and fitness is that by placing virtually all of their focus on their training and nutrition plans they actually miss the third and often most crucial element – sleep. In a world that often packs as many hours of activities and tasks into a day as possible, it’s no wonder that sleep is one of the first things people sacrifice. But did you know this sacrifice alone could be the one thing stopping you from reaching your goals? A lack of deep quality sleep plays havoc with our hormones, which can not only decrease our motivation and energy levels but can also increase our chances of gaining weight and make us age faster. If you’re trying to improve your health and fitness, hitting the sack is just as important as hitting the gym.
Our sleep cycles are regulated by our circadian rhythm, which is regulated by light and darkness. When it is light out, our bodies think we should be awake. When it is dark, our bodies want to go to sleep. There are two hormones directly involved in our sleep cycles, the same hormones that play a role in how our weight is gained and distributed – melatonin and cortisol.
Melatonin is our sleep hormone. Made in the brain by the pineal gland, then sent into the bloodstream during darkness, melatonin encourages our peaceful slumber. Melatonin levels hit their peak between 2am – 4am and then gradually ebb so that we can wake up and greet the day.
Cortisol works inversely with melatonin (when cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa). Made in your adrenal glands (above your kidneys), your cortisol levels will be lowest at night when melatonin is doing its job, but will begin to rise early in the morning in order to help get you going when you wake up. Cortisol is also the hormone your body secretes when you get stressed. High stress levels mean high cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels mean (a) bad sleep (b) stored body fat in your belly.
Without a doubt, one of the most important things you can do for your body is sleep, especially if you are pursuing a health and fitness programme – let me elaborate by outlining some of the key benefits:
It stops us over eating. Sufficient sleep helps your body to balance hunger hormones. Ghrelin is a hormone that signals your body to eat more. When you’re sleep deprived your body makes more of this hormone. Leptin is the hormone that tells your body it’s had enough food. Your body makes less leptin when you’re tired. Put the two together, and it’s no wonder sleep deprivation leads to overeating and weight gain.
It prevents excess weight gain. Without adequate sleep our ability to properly use insulin (the fat storage hormone) becomes completely disrupted. When we become more insulin resistant, fats circulate in our blood and pump out more insulin. Excess insulin is eventually stored as fat. A quality sleeping pattern will help keep insulin levels regular and prevent fat storage. You also get stressed when you are tired and stress has a great ability to cause you to store fat (especially around your belly). When you experience stress, your body produces cortisol. Cortisol makes you more likely to store calories as fat no matter how well you are eating. Therefore, a poor sleep routine can result in your body treating a healthy diet like an unhealthy one.
It keeps your brain focused<br />.Your brain functions differently without sleep. Sleep deprivation is a little like being drunk. When you are deprived of sleep you lack the mental clarity to make sound complex decisions, especially with regards to the foods you eat. This usually results in you making poor meal choices and consuming snacks you wouldn’t normally eat. Sufficient sleep also promotes mental and emotional health. These are very important factors when trying to improve food and exercise habits. A positive outlook and state of mind leads to better choices all day long, including exercise and healthy eating.
You get a greater benefit from your workouts. Let’s be honest - sometimes just getting to the gym is an effort, but when you’re tired it’s even harder. What’s worse is the lack of effort you find yourself putting in once you’re there. If you are tired you are not going to be able to give your session 100%. Less than 100% effort means less than 100% reward. Don’t jeopardise your hard work because of a poor sleep pattern.
It helps you recover. For years there has been research completed on the effects of over-training and how often we should exercise each week before it’s considered too much. But, there should also be a focus on under-recovering. Lack of sleep makes it harder for your body to recover from exercise by slowing down the production of growth hormone - your natural source of anti-aging and fat burning that also facilitates recovery. Sleep is when the body powers down so that it can restore, repair, and replenish.
So how do we improve our sleep? Here are some tips:
- Stop using all electronic devices at least one hour before bed, and ideally keep them out of your bedroom. Our modern technologies present a big problem when it comes to sleep. All of our electronic devices (phones, tablets, PCs, TVs) emit blue light, a short-wavelength light that has been found to interfere with our ability to produce melatonin and fall asleep. If you usually use your electronic devices right up to the second you go to sleep, you may want to re-consider that habit – supressing the hormone that helps you sleep is not a great night-time strategy.
- Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. This helps set your body’s internal clock and optimize the quality of your sleep. Choose a bed time when you normally feel tired, so that you don’t toss and turn. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm. If you need an alarm clock, you may need an earlier bedtime.
- Avoid sleeping in—even on weekends. The more your weekend/weekday sleep schedules differ, the worse the jetlag-like symptoms you’ll experience. If you need to make up for a late night, opt for a daytime nap rather than sleeping in. This allows you to pay off your sleep debt without disturbing your natural sleep-wake rhythm.
- Spend more time outside during daylight. Take your work breaks outside in sunlight, exercise outside, or walk your dog during the day instead of at night.
- Exercise – people who exercise regularly sleep better at night and feel less sleepy during the day. Regular exercise also improves the symptoms of insomnia and increases the amount of time you spend in deep, restorative sleep.
- Be smart about what you eat and drink – limit caffeine and nicotine, avoid big meals and alcohol at night, cut back on sugary foods and refined carbs
- Create a night-time ritual that you go through every night. This helps to cue your body and mind to wind down so that by the time you get into bed you are in a relaxed state and better able to fall asleep faster. Some things you can include in your ritual are:
- Shut off all electronic devices an hour before bed
- Close the curtains and dim the lights
- Set your alarm for the following morning
- Have a hot shower
- Do some meditation/mindfulness
So now you know why sleep is so important, and what you can do to maximise both the quantity and quality of your sleep – you have no excuses! Take the time to get yourself into a routine and create a sleeping pattern that can be carried forward each day. When it comes to improving your health and fitness, the four words “sleep better, live better” have never held so much truth. So, embrace sleep, it is a crucially important restorative mechanism for the body and mind.
“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together”
― Thomas Dekker
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