Who needs sleep anyway?
Most of us are aware that a healthy lifestyle is a product of exercise and good nutrition protocols, yet not a lot put an emphasis on sleep. Research shows that poor sleep is associated with effects on hormones, exercise performance and cognitive function (1-3). In contrast, consistency in sleep not only helps you perform better in many aspects of life, it sets you up on a daily basis to get off to a good start. Much like exercise and nutrition it’s not that we aren’t trying to improve certain areas of our lifestyle, it’s that we aren’t doing it for long enough, or struggle to build it into our busy lifestyles. As we have evolved as human beings, both sleep quality and quantity have been on a decline, and many of us are sleep deprived without being aware of it. If you want to optimize your health start with a good night’s sleep.
How does it all work?
An internal 24-hour clock called circadian rhythm operates in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It’s may also be referred to as your sleep/wake cycle. A control centre called the hypothalamus is a small part of the brain which controls the rhythm. Light also plays a role in signalling the hypothalamus, for example, at night it signals sleep and releases melatonin to make you feel tired. The opposing effect wakes us when melatonin levels start to drop and cortisol levels are reignited. The circadian rhythm works best when you have good sleeping habitis, so ensure that you pay attention to it.
According to the national sleep foundation, every night you pass through four stages of sleep (Non REM), before entering into the fifth and final stage called REM sleep (rapid eye movement) (4). This pattern follows certain stages;
Stages 1 – During this stage sleep is very light and you can be easily awoken, occurs when you’ve just gone to bed.
Stage 2 – Here the body prepares to enter a deeper sleep. Lots of things start to happen including; decrease in muscle activity, heart rate slows and body temperature decreases.
Stages 3 & 4 – This is the start of deep sleep and brain waves are delta (slow waves). Breathing becomes more rhythmic and your muscle activity is limited. A stage very important for growth as the hormone HGH (growth hormone) is secreted via the pituitary gland.
Stage 5 REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep – Muscles completely relax and normally extremities here are completely paralysed. It should account for ~20-25% of your sleep cycle and during this stage your brainwaves speed up and dreaming occurs. A full cycle of these five stages typically takes about 90 mins. It is vital that you cycle through these stages without interruptions.
Benefits of sleep
Weight Management – Many studies suggest that there is a strong link between sleep and weight. Rest plays the most fundamental foundations between metabolism and hormones secretion. A review found that partial sleep deprivation may disrupt appetitive hormone regulation, specifically increasing ghrelin and decreasing leptin and, thereby, influence energy intake (5). If rest is interrupted or sleeping patterns are poor your body simply won’t work in the manner that it should in comparison to normal sleeping patterns and uninterrupted sleep. Those that do have irregular sleeping patterns are at greater risk of weight gain. Ideally adults should be getting between 7-8 hours a night.
Bulletproof immune system – Sleep plays an important role in immunity against illnesses like colds and flus, suggesting rest plays a role via reducing inflammation and other factors. Well rested individuals are less likely to take sick days than those that don’t get enough sleep.
Enhancing athletic performance and reducing injury- Being tired is what keeps a lot of gym members and clientele lacking that ‘gym bug’. Another review by Watson suggests that increased sleep duration and quality is associated with improved performance and competitive success. In addition, it will also help keep you injury free. Ensuring that you get adequate amount of sleep will help not only get you to the gym but progression in performance. It will keep you satisfied for longer!
Solidify learning – Sleep also benefits learning, you are more likely to store information in your short and long term memory. Another reason why you should be getting between 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
It is important to note that like many other things in life, balance is important. Therefore, sleeping to much can also be a problem.
Ways to improve sleep quality
Routine – Sleeping/waking at the same time…simple right? In reality we don’t prioritise this as much as we should. routine is what prepares you for the day ahead. Our bodies have circadian rhythms, this is what helps us to know that it is time to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. I try to read before I go to bed and eat before 8.30pm. In the morning i wake up at 5.30-6am and usually start my day off with Himalayan salt water with lemon and mostly oats. Finding routine takes time – don’t rush!
Stimulants – These do the opposite of what the body is trying to do when going to bed. Stimulants start to speed up HR, breathing and reaction times whilst near the end of day our bodies naturally slow down. Caffeine can stay in the bloodstream for some time after consumed, therefore it probably isn’t a good idea to have many forms of stimulants after 2-3pm.
Tryptophan – An amino acid that is required in the body to produce serotonin, which helps us to relax and sleep. Foods that are rich in tryptophan are; turkey, chicken, cheese and milk. Try to include these proteins individually from other protein sources along with a little carbohydrate to help the transport of these in the bloodstream to the brain (serotonin conversion). Adding these sources to an evening meal may help aid sleep.
Artificial lighting – Again this is promoting the body to stay awake. Our natural circadian rhythm uses light to wake. Using a device which has a bright light can lead to our bodies staying awake for longer and also craving foods that are high in refined sugars. If this isn’t something you can change, there are apps that can help emit less light which can help.
Sleeping Apps – There are many apps that can help to get an understanding of how much rest you are actually getting. Once you have logs of your sleep you can then compare and adjust to help improve your sleep cycle.
Switch Off – Relaxation activities are very good for stimulating the part of our body that aid rest and relaxation. Breathing techniques, yoga and meditation all help to relax the body, which could potentially improve sleep.
Personally, i’m a great believer in that ‘everything starts and ends with sleep’ – meaning that if sleep quality is poor, it is probably likely that it affects you in your day to day activities. Take the right steps to help improve your sleep and your body will thank you!
- Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Role of sleep and sleep loss in hormonal release and metabolism. Endocr Dev. (2010) 17:11-21.
- Fullagar HHK, Skorski S, Duffield R, et al. Sleep and athletic per- formance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitive responses to exercise. Sports Med. (2015) 45(2):161-186.
- Nebes RD, Buysse DJ, Halligan EM, Houck PR, Monk TH. Self-reported sleep quality predicts poor cognitive performance in healthy older adults. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. (2009) 64(2):180-187.
- What happens when you sleep? sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep.
- Shlisky JD, Hartman TJ, Kris-Etherton PM, Rogers CJ, Sharkey NA, Nickols- Richardson SM: Partial sleep deprivation and energy balance in adults: an emerging issue for consideration by dietetics practitioners. J Acad Nutr Diet. (2012) 112:1785-1797.
- Watson AM. Sleep and athletic performance. Curr Sports Med Rep. (2017) 16:413-8.