Scott Klasen, MS, CSCS, Co-Owner, Peak Performance Training
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Have you ever heard someone say that, or even said those words yourself? I have to raise my hand on this one, and judging by the numbers, I’m not alone. According to some sleep researchers, you might just get there quicker too if you’re not getting high-quality sleep.
On average, we are getting 20% less sleep than we did just 50-60 years ago. For most of us, this amounts to a nightly reduction of 1.5 – 2 hours of sleep per night. I know, at first glance this doesn’t appear to be a big deal, but when you consider that this equates to at least 1 less night of sleep per week for the average person, it really starts to add up.
Ever thought about how you would feel if you skipped one night of sleep per week each and every week? The reality of it is, many of us are doing just that. Considering the fact that more than 40% of American adults report having trouble staying awake during the day, it is clear to see that sleep deprivation is a major problem that gets relatively little attention.
Sleep is crucial to the proper function of every single system of the body, and directly affects your mental, emotional, and physical performance, and we can’t escape the consequences of getting too little of it. The consequences of sleep deprivation are not pretty either. Try depression, memory loss, immune system failure, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, obesity, and yes, even premature death.
A large body of evidence exists that most people require between 7-9 hours of sleep each night for optimal function and prevention of disease. Currently, 35% of U.S. adults report sleeping less than 6 hours per night. Compare that to 50 years ago where only 2% of Americans averaged fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night.
Taken as a whole, this is a fairly recent problem. So what went wrong and what can we do about it? I will get into it all shortly, but to gain a better overall understanding, it is necessary to start with a little science. Sleep is broken down into three main stages: light sleep, REM sleep, and deep sleep. The initial stage of sleep is light sleep, followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is critical for brain performance and organizing memory. When in REM sleep, your brain plays back the events of the day deciding what is important and what it should forget – essentially building your memory. When you get high-quality REM sleep, you wake up refreshed and refocused.
Whereas REM sleep is for the brain, deep sleep is for the regeneration of the body. It is during deep sleep where your body releases fat burning and muscle building hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone following that day’s workout. This results in an increase in muscle mass, decrease in body fat, and an overall improved recovery of all your body’s physical systems. When in deep sleep, your muscles are restored and immunity is built.
Sleep cycles range from 90-120 minutes. Your body cycles from light to REM to deep sleep and then back to light sleep. Depending on the amount of time you sleep, you go through 3-5 cycles of sleep per night.
Ever wonder why you wake up and feel tired in the morning but wide awake when it’s time to go to bed? It turns out there is a very good reason for this. The sleep-wake cycle, an important part of our 24-hour biological clock known as the circadian rhythm, affects nearly every aspect of human physiology, including brainwave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation, immune function, and metabolism.
It used to be pretty simple. People woke up when the sun came up and people went to sleep when the sun set. In short, this ensured we produced daytime hormones in the daytime and night time hormones in the evening, which ultimately led to balanced physiology.
Then lightbulbs came along, followed by televisions, computers, iPhones, and iPads – all of which have continually exposed us to more and more light. Circadian rhythms are controlled by what’s known as the master clock in the brain. In essence, all of this artificial light has tricked the master clock into thinking it’s daytime all the time and prevents it from doing its job appropriately.
Here’s how it should work: A person wakes up in the morning feeling refreshed and cortisol levels start to rise. (The purpose is to raise blood sugar and get the body energized for the day.) Cortisol should peak mid-morning. Cortisol then decreases throughout the day, which is important because it directly affects fat storage. Moving into the evening – the sun goes down, light exposure becomes less and less, which signals the body to start producing melatonin (the sleep hormone). Right before bed, cortisol should be at its absolute lowest point and melatonin should be on its way towards peaking. This creates the ideal environment to fall asleep quickly, enter fat-burning mode, and regenerate and rebuild the mind and body.
However, for many, this cycle gets reversed. Can you begin to see the problem when cortisol is at its highest point right before bed? Its role is to energize you, raise blood sugar, and aid in fat storage – three things you absolutely don’t need right before bed! Having a lot of energy at night and being excessively tired in the morning is often a sign that your circadian rhythm is out of whack.
If you have been struggling to lose weight, I can’t emphasize this point enough: to date, there have been 89 studies on sleep deprivation and weight gain, and 81 of them have shown a positive correlation.
Our hormones and blood sugar regulation changes when we don’t get enough sleep. Studies have even shown that just one night of sleep deprivation can make you as insulin dependent as a type 2 diabetic!
I’ve already mentioned cortisol’s role in the process, but there are a few other hormones you need to be aware of. Leptin tells the brain you’re full and to stop eating and ghrelin tells your brain to eat more. When you don’t sleep, leptin is suppressed and it turns on the transmitter neuropeptide Y, which causes you to crave carbohydrates. It is this process that leads to insulin resistance.
So, in a sleep deprived state, cortisol is high, leptin is low, ghrelin is high, and neuropeptide Y is high. Obviously not a good recipe if weight loss is your goal. If you’re constantly craving carbs, or waking up in the middle of the night looking for a sweet fix, this is most likely the explanation.
Okay, so I realize I’ve painted a fairly depressing picture thus far. However, this is where it gets better. The great news is there are many things you can do, most of which just involve the tweaking of your environment. The following are action steps you can begin taking today to reset your circadian rhythm and start getting great sleep.
- Make sleep a priority. It goes without saying, but the suggestions that follow will prove to be useless if it doesn’t begin here. Individual sleep needs will vary, but to start, plan to give yourself at least 8 hours in bed per night. Note: you can’t get 8 hours if you only give yourself time for 6. For most of us, that means having to go to bed earlier.
- Minimize screen time. The cells in the eyes that communicate with the master clock are the most sensitive to blue light. Televisions, computers, cell phones, etc. give off an abundance of blue light. Most experts suggest turning these off 2-3 hours before bed time. If that seems too difficult, try for an hour and gradually increase the time. And yes, if you’re having trouble sleeping and read from your Kindle every night, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
- Dim the lights in the evening. The light bulbs in your home give off blue light as well, although not quite as much. Your body won’t make melatonin if your house is lit up like Wrigley Field because it thinks it’s still daytime. Instead, you’ll produce daytime hormones such as cortisol, leading to that late night “second-wind”, higher blood sugar, fat storage, and disrupted sleep. Gradually dim the lights throughout the evening until they are at their lowest setting an hour before bed and notice how you start to feel sleepy. Remember, our bodies are meant to go to sleep when the sun goes down!
- Get daytime light. Getting adequate daytime light is just as important as limiting evening lighting. When you don’t get enough real lighting during the day, it’s more likely that your rhythms are going to negatively shift when exposed to artificial light in the evening. Sunlight exposure triggers your body to produce optimal levels of daytime hormones and regulates your biological clock. It is critical to get at least 30 minutes of daytime light per day without your sunglasses. The majority of us do not receive this on a regular basis. The body clock is most responsive to sunlight in the early morning, between 6 am and 8:30 am.
- Get to sleep on time. You can get amplified benefits of sleep by sleeping during the right hours. It has been shown that we get the most beneficial hormonal secretions and recovery by sleeping during the hours of 10 pm and 2 am. This is when the magic happens. Sleep experts consider this THE most important sleep of the night while any additional sleep is just considered a bonus. This is the time when melatonin and human growth hormone secretion are at their highest, leading to optimal recovery, repair and rejuvenation of the mind and body. And no, sleeping from 1 am to 9 am is not as good because you are missing out on “magic time.” If you’re getting at least 8 hours of sleep but are chronically missing out on this “magic time” window, it may be the reason you still feel fatigued when you wake up in the morning.
- Use blackout curtains. Having light sources of any type in your bedroom can suppress melatonin production and disrupt sleep patterns. It is recommended that your room be so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
- Lower the temperature. Studies have found the ideal room temperature for sleep to be around 60-68 degrees. Anything too far above or below this range will likely cause some difficulty sleeping.
- Watch the caffeine and alcohol. If you have trouble sleeping, stop consuming caffeine by 2 pm and alcohol 4 hours prior to bedtime. Alcohol significantly disrupts REM sleep, which means you won’t be able to fall into deeper levels of sleep – meaning your brain and body won’t be able to fully rejuvenate. Those with sleep apnea please take note. Alcohol decreases muscle tone in the upper airway, which exacerbates breathing-related sleep issues where you’ll stop breathing more frequently and for longer periods of time.
- Get optimal exercise and physical activity during the day. It does appear that morning exercise leads to higher-quality sleep and more time being spent in reparative deep sleep. However, if you can’t make morning exercise work for you, still find time for it later. The benefits of moving your body are crucial to great health and sleep, even if the timing is not perfect in the eyes of the experts.
- Optimize your sleep nutrition. Everyone has an ideal ratio of carbohydrates, fat, and protein that will help them sleep best. Do yourself a favor and start with a big breakfast with plenty of protein and then experiment with what works best for you for lunch and dinner. For most, it will be hard to go wrong with a low-glycemic dinner eaten no later than 3 hours before bed.
- Technology can help. I’ve already talked about how staring at screens can keep you awake at night. However, at times, you will be left with no choice. Install free software such as f.flux on your computer, which automatically filters out the amount of blue light necessary depending on the time of day. It’s super easy and takes less than 5 minutes to do. If you’re a little more technologically savvy, it is also available for iPhones and iPads as well. Also, check out lowbluelights.com for other gadgets and devices that will help filter out blue light.
- Consider transdermal magnesium. It is estimated that upwards of 80% of the U.S. population is deficient in magnesium. This mineral is responsible for over 300 enzyme reactions, and in short, reduces your body’s stress load, thereby improving the quality of your sleep. A large percentage of magnesium supplementation is lost through the digestive process, which can be avoided by rubbing it directly onto the skin right before getting into bed.
In this day and age, it seems as though everyone is looking for the magic pill to lose weight, feel better, age more slowly, and perform better. I suggest that it’s entirely possible that it has been right here in front of us all along. The best part is, it’s totally free and available to anyone who wants to take advantage of it.
I encourage you to start at the top of the list and continue to work your way down to find what helps you sleep best. Sleep may quite possibly be the magic pill you’ve been searching for all along.
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