Fitness is a way of life. To achieve and maintain a high level, there are many parts that need to fit together. Type and intensity of exercise, and nutrition are well-known components. However, many people overlook the importance of sleep. Without an adequate amount on a regular basis, we will not attain the success we work so hard for in the gym. The recognized average is 8 hours a night. While it is true that people can and do function with less, 8 hours has been scientifically proven to be the optimal amount that the vast majority of us need to give our bodies to fully recover from the stresses of exercise and help keep us in good health.
Recovery during sleep is a result of two processes. The body experiences an increased rate of anabolism and a decreased rate of catabolism. These work together to create metabolism.
Anabolism is the synthesis of cell structures, or in other words, the building of new cellular material such as enyzmes, proteins, and cells. This is essential for tissue growth, maintenance, and repair. Anabolism occurs during non-REM sleep, which is about 75-80% of your sleep time. For the new material to be created, energy is needed.
Energy comes from catabolism, which is the breakdown of cell structures. In addition to producing energy, catabolism also recycles molecular components, and controls their excretion.
When anabolism exceeds catabolism, net growth occurs. When catabolism exceeds anabolism, net loss occurs. Therefore by reducing the rate of catabolism, anabolism is increased, and results in faster recovery, an increased growth rate, and an overall higher level of performance. If you are working hard to build muscle mass, you should try to get an extra hour of sleep each night.
Many studies have shown that deprivation of sleep negatively impacts your body by altering the amount of several hormones:
- Cortisol – releases too much. Cortisol is a catabolic stress hormone that increases abdominal fat storage and stimulates the breakdown of muscle tissue for use as energy.
- Testosterone – lowers your body’s level. The higher your levels of testosterone, the more muscle you can build.
- Human Growth Hormone (HGH) – limits your body’s production. During sleep, your body experiences a natural surge in HGH which helps build and maintain muscle.
- Insulin – reduces your body’s uptake of important nutrients into your cells. Less sleep translates to higher insulin resistance levels, meaning your body needs to release higher-than-normal amounts of insulin to compensate, which can lead to excess fat storage, diabetes, or heart disease.
Additionally, a lack of sleep stymies tissue repair, weakens your immune system, contributes to weight gain (not lean mass), increases your risk of injury, lowers your performance, decreases energy, increases irritability, and lessens focus.
A recent study of Olympian athletes supported these findings, and also added that a person who needs 8 hours of sleep each night yet only gets 6 hours, will exhibit performance similar to if he/she had a 0.05 blood alcohol level.
Additionally, the researchers found that low light, cool temperature, and background noise helped the athletes achieve 8 hours of restful sleep. The low light helps the body release the hormone melatonin which a body needs to sleep. Daniel McNally, MD, Director of Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center said, “Your body temperature tracks your circadian rhythm, so as night begins, your body temp falls and it reaches a minimum right after you go to bed. If you are in an environment where you can’t lose body heat, for instance if it’s hot and humid, you won’t sleep well.”
The benefits of sleep are obvious. In addition to the suggestions above, here are other steps can you take to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep:
- Limit your alcohol. Although drinking may make you feel sleepy, alcohol actually disrupts the quality of your sleep.
- Invest in a comfortable bed, pillow, and blanket.
- Establish a routine. Try to wake and go to bed at nearly the same time every day, even on weekends. Sleeping 10 hours one night, and then 6 the next is not effective. You can’t “make up” for lost sleep.
- Stop relying on the snooze button to get a few extra minutes of sleep. It throws off your internal circadian clock. Set the alarm for the time you want to get out of bed and do it.
- If you nap during the day, limit it to 20 minutes. Similarly, if you are trying to nap and aren’t falling asleep quickly, get up. Don’t lie awake for hours.
- Plan your workout so you finish at least 4 hours before you go to bed. Your body needs time to “come down” from the release of endorphins that occurs during exercise. You should also replenish the nutrients in your body by eating after you exercise, and most people aren’t comfortable eating and then immediately going to bed.
It is important for you to understand and accept that it may take time to adjust your sleep schedule. Be patient and don’t give up. Just like you must work to build muscles, you must also work to train your body to sleep.