Us gym-going folk have a tendency to be real go-getters. But the trouble with go-getting is the go doesn’t usually stop. If some go is good, more is better, and unlimited is best. Living life full-throttle is what we do and the I-can-sleep-when-I’m-dead mentality is part of our determination… right?
Science says wrong.
When we understand how significant sleep is to our performance, cognition, and overall well-being, it becomes pretty obvious – the better we’re able to sleep, the better we’re able to live.
A quick reminder on the science of sleep:
Sleep is divided into two major categories: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. As you might imagine, during REM sleep our eyes rapidly move around like we’re watching a bizarre tennis match. We spend most of the night in NREM sleep and gradually work towards REM sleep every 90 minutes or so. In terms of restorative function, REM sleep eats all of the pies (metaphor), but we can only get there if we cycle through the initial stages. That’s why sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity.
So why is sleep so damn important?
For starters, we produce most of our growth hormone when we sleep. Growth hormone (GH) is aptly named because it is essential for us to grow. But its benefits aren’t limited to bigger and stronger quads. GH plays a fundamental role in lipolysis (fat loss.) It also increases our calcium retention (to help maintain bone mass), supports our immune system, and keeps our organs operating smoothly. Much of our health depends on optimal levels of GH which means much of our health depends on sleep.
GH isn’t the only hormone affected by sleep. During sleepy-time, the body balances two hunger-controlling hormones – ghrelin and leptin. These hormones have a profound effect on our energy consumptions throughout the day. A study in the journal PLoS Medicine showed a strong correlation between limited sleep, high levels of hunger-inducing ghrelin, low levels of satisfied-inducing leptin, and weight gain (1). The next time you get limited sleep, pay close attention to your hunger levels and see if you notice the power of your bodies own biochemistry at work.
On a hormonal level, sleep is essential to stack the cards in our favor, but this only touches on the benefits of sleep. Sleep also mitigates aging, helps reinforce lessons in the brain, and informs our natural circadian rhythms (our 24 hour physiological process). Let’s also not forget that we get to drift off into another dimension of conscious where the rules of our universe don’t apply. Sometimes we can fly. Sometimes we’re being chased by monsters (how fun!) Sometimes our teeth are falling out (less fun.) So much magic and all we have to do is rest.
So what are optimal sleep levels?
Like nutrition, sleep needs are unique to the individual. Eight hours is not necessarily the perfect amount of sleep for everyone (and four hours is not the perfect amount of sleep for anyone.) For those between the ages of 18-64, the national sleep foundation recommends 7-9 hours (2). Lifestyle and activity levels play a large factor. The harder you train, the more sleep you’ll need, so you’ll have to figure out your own personal sweet spot.
Let’s troubleshoot the two most common reasons we DON’T get a full nights sleep…
- “I don’t have the time.” Our culture tends to overemphasize the importance of “grinding.” Most of us don’t sleep enough simply because it isn’t a priority. In order for us to change our sleep habits, we need to challenge this perspective. Habits don’t change overnight (they’re not GH)…but it is worth taking a step back and requalify sleep not as time spent being unproductive but as time actually spent becoming more productive.
- “I’m not tired at night.” If you’re wired at night, here are a few things to consider:
A) Take a look at your sleep environment. Try reducing ambient light and noise as much as possible (if you wake up in the middle of the night, you shouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face). That means getting some decent blinds and covering up any electronic light in your bedroom. You might also consider removing the television from your bedroom and graciously giving it to your children so it can sabotage their sleep.
B) Develop a nighttime ritual. The body loves repetition. A half hour before you want to fall asleep, turn the lights down, get into your Superman PJ’s (no? only me?), and read some easy fiction. It’s a great way to let the worries of the day fade away and prepare the body for sleep. It’s worth nothing here that Netflix isn’t an equal substitute. Between all the sex, murder, and chess, suddenly it’s 4am and a goodnight’s sleep is no longer in the cards.
C) If your schedule allows, go to bed every night and wake up every morning at the same time. You set your inner alarm clock (the aforementioned circadian rhymth). It really does work like a charm.
How about supplementation?
We’re not fans of sedatives because they’re habit-forming so you’re simply replacing one problem with another. Natural supplementation, however, can be an easy and effective bridge to sweeter dreams.
Let’s talk about magnesium…
Magnesium is essential for over 300 biochemical reactions that help maintain optimal muscle and nerve function, help keep the heart pitter-pattering, and make sure your bones are strong.
Americans are chronically deficient in magnesium and because it plays such an important role in muscle function, striking and majestic people like us (athletes) are even more at risk for deficiency.
- Magnesium plays a role in red blood cell production.
- It’s an important part of the fat breakdown process (lipolysis.)
- It’s Vitamin D’s sidekick when it comes to drawing calcium out of the blood and preserving bone structure.
- It’s also important for muscle contraction (by maintaining the transportation of calcium ions to the sarcoplasm of the muscle…in case you have a biochem test coming up.)
But, despite the various wonders of magnesium, above all…it improves sleep quality. Magnesium plays an important role in regulating the central nervous system. That means a deficiency will cause your sympathetic nervous system to go into overdrive. Many different studies have found a direct correlation between magnesium supplementation and better sleep, improved relaxation, and reduced stress.
We use a kind of magnesium called Magnesium Bisglycinate which is highly soluble and easily absorbed. Take 200mg 30m before bed and thank me in the morning.
The take home message:
Sleep is at the foundation of a strong and healthy life. We have a cultural tendency to glorify the “grind” but that can quickly leave us weak, slow, hungry, and less than prime. If you’re training hard and looking to optimize your performance, at the end of the day, the recipe is simple: Less go. More pillow.
*This is an updated and revised version of an article I wrote in 2012 for Men’s Fitness and the OG Bandana Training website.
Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. “Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index”. PLoS Med. 1 (3): e62. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062 15 Feb 2021.
 “How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?” National Sleep Foundation. <http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need> 15 Feb 2021.
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