The unsung hero of weight loss is sleep. “I only need 4 hours,” is a phrase thrown around so often in gyms and locker rooms that some folks actually think it’s true. Living life aggressively is what we do and this I-can-sleep-when-I’m-dead mentality is part of our determination… right?

Wrong.

When we understand how significant sleep is to our body composition, strength, health, 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. Yep – in REM sleep our eyes rapidly move around like we’re having a lil’ baby seizure. 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 you 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, um, grow. But its benefits aren’t limited to bigger and stronger quadzillas. GH plays a fundamental role in lipolysis (fat loss.) It also increases our calcium retention (to help maintain bone mass), reduces fat storage, supports our immune system, and keeps our organs operating smoothly. So much of our health depends on optimal levels of GH which means so much of our health is depends on sleep.

GH isn’t the only hormone affected by sleep. Ever go to bed hungry? If you have a full nights sleep, you’ll wake up not hungry. During sleepy-time, the body balances two hunger-controlling hormones – ghrelin and leptin. Because hunger-management is a fundemental part of weight loss, sleep is paramount. 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 obesity. It turns out, lack of sleep will make you gain fat.

On a hormonal level, sleep is essential to stack the cards in your 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). So much winning 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 the perfect amount of sleep for everyone. But 4 hours is not the  perfect amount of sleep for anyone. For males between the ages of 17-35, the national sleep foundation recommends 7-9 hours. Lifestyle and activity levels play a huge factor – the harder you live, the more sleep you 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…

1) “I don’t have the time.”  Our culture tends to overemphasize the importance of “going”. Most of us don’t sleep enough simply because we feel as though we don’t have the time.  In order for you to change your sleep habits, you need to change this perspective. Sleep isn’t when you’re not living.  It’s actually when you’re living better.

2) “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 the blinking green lights on your modem.

B) Develop a nighttime ritual.  It may sound cheesy, but 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.

C) If you can, 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?

Absolutely. However, I’m not a fan of sedatives that are habit-forming. For me, au natural is the way to go and magnesium is the best place to start.

Magnesium is essential for over 300 biochemical reactions that help maintain optimal muscle and nerve function, help keep the heart pitter-pattering, and help keep your bones strong.

Americans are chronically deficient in magnesium and because magnesium plays such an important role in muscle function, awesome people like us (who are 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…incase you gave a shit.)

But, despite all the wonders of magnesium, perhaps the single best thing is that 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, reduced stress, and a sexier body composition (my words, not theirs.)

A special kind of magnesium called Magnesium L-Threonate is a rockstar at crossing the blood-brain barrier. Take it 20m before bed. It might just change your life.

The take home message

Sleep is at the foundation of strong and healthy living. We have a cultural tendency to glorify the “go” but we also have the respect the pillow. Bottom line…if you want to be shredded, strong, and awesome, keep dreaming my friend.

*Something like this article was originally published on MensFitness.com on Feb 27th, 2012.

Works Cited
(Cause I’m legit like that)

[1]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 12 Feb 2012.
[2] “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> 12 Feb 2012.

 

How is your relationship to sleep? Share your tips / tricks / questions… 

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  • Andrew

    Hey Rob,
    Very informative stuff, man! Keep the articles coming, I love reading them. Educational!
    Would be awesome if you did an article just on hormones themselves and how they affect fitness and day to day life.

    • BandanaTraining

      Have you signed up for the newsletter? When you do, you get an article called Managing Your Hormones like a Boss – it’s probably my most hormone-intense article – you might enjoy it. …thanks for reading.

  • Great info as usual! I just hope that natural supplement you’re speaking of is not melatonin. That stuff hates my guts!

    I personally find working out in the morning makes it easier to sleep at night. Except I’ll often wake up at 1-2AM basically starving even though I’ve had pretty decent food the day/night before. Any trick to prevent that from happening? Eating in the middle of the night wakes me up for 1-2 hours, so that’s pretty counter-productive.

    • BandanaTraining

      Thanks Melyssa,

      A few recommendation that might help prevent late night food cravings:
      1) A protein rich breakfast (the morning before)
      2) Fish oil and fiber supplementation (you can take ’em before bed instead of the morning if you get uber hungry at night.)

      3) Consistent meal frequency throughout the day (every 3-4 hours)
      4) A slightly later dinner

      Try those and see if any of ’em make a difference. Sound good?

      • I never thought of taking my fish oil at night instead of in the AM! I’ll definitely try that, given I don’t forget to take it altogether. Maybe I’ll switch the late night snack with dinner and see how that goes too. Thanks for the suggestions!

        • BandanaTraining

          Roger that. Keep me posted. =]

  • Lindsey

    ive had a similar experience melyssa! i wake up at 3 am starving almost every night- except when i eat a snack it makes me go back to sleep and sleep very deeply. So it’s not all bad, but i still wish i could prevent it lol. As far as sleep remedies, i use topical magnesium (rub it on the bottoms of my feet) and lavender essential oil (few drops on each wrist).

    • BandanaTraining

      Ideally we solve the mystery of the mid-sleep meal so you get a full nights rest. Check out the recommendations on Melyssa’s post and see if they help.

      • lindsey

        Thanks for these suggestions!! And you’re right, eating every few hours works a lot better for me (concerning sleep) than IF…even though I really didn’t mind IF (leangains style) I had to accept being well rested is more important! 😮

  • Jason

    I’m an incredibly “finicky” sleeper. It seems like on most nights if the slightest thing goes wrong and wakes me up a couple of times, well that’s about it for me for a while.

    • BandanaTraining

      Damn. No fun. Have you tried some of these techniques?

  • Scott Hirni

    Rob, great article. Appreciate the info. Would be interesting to see recommended sleep past age 35. I used to be 35….not anymore.

    • BandanaTraining

      ha. Even those recommendations are just a general starting point. You need to experiment and see what works best for you.

  • Pretty sure you’re talking about melatonin there buddy

    • BandanaTraining

      wrooooooooong.

  • Adub

    Can’t wait

  • Keith A Scarmato

    Thanks for addressing this, Rob! I have always had “troubled sleep patterns.” So, I finally went for some testing and recently got the official diagnosis of severe sleep apnea and I’m now using a CPAP machine…seeing some, not great, results so far. Lack of sleep, due to the apnea, caused my testosterone level to severely drop below the low end of norm, as well, so my doctor started me on mild testosterone replacement injections. The low blood oxygen, combined with decreased testosterone just spun me into a bad cycle so my body stores excess fat and finding it hard to rebuild muscle tissue. Glad I found your site… awesome stuff! I am starting a new “fresh” approach to getting lean, healthy again through workouts/nutrition and using a lot of your expert suggestions & coaching to get there! Cheers!!!

    • BandanaTraining

      Awesome stuff @keto3000:disqus. Sleep truly is at the foundation of health. Best of luck…stay diligent…let me know if I can be of any help.

  • lwfost2

    Ever tried ZMA? I’ve heard it is beneficial for better sleep and aids in testosterone production.

    • BandanaTraining

      I have tried it yes. I’m a fan, although some people report feeling a little “off” with it. It’s worth experimenting with.

  • A-dub

    I always have a hard time sleeping after I do heavy squats. Sometimes the effects last for a couple days after the workout. Is there anything I can do to counteract this?

    • BandanaTraining

      A magnesium supplement might help. Mag plays an important role in regulating the central nervous system and a deficiency will cause your sympathetic nervous system to go into overdrive.

      • A-dub

        Do you think ZMA would be good supp? Or just straight magnesium?

        • BandanaTraining

          I’m the biggest fan of a special kind of magnesium called Magnesium L-Threonate. It’s a rockstar at crossing the blood-brain barrier…it’ll knock you out.

  • Ethan Grimes

    Great stuff rob, with the affirmed 7-9 recommended hours im assuming in all reality that its individual based. I function best off 8solid hour. But the question I have for you is that what’s the best way tocombat restlessness, yes in the legs, but that constant tossing and turning just to find comfort as well. It seems never ending.
    -much love.

    • BandanaTraining

      It sounds like you’re not very comfortable. Take a look at your sleep environment. Mattress, temp, lights, sheets…is everything ideal?

  • GILLZANIA

    IT’S MAGNESIUM CITRATE DUH

    • BandanaTraining

      Close, but no cigar.

  • Andrew Goetz

    Things that have worked for me.
    1) Set 1 alarm on your phone for when you want to go to bed and another for 1 hour before your desired time of sweet dreams.
    2) When the first alarm goes off at say 10:30 turn off all artificial light (laptop, lamp, bedroom light, TV, iPad, etc.)
    3) Light candles and read something that is fiction or a documentary, nothing too intense that will get you worked up. You will be amazed of how quickly your eyes become heavy.
    4) If alarm #2 goes off before your asleep then try supplementation.

    • BandanaTraining

      I like your style – thorough. Thanks for sharing Andrew.

  • Victoria Badass

    Have you ever looked in to Polyphasic sleep?

    • BandanaTraining

      No. Haven’t done much research there. Have you?

  • Loudog

    As much as I like a good beer, alcohol is the enemy of good sleep. It will make you tired so you can get to sleep, but it’s not quality sleep and often leads to early morning insomnia.

    • BandanaTraining

      co-sign to all of this.

  • Csaba Privóczki

    Thanks for the article Rob, awesome as usual!!

    The magnesium helps my sleep, I take few times a week.

    But the most amazing is setting the inner alarm clock. I set it like a year ago and I sleep 7 hours from ca. 11PM to 6AM. The 11PM is not always punctual, but when I go to sleep around midnight, I still wake up at 6AM just a few minutes before my alarm. But then I need to sleep more and it’s strange, because I wake 30 mins or 1 hour later and ready for the day. Before this I was more tired, when I slept irregularly, even after 8-9 hours, so the quality wins. So I think I am kind of programmed for this 7 hours. What do you think?

    • BandanaTraining

      Absolutely. Being ritualistic with your sleep is a game-changer. Sounds like you’ve done some self-experimentation and have found what works best. That’s the definition of winning.