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?
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.
(Cause I’m legit like that)