I recently moved and one of the hardest things for me turned out to be shifting from PST to EST. Getting onto a good, solid sleep schedule ended up at the end of my list during that busy time.
And I paid the consequences. Comparing body scans that I took right when I moved to 3 months in, I saw lean body mass decrease, and body fat increase. I hadn’t changed anything about my eating or exercise regiment, so this was significant.
Blood tests showed that my thyroid was starting to drop, my blood sugar was getting high, my adrenals were working overtime, and I could tell you that my energy wasn’t the same.
It seems so obvious now – but with so much to do, I just kept pushing my bedtime back to later and later, and getting up with the dogs meant I still had to get up early. I’d often fall back asleep exhausted for an hour after taking them out, which meant that I woke up groggy, feeling rushed, and started the day with lower energy – a time when I needed it most!
Once I fixed my sleep – which I did by setting an alarm to get in bed, reading before bed, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day – my body started to respond very quickly. I had more energy in the morning (and all day), and I started to feel like my old self.
(watch this video to hear more about my story, and a discussion of some of the points in this article)
It’s while you’re sleeping that the world of cells and organelles that are dedicated to your well-being are busy with vital tasks that rebuild and restore you from the days activities.
All kinds of essential processes occur, like the fortification of your immune system, repair of tissue damage, processing of memory and experience, and preparation for you to start the following day fresh, ready and rejuvenated (1).
If you’re reading my blog because you too enjoy living a healthy life in a strong, fit body that will stand the test of time, there is nothing more important than sleep when it comes to maintaining and building muscle, losing body fat and reaching your goals.
While I may not have all the answers you need to fix your sleep, this article is a brief summary of some of the most important things I have learned about the importance and mechanics of sleep – and I hope it will give you some insights that will spark more research and reading so you can make sleep the most important pillar of your 4 Pillars of Health!
Of course, not all sleep is created equal. Ideally your body will cycle through four different stages at night but if you are constantly waking up or tossing and turning these cycles are disrupted.
So even though you might be in bed for 8 hours, the quality of your sleep is impacted, not allowing your body to reap the befits of deep sleep. When focusing on sleep, the most important thing is the quality of the hours you are getting, even more than the number (2).
While you’re sleeping, your brain cycles through REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (nREM) sleep.
nREM 1: In this stage, you’re falling asleep, or drifting in and out of sleep. Your eye movement and muscle activity slows down. The level of various hormones at this critical time of falling asleep is very important, which is why it’s so vital to create an optimal sleep environment.
Trouble falling asleep? Artificial light from your TV, phone or computer could be a culprit. Try getting off of those devices at least an hour before bed, and wearing blue light blocking glasses once it starts to get dark to enable the natural hormone cycles to kick in (they are affected by light) to get to sleep easier.
nREM 2: This is where you’re in light sleep. Your eyes stop moving, and your brain waves slow. Your heart rate and breathing regulate, and your body temperature drops, as your body prepares for crucial deep sleep, where all the restoration occurs.
Stages 1 and 2 are really essential for preparing you to get to that optimal deep sleep. You simply can’t get there without allowing the body to slow down and relax.
Reduce exposure to light, and be sure you’re stopping eating 3 hours before bed to give your body time to cycle down. Be mindful of fluid consumption too close to bedtime, as this can affect your ability to sleep well and deeply without waking.
nREM 3 and 4: When you enter deep sleep, slow brain waves, called delta waves gradually predominate. Human growth hormone is released during this most restorative stage, repairing your body and muscles from the stress of the day. This is absolutely essential, especially if you’re exercising regularly. Your immune system restores itself. Your brain begins a filtering process, cleaning out non-essential information to prepare you for REM.
REM: After deep sleep, you cycle into REM sleep where dreaming happens. Your eyes move rapidly, and your brain waves are similar to those when you’re awake. Your breath rate increases and your body becomes temporarily immobilized.
During REM, we move that previously filtered useful information from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. We create organization and substructure inside of our brain for pieces of information, kind of like organizing a filing cabinet. New information that came in during the day is filed in the right spot by your brain, so if it’s important you can retrieve it later on.
Getting through this vital sleep cycle takes time. And you need to repeat it to get the full benefits of a good night’s rest. The first full cycle of non-REM and REM takes about 90 minutes, and subsequent cycles average between 100-120 minutes with each cycle gradually decreasing the amount of deep sleep, and increasing REM sleep. On a typical night, you’ll cycle through this 4-5 times (3).
High quality sleep fortifies your immune system, balances your hormones, keeps your metabolism working optimally, increases physical energy, and improves the function of your brain.
In fact, sleep is the one similarity across the entire animal kingdom. While the amount of sleep needed varies greatly by species, but all animals (humans included) need sleep.
The circadian rhythm (affected by light and darkness) sets important timing for the release of key hormones that signal us to get tired (melatonin), wake up (cortisol), build and repair tissue and metabolize fat (growth hormone), and many more.
When our circadian rhythm is disturbed, these key functions are easily interrupted. You might notice things like more stress, mood swings, poor energy, inability to focus, a compromised immune system and weight gain (4).
Mood and memory: Even one day of not getting enough sleep can lead to:
Physical Health: Sleep deprivation has also been linked to numerous health problems (6). While your sleep your body restores and repairs itself but if you are sleep deprived, not only do you miss out on this vital time but your body’s hormone balance is disrupted and can lead to:
Performance: One of the biggest problems associated with sleep deprivation is its effects on your performance, your brain power and your ability to show up as your best self at work, school, and life in general (8). It can lead to:
The bottom line– you can’t focus, you’re more likely to gain weight, your ability to remember things decreases, your decision making is impaired and your motivation and energy levels take a deep dive.
When you’re exercising, your body needs more deep sleep in order for your muscles to recover (9). During sleep, your body produces HGH (human growth hormone), sometimes known as the “fitness hormone.” In children and adolescents, it stimulates bone and cartilage growth. In people of all ages, HGH boosts protein production and promotes fat utilization.
The amount of sleep you get will determine whether you lose muscle or body fat. When you don’t sleep well, your hormones are impacted causing testosterone and growth hormone (HGH) to drop, impairing your recovery and making it harder to build muscle (10) and lose fat. In fact, you may become more prone to store fat.
Lack of sleep also causes cortisol levels to rise and remain elevated. This chronic high level of cortisol can inhibit your weight loss efforts and actually promote the breakdown of your hard-earned muscle by interfering with the mechanisms that repair your muscle tissue (11).
This is something that we want to avoid at all stages of life, but especially as we age. The more muscle we have, the less body fat we have which is great for our heart, our joints and overall level of health.
Lack of sleep impacts how you show up to your workouts.
Since it effects your cognitive function and increases your sensitivity to pain, your workout will most likely feel harder and take more effort even if you aren’t working as hard as usual (12).
Which is why when you are really tired, I recommend that you take an active recovery or rest day! It will be so much more productive for you and your results in the long run.
Sleep has a huge impact on your ability to store and burn body fat. A sleep study compared individuals who got 5.5 hours of sleep per night to individuals who got 8.5 hours per night for 14 days, both groups eating the same diet. The group that got 5.5 hours lost 55% less weight than the group that got more sleep (11) – meaning lack of sleep won’t let you lose weight.
But what if you’re only sleep deprived for a couple days or a week? That can’t be so bad, right – you can bounce back? A study performed at the University of Chicago (13) found that even a week of sleep deprivation can cause metabolic and endocrine function disruption.
In their study (and a follow up study with the same results) there was a 40% reduction in glucose tolerance, a 30% reduction in glucose effectiveness, and a reduction in insulin response to glucose. This means that the body wasn’t able to take glucose into the cells to use as energy causing elevated blood sugar levels. Elevated blood sugar levels causes more fat storage.
Quality sleep is also crucial for maintaining the balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down, resulting in an increase of appetite and cravings (14).
Sleep deprivation can impair your ability to make good decisions, and make you more impulsive, which can make you likely to reach for foods that are high in sugar, salt and calories (5).
Our metabolism also slows down when we are sleep deprived and doesn’t expend as much energy. The theory is that your body wants to hold on to its resources because it doesn’t know why it’s still awake causing it to go idle and not burn as many calories (13).
The bottom line is that the amount and quality of sleep that you get really does impact your body composition and can be the reason why you are struggling to see results!
Now that we know how important getting quality sleep is, let’s look at some ways we can improve our sleep.
You may have a morning routine, but a great day starts the night before – which is why it’s so important to create an evening success routine. The quality sleep you get determines how much energy and brain function you have the next day.
1. Stop eating 3 hours before bed. When you eat, your body’s core temperature rises to digest the food and this can prevent you from falling asleep (15). Sleep is your body’s time for detox and repair, and digesting a meal during sleep will impair these important processes. Pay attention to water (and alcohol) consumption before bed too! Too much fluid before bed can disrupt your rest.
2. Get off your screens: Even 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed can raise your levels of melatonin, your sleep hormone, and help you fall asleep faster and sleep better. Your body needs that time to cycle down and rest. Instead of watching TV or looking at your phone, try reading, journaling, talk to your partner, petting your dogs, or just putter around your house phone-free.
3. Use blue blocking glasses: Exposure to blue light- from your electronic devices- can effect your circadian rhythm and trick your brain into thinking it is still daytime making it much harder to fall asleep. I wear True Dark glasses in the evening to help my brain down-regulate and prepare me for sleep.
4. Take a hot bath: Taking a bath is relaxing. It’s time that can be just for you. Adding epsom salts to your bath is also a great way to elevate magnesium levels in the body – an important mineral that regulates over 300 enzymes, and plays a role in muscle control, energy production, electrical impulses and the elimination of harmful toxins.
In addition, raising your body temperature with the heat from your bath, and subsequent cooling that you’ll experience afterwards can trigger feelings of sleepiness – helping you fall asleep more easily.
5. Go to bed earlier: This is easier said than done, but even going to bed 15 minutes earlier can be a great start. Set a series of alarms on your phone that signals when it’s time to start getting ready for bed and one for when it’s time to go to bed. This can help remind you and keep you accountable!
The earlier you go to sleep the easier it is for your body and its sleep cycle do it’s job. Using the alarms is one of the things that helped me fix my sleep.
6. Create a comfortable sleep environment. Wear a sleep mask, make sure your room is cool and dark, use a white noise machine or fan, try out earplugs and make sure that you have comfortable pillows and sheets. When our room is comfortable, we are more likely to sleep better.
If you sleep with a partner, consider getting 2 blankets so that their night movement doesn’t wake you up.
7. Keep your sleep times consistent: Your circadian rhythm functions on a set loop, aligning itself with sunrise and sunset so being consistent with your sleep and waking times can help improve your sleep quality (16).
Try to get in the habit of going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. It’s especially important to wake up at the same time.
Not getting enough sleep is a huge culprit in undermining our health, decreasing the amount of muscle we have and increasing our body fat.
If we don’t get good sleep we are not our vibrant, best selves. We don’t have the energy to give to our relationships, our work, to play with our kids and pets, to have the motivation to eat healthy or the ability to show up fully to our lives.
Comment below and let me know what step or steps you are going to try this week. And please share this with a friend who can use this information too!
Recommended Reading on Sleep:
Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success
by Shawn Stephenson
The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype, and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More
by Michael Breus, PhD
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
by Matthew Walker, PhD
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