Up until about the 1930s, most doctors and scientists believed that sleep was a passive phenomenon. They thought we simply closed our eyes, stopped responding to our senses, and shut down. Nowadays, doctors and scientists are still baffled by the complexity of sleep. However, based on the things they’ve learned in the last several decades, you should never underestimate the importance of sleep – especially as it pertains to meeting your training goals.
Sleep and Hormones – A Surprising Connection
In a sleep study performed at the University of Chicago, a doctor by the name of Eve Van Cauter discovered that lack of sleep can wreak havoc on the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. She divided a group of healthy young men in half. Half of the group slept between seven and eight hours each night for six nights; the other group were allowed only four hours of sleep each night for six nights. On the seventh morning, Dr. Van Cauter tested the subjects’ blood sugar levels, and what she found was surprising. The otherwise healthy men who had been deprived of sleep had blood sugar levels that nearly matched those of diabetics.
With a few lab tests and calculations, Dr. Van Cauter determined that the men’s ability to process blood sugar had been reduced by 30%, their insulin sensitivity plummeted, and they had elevated levels of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, also called the “stress hormone”, has been clinically proven to cause hypertension, weight gain, and memory impairment. Because of this, scientists started looking for connections between lack of sleep and obesity.
Physically Active People Need Even More Sleep
While everyone needs sleep, and everyone seems to be susceptible to inhibited insulin sensitivity when they don’t get enough, athletes and bodybuilders need even more. In fact, a 2011 study conducted at the Center for Psychobiology and Exercise in Sao Paulo, Brazil showed that sleep deprivation not only enhanced the production of cortisol, but that it also hindered the production of hormones like testosterone and IGF-1. These two hormones are both vital to muscle growth and recovery. Without them, your body would be unable to build or maintain muscle mass. That’s why athletes should never underestimate the importance of sleep and its effect on training goals, performance, and even muscle growth.
Further research suggests that your body hits its prime recovery phase during REM sleep, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement. If you sleep for eight hours each night, REM sleep will make up about 25% of all of the sleep you get. During this specific 90-minute sleep cycle, the body’s organs, bones, and tissues are restored and replenished. The trouble is that many people do not get all of the REM sleep they need, either because they aren’t sleeping long enough or because their sleep is interrupted during the night.
Tips and Tricks to Get Your Forty Winks
Now that you understand the importance of sleep as it pertains to your health and meeting your training goals, it’s helpful to find a few ways to make sure you’re getting enough – and that you’re getting plenty of REM sleep at the same time.
Avoid oversleeping when you’re very tired as this can reset your body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, and make it difficult to fall asleep in the future.
Avoid foods and beverages that contain tyrosine, caffeine, and alcohol. Tyrosine and caffeine will stimulate your brain and make sleep difficult, and alcohol interferes with the natural stages of sleep – often preventing REM sleep altogether.
Adjust your sleeping environment as necessary. Don’t watch TV in bed, keep your room cool, decrease the humidity, and try white noise such as a running fan to drown out other sounds that might keep you awake.
Although everyone should understand the importance of sleep, it’s particularly necessary for athletes and bodybuilders who stress their bodies to their very limits. Not sleeping enough can lead to weight gain through an inability to properly process blood sugar, and it can also impede recovery by limiting the amount of rejuvenating REM sleep you get each night.