Get Some ZZZ's

by Grace Lin

We all know that nutrition and exercise are vital to living a healthy life.  But one aspect that usually flies under the radar is sleep.  When life gets busy, sleep usually gets the short end of the stick – it’s one of the first things to go.  It’s interesting when people seem proud of how little sleep they can get by with (or so they think).  But, just like nutrition and exercise, sleep should be a priority.  We put enormous stress on our bodies every time we workout, and this stress needs to be remediated with proper rest and recovery before it’s repeated again.  If not, then it will eventually lead to injury.  Recovery is only one of the many benefits of sleep.  Here are some of more benefits:

Healthy Brain Function – While you are sleeping, your brain is forming new pathways that help you learn and retain information.  This is especially important for children and teens, as sleep helps support brain growth and development.  Studies have shown that a good night’s sleep (8+ hours) improves learning.  It also helps you be more attentive, decisive, and creative.  Military research has shown that sleep-deprived soldiers demonstrate decreased ability in judgement, marksmanship, and overall performance in mental and physical tasks.  Just a loss of 1-2 hours of sleep per night over several days can hinder your ability to function, as if you haven’t had any sleep for 1-2 days.

Emotional Well-Being – I’d like to think everybody wants to be a pleasant person to be around… right?  Well, for me, if I don’t get enough sleep, I get pretty grumpy.  Nobody wants to be around Grumpy Grace.  And I’m pretty sure the same can be said for the majority of people.  Studies have shown that sleep deficiency alters activity in the brain to the point where you may have trouble controlling your emotions and behavior.  Sleep deficiency has also been linked to depression, suicide, and risky behavior.  People who do not get enough sleep are often more irritable because of the change in brain activity.  Apply that to an athlete, and you have an irritable athlete who is not positive, which negatively impacts his/her mental toughness.

Physical Health – As mentioned before, sleep is critical to proper recovery after workouts.  Deep sleep triggers the release of human growth hormone (HGH), which promotes muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues (AKA gainz).  In addition to getting your gainz, you need sleep to stay healthy, meaning not sick.  Your immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy and functioning, which may be linked to the release of prolactin during sleep.  Ongoing sleep deficiency can alter the way your immune system responds to its environment.  People who do not get enough sleep are more at risk for obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other metabolic and endocrine disorders.

Weight Maintenance – Let’s face it, most people workout to look good.  I’d like for that mentality to shift toward working out to be strong and functional, but that’s just the world we live in.  Well, if you want to stay lean, then you need proper amount of sleep!  It sounds silly, but many of the hormones that are related to hunger and fat deposition are linked to sleep.  For example, sleep maintains a healthy balance of the hormones ghrelin and leptin.  Ghrelin makes you feel hungry (like a gremlin) and leptin makes you feel full (like Lipton iced tea).  When you don’t get enough sleep, your levels of ghrelin and leptin get jacked up.  The ghrelin goes up and leptin goes down, so you feel hungrier when you’re tired than when you’re well rested.  Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin.  Insulin is the hormone responsible for controlling your blood glucose level.  Sleep deficiency can lead to insulin resistance, leading to a higher blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes.  And finally, inadequate sleep affects your cortisol levels.  Cortisol is the infamous stress hormone.  In this technologically advanced generation, people are exposed to artificial light well into the night after the sun sets.  Being exposed to light (mainly blue light) late at night keeps cortisol levels higher than what they should be, and so the body starts sending signals for food.  Hence, late-night snacking.  This high level of cortisol also messes with your natural circadian rhythm, which can lead to grogginess during the day and insomnia at night.  

Okay, now that I have bombarded you with the nerd facts on why sleep is so important, here are some tips to getting sufficient sleep.

Commit to a target number of hours.  It is recommended to get at least 8 hours of sleep every night.  So 8 is the minimum, but it’s best to block out 9-10 hours for sleep to account for outside factors.  If that’s too big of a commitment, then take baby steps.  Start at something manageable and work your way up.

Set a schedule and stick to it.  Have you heard of the proverb: an hour before midnight is worth two after?  Well, there is validity to it.  Research consistently shows that you should be in bed by 10PM.  It’s not just the length of sleep that matters, but when it happens as well.

No blue light.  Exposure to light (especially blue light) suppresses the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone.  Put the cell phones, laptops, and tablets away.  Turn the TV off.  Make an effort to keep the screens away at least 2 hours before bed.  Get some blackout curtains and unplug or cover up anything that emits lights (e.g., alarm clocks, night lights, etc.).  

Create a night time ritual.  This could include meditation, reflection, or reading.  Pick something that relaxes you and does not involve a screen.

Take some Magnesium.  Mg is crucial to proper function of GABA receptors, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in switching the brain “off.”  Many people like to take ZMA as a supplement, which is a combination of Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6 (but it may give you crazy dreams).

If you have the luxury to nap, do it.  But try to keep it to 10, 30, or 90+ minutes.  10 and 30 minute naps are great because they don’t disrupt your sleep cycle.  90 minute naps are typically the minimum to get a full sleep cycle.  Hit anything in between and you run the risk for feeling groggy the rest of the day, and possibly not sleeping well at night.

I hope this article has shed some light on how important sleep is for all of us.  Please make it a priority in your life!  And if you want to continue getting faster and stronger, then it needs to be a priority.