Ah yes, sleeping. It’s like they always say, sleep is more reversible than being in hibernation or a coma.
As a coach or trainer, understanding your clients’ sleep patterns can do them a world of good when it comes to fat loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, or just looking good naked. Like stress, sleep deprivation is one of those factors that everyone likes to overlook when it comes to fitness or athletic goals. If you aren’t losing weight, it’s probably because those three carrots you ate for lunch were too much. Maybe try reducing your caloric intake to only *two* carrots tomorrow.
Sleep deprivation is the state of not getting enough freakin’ sleep. It doesn’t need to get more complicated than that. Acute sleep deprivation probably isn’t too much of a problem. It’ll affect you the next day (or the next-next day in some cases), but that’s about it. I’m talking about chronic sleep deprivation.
When you’re sleep deprived, you become irritable and fatigued. The fatigue can be physical, mental, or emotional. This fatigue causes your workouts to suffer, if you have the energy to attempt them in the first place. Not to mention your irritability makes you a miserable person to be around. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Sleep plays an important part in your quest to attain a Bangin’ Bikini Bod by next Friday, so don’t ignore it.
If you weren’t born yesterday (seriously, if you aren’t a newborn), your sleep cycle is probably somewhere around 90 minutes. This is the time it takes you to move through the three NREM stages and REM sleep. REM stands for rapid-eye movement and is a stage characterized by, you guessed it, rapid-eye movement and paralysis of the muscles to prevent the acting out of dreams.
At a minimum, I ask my clients to get at least six hours of sleep each night. Six sequential hours gives you time to move through approximately four full sleep cycles. I’d like everyone to get somewhere between seven and nine hours, but the busy world we live in often prevents that.
Let’s look at a few examples. John Doe is a client trying to gain some muscle mass and lose some fat before the annual Fourth of July Party that he hosts at his Cape house. He has a job as an accountant and it’s tax season, so he only has time for two lifts per week. Oh, and he sleeps for about 3.5-4 hours each night.
Let’s assume that John’s nutrition is on-point. Despite his stress levels (and consequently, his ghrelin levels), he eats really well. His workouts are great. (Two workouts a week is definitely enough, especially when you have other stressors in your life.) But he’s hit a roadblock. He can’t seem to get any stronger and he’s definitely been looking a bit soft, not the look he wants for that party.
Look at his sleep schedule! He’s only getting around 2/3 of the minimum number of the hours of sleep that I’d recommend as a trainer. John obviously needs to sleep more. And maybe it will have to wait until after tax season, and that’s okay, but he definitely needs to change his sleep patterns as soon as possible.
Let’s take another example. Jane Doe is John’s wife. She has similar goals. In fact, she wants a Bangin’ Bikini Bod before the Fourth. She works the overnight shift as a nurse at a hospital. Like her husband, her high-stress job doesn’t affect her eating patterns too much and she eats really well. She works out 3-4 times per week. But her sleep schedule is not optimal! She takes two naps a day, each one 2-4 hours long, and her sleep is often broken up by daytime distractions. She’ll be spending a lot of time in the early stages of sleep and not spending much time in stage 3 or REM!
The bottom line: they both need to sleep more consistently and for longer!
Sleep and Hormones
I know what you’re thinking, “Please, Josh, not another post with hormones in it.” So I’ll make this quick. The three primary hormones that I want to focus on are ghrelin, leptin, and growth hormone. I’ll also touch on testosterone quickly, but it applies to males much more than females.
For starters, we know that ghrelin is our hunger hormone. Like it’s counterpart leptin, it seeks to regulate body weight. Ghrelin levels increase as weight is lost and decreases as weight is gained. But here’s the trick, there is an inverse relationship between hours of sleep and ghrelin levels. So when you decide that three hours a night is enough, your body makes you hungrier. This is in addition to the ghrelin response to stress (which is also to make you hungrier). That makes double-trouble for John and Jane Doe, who are both stressed and sleep deprived.
Next is leptin. The opposite of ghrelin, leptin also seeks to regulate body weight, but does so as a reaction to body fat levels. As your body fat levels increase, leptin also increases, telling your body to decrease food intake and increase energy output. Sometimes, this manifests itself as restlessness in the legs or incessant tapping. Leptin levels are decreased by sleep deprivation. Leptin also responds positively to testosterone levels & training and responds negatively to insulin & emotional stress. Again, bad news for John and Jane who are both stressed and sleep deprived.
Third is growth hormone. In my opinion, growth hormone is the king (or queen) of all hormones because it does not just regulate growth. It also increases lipolysis, stimulates the immune system, and strengthens bones. It is stimulated by peptide & sex hormones (like testosterone), fasting, vigorous exercise, and deep sleep. In fact, growth hormone is most strongly associated with slow-wave or deep sleep (a.k.a. the third stage). In short, short naps won’t cut it. And again, John and Jane’s sleep deprivation is going to interfere with their release of growth hormone.
Lastly, I’ll touch on testosterone quickly. Fat loss, resistance training, and sleep all increase testosterone levels. Testosterone is both anabolic and androgenic. It promotes muscle mass, bone density, and body hair (ladies, you might want to avoid taking testosterone medication). Especially if you’re already overweight and aren’t resistance training, you aren’t doing yourselves any favors by depriving yourself of sleep like John Doe has decided to do.
Tricks for Improving Sleep
- Use insulin to your advantage! Consuming most of your daily carbs at night, a few hours before bed, will cause rebound hypoglycemia. This is undesirable during the day, but can actually help you fall asleep quicker. Plus, your metabolism only decreases by about 5-10% during the night and you need fuel to rebuild what you’ve broken down in your daily workouts. (The eating before bed myth needs to be put to rest <- see what I did there? Eating before bed will not make you fatter.)
- Set a regular schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same times each day.
- Turn your phone off. If somebody needs you, they’ll come get you.
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and TV/computer/IPad free. Extra light doesn’t help you sleep any better. And try to stay away from bright lights leading up to bedtime. Wind down with something other than Instagram or Facebook.
- Go to bed earlier. Staying up until 3 am and then trying to sleep until 11 am to get your eight hours isn’t a good plan. Try to get as many hours before midnight as possible.
My Thoughts on Naps
I basically look at naps as serving one of two purposes: refreshing the mind or aiding in recovery. In both cases, a nap can be a good option to help de-stress in the middle of a hectic day or week. As a method of refreshing the mind, I would recommend keeping naps under 30 minutes. It doesn’t take long to get a little power nap in and your body will hate your if you fall asleep for two hours in the middle of the day. The 30 minute recommendation comes from the fact that you don’t typically reach the third stage of your sleep cycle until 20-35 minutes into your snooze.
However, longer naps are quite common among athletes, especially in the afternoon. Those concerned with performance will typically allow their naps to extend well past the hour mark, usually for an hour and a half or more. Unlike a power nap, these siestas are more like a mini version of their full, nocturnal brothers.
A few points here that I’d like to make before wrapping this up.
- Don’t be concerned with brief periods of awakening during the night (e.g. rolling over or looking at the clock). Typically, you’ve been in REM sleep and will fall back into your normal sleep cycle (1-2-3-2-REM, or something similar).
- I recommend at least 6 consecutive hours for everyone. 7-9 is more appropriate. And 10+ is optimal. That doesn’t include naps. If you can fit a nap into your busy schedule, don’t be afraid to.
- One hour before midnight is generally worth two hours after. I can’t be sure exactly who said this first, but it’s definitely true. Scientifically, your deepest sleep occurs in the first few cycles. But it’s tough to stay asleep for these cycles if you’re sleeping at irregular times like during the day or in the wee hours of the morning. Get to bed before midnight. Nothing good happens after midnight.
That’s about it. Sleep more. And make it quality sleep. Dark room, no cell phone, no TV or internet. Sleep is an important stimulus of many hormones that help not just in regulating body weight, but in providing us with energy and keeping us sane.
And if you’re struggling at a plateau, try checking your sleep patterns out. I bet you’d be surprised what a good night’s sleep can do.