Wide Awake: How Sleep Affects Your Health, Body Composition, and Performance Goals

It’s 2:45 AM and I’m lying in my bed listening to my husband snore. My mind is racing - thoughts like “I’m never going to fall asleep”, and  “my day is going to be ruined” stream across my mind non-stop. After flipping over onto my side for what feels like the thousandth time, I accept defeat. I lost the battle. I crawl out of bed, stomp downstairs, and flop onto the couch, much to the dismay of my 3-year old Rhodesian Ridgeback.

I’m one of millions of people who struggle with sleep. In 2014, about 45% of Americans said that poor sleep affected their day to day activities. That’s nearly HALF the population. And unfortunately for us ladies, we’re more likely to experience insomnia, whereas the major issue for men is snoring.

The absolute minimum recommended amount of sleep for the average adult is 7 hours; however, I’d say that most of my clients are getting less than that - around 6. Why are we sleeping less? Stress and work are culprits, but the big ones are TV, internet, phone, and of course social media. And while quantity is important, the quality of your sleep is also equally significant. I can fall asleep at 10PM and wake up at 6:30AM, but if I’m not sleeping deeply, I will feel exhausted come morning.

Even if you don’t suffer from an apparent sleep condition like insomnia or snoring, you may be sleep deprived if you:

  • Need an alarm clock to wake up on time
  • Hit the snooze button
  • Struggle to get out of bed in the morning
  • Feel sluggish in the afternoon
  • Feel sleepy or drowsy in meetings, after meals, or when driving
  • Fall asleep while watching TV or relaxing in the evening
  • Feel like you have to sleep in during on the weekends
  • Fall asleep within 5 minutes of going to bed

Why is getting enough sleep important? Well, sleep deprivation has some dangerous and nasty effects that include:

  • Fatigue, lack of motivation, lethargy
  • Moodiness, irritability, depression
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Impaired brain activity, including issues with memory, learning, and concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions or solving problems
  • Reduced ability to cope with stress and inability to manage emotions
  • Increased risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, depression, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Premature skin aging
  • Weakened immune system
  • Impaired motor skills, increased risk of accidents, hallucinations, delirium.

Does sleep deprivation affect our fat loss, muscle gain, and performance goals? You bet your sleep-deprived butt that it does!

Ever notice how you crave sugary foods when you’re short on sleep? That’s because there’s a relationship between sleep deprivation and overeating. There are two main hormones in your body that control your feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin suppresses your appetite and Ghrelin stimulates your appetite. When you don’t sleep, Ghrelin levels go up and Leptin levels go down. This means that you won’t feel satisfied after your meals and you’ll want to keep on eating. In fact, studies suggest that people who sleep fewer than 6 hrs per night gain twice as much weight over a 6-year period than people who slept 7-8 hrs per night. Staying awake past midnight also increases the likelihood of obesity. Furthermore, you’ll experience glucose intolerance and insufficient Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) levels.

If you’re an athlete, sleep is even more crucial because most of your recovery is done at night. Sleep recharges your central nervous system (CNS) and replenishes your energy stores. Your muscle contractions, reaction time, and response to pain are all tied into your CNS. The deeper and better you sleep tonight, the better you’re going to perform in your workout tomorrow. If you’re sleep deprived, you’re going to be slower, weaker, and less coordinated in your workouts. Additionally, your cortisol levels (a major stress hormone) are going to be high, especially at night. Your testosterone and Growth Hormone levels and will drop, deterring the amount of muscle you gain over time.

So what can we do to make sure we’re getting enough sleep? The easiest thing you can do RIGHT NOW is to write up a sleep routine for yourself and follow it consistently every night. If you need to be up at 6 AM, you should try to be asleep no later than 11PM, with 10PM being the ideal time to fall asleep. That means you should start your sleep routine around 8-9PM. My sleep routine is below:

  • I want to be asleep by 10PM.
  • At 8PM, I make myself chamomile tea and take magnesium citrate. Chamomile tea is proven to help with sleep disorders, anxiety, and stress. Magnesium increases GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and sleep. Clients of mine also take melatonin and zinc, all which can improve sleep quality.
  • At 8:45PM, or when the sun begins to set, I dim the lights in my house and light candles.
  • I complete a “brain dump,” which means that I write down everything that’s on my mind that may keep me up at night.
  • I plug in my cell phone, set it on Do Not Disturb, and I force myself to leave it alone for the rest of the night. That means no emails, no Instagram, and no Facebook. I also shut down my computer and turn off the TV.
  • I take a hot/cold contrast shower 1 hour before bed. Cold water decreases inflammation, improves circulation, and activates your parasympathetic (rest and digest) system.
  • After my shower, I’ll either stretch, meditate, or read. For beginners, helpful apps include Romwod for stretching, and Headspace for meditation.
  • I set my thermostat to 65 degrees F. It’s proven that the ideal temperature to sleep in is between 60-68 degrees F.
  • I try to go to sleep in total darkness. I don’t have blackout curtains, but I do sleep with an eye mask and ear plugs.

If you’re still experiencing major problems with sleep, it may be time to reach out for help. Don’t be afraid to mention this to your coach! They can help you develop your own sleep routine, move some macros around so that you’re eating more carbs about 1 hr before bed, and they can help you figure out if you need to see a doctor about your sleep issues. Remember, this a collaborative process between you and your coach, and the more information you give them, the better off you’ll both be.

Author: Megan Markoff, Black Iron Nutrition Coach, @megmarkoffcoaching