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. 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 4-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 6-6.5. Why are we sleeping less? Stress and work are culprits, but the big ones are TV, internet, phone, and social media, all which disrupt our circadian rhythm. 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

  • Impaired tolerance to carbohydrates (developing type 2 diabetic-like symptoms)

  • Increased inflammation in the body, and

  • Impaired digestion. 

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. 

That being said, newer studies are contesting the hormone hypothesis (Leptin and Ghrelin) as the sole reason that poor sleep causes weight gain. Below are other contributing factors. When sleep deprived:

  • Time and opportunities for eating increase. Snacking increases, and number of meals per day increases

  • Psychological distress increases. Our desire for energy-dense foods to increase energy levels and alleviate negative moods goes up. Your body wants to re-energize when you’re sleep deprived. If it can’t get it through rest and sleep, it’s going to try and get that energy through calorically dense food. 

  • Sensitivity to food reward increases. When we eat sugar, we produce another hormone - Serotonin, which is calming and relaxing. 

  • Dietary restraint drops. Self-control is lowered, making it harder to resist temptation.

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. Cortisol actually helps with the breakdown of fat; however, when there’s too much, it spares abdominal fat. As Cortisol increase, Ghrelin also increases – so it’s a vicious cycle! Lastly, 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 clean up your sleep hygiene, write out a sleep routine for yourself, and follow it consistently every night. 

My sleep routine is below:

  • When the sun begins to set, or around 1 hour before my bedtime, I dim the lights in my house and light candles.

  • I complete a “brain dump,” – 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 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.

    • If you HAVE to be on your electronics at night, think about investing in a pair of blue blockers. 

  • I stretch, meditate, or read. 

  • 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.

  • I keep my bedroom as stress and clutter free as possible. 

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, 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 be.

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