The Importance of Sleep


We all know that we need to get more sleep. With work, life, stress, training, and every other commitment that pops up its way to easy to push that bedtime back another hour to fit it all in. However, doing so can take its toll on the body in a number of different ways…

Sleep and Hormones


Although sleep deprivation doesn’t have an enormous effect on insulin it has been shown to attenuate (decrease) insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance even during periods of mild deprivation. This decrease in sensitivity is a risk factor for developing type II diabetes however the research is unclear on what this risk truly is in an otherwise healthy adult. The good news is that these effects can be quickly dealt with when you normalize you sleep time and start getting the Zzzz you once were. This is something to note in your line of work as long field ops usually come with a lack of sleep… So, once you return from the field you need to make it a point to get your sleep back up to a healthy level. I plan on diving much deeper into insulin in a future blog post.

Androgens & Testosterone

These guys are responsible for all those sweet gainz you’re hoping for in the gym as well as a number of other good things. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep can have a pretty big effect on your bodies ability to produce these hormones. Studies have shown that getting just 3 fewer hours of sleep over a five day period (again, VERY likely in a normal field op) can result in a 10-30% decrease in testosterone.

Growth Hormone

Good news on the growth hormone front… Despite the body secreting large amounts of growth hormone during sleep, it turns out that the vast majority of this (upwards of 50%) is secreted very shortly after you fall asleep. Reducing the total amount of sleep may not reduce the overall amount of GH you get because your amazing body will compensate during the time you’re awake. So, if your nights are cut short, you’ll still be getting a large does and your body will be able to make up for it with additional secretion during the day.

Cortisol (stress hormone)

Cortisol should typically follow a predictable path, higher in the mornings and lower in the evening as it is responsible for waking you up. Cortisol also has a number of properties that are very useful to you and your delicate little body (i.e. anti-inflammatory and fat-burning properties!) however we need to be careful how we regulate the amount of cortisol floating around in there or we could be doing some unwanted damage.

Sleep and Metabolism

The research into whether a lack of sleep causes changes in metabolism is murky at best. Some research has shown that sleep deprivation could lead to an almost 8% reduction in metabolic rate (burning fewer calories throughout the day) where other studies have shown that a sleep deprived individual may actually lose weight as the body is “up” longer thus requiring more fuel to power the wakeful activities. However, sleep deprivation has been linked to a dysregulation in a neuropeptide (a protein-like molecule that is used by neurons to communicate) called orexin which is important in the control of energy metabolism and maintenance of the sleep/wake cycle. Dysregulation of orexin has been linked to obesity, narcolepsy, and a number of other diseases. To break that down to something we can all understand easier… Sleep deprivation could lead to a number of chemical changes in the body and brain which can cause a number of problems such as getting fat and/or stopping you from losing that last 10 pounds.

Sleep and Physical Performance

By now we are probably all on board with getting more sleep… However, let’s keep beating this dead horse (probably died due to lack of sleep…)

There are a number of studies out there that have looked at sleep deprivation and its effect on physical performance. I’m sure many of you have felt these effects first hand when you’ve had to perform a physically demanding activity after being up all night.

Here is a quick list summing up a handful of studies on sleep and physical performance:

  • Adequate sleep can lead to a 42% increase in hitting accuracy in tennis players
  • Sleep loss resulted in an 11% decrease in time to exhaustion
  • Adequate sleep improves reaction time and split-second decision making ability by 17% and 4.3% respectively
  • Perceived exertion increased upwards of 19% with sleep deprivation
  • Maximum bench press strength dropped 20 pounds with sleep deprivation
  • A 20 minute power nap can improve alertness by upwards of 100%

Hopefully you’re convinced that sleeping a bit more can be helpful to you being more awesome!

Sleep and the Brain

Although the brain is still largely a mystery to scientists they have begun to scratch the surface of what is going on in that head of yours. It turns out that when you fall asleep a number of processes take place in your brain to help clear out the waste accumulated during the day and help give your brain the rest it needs to continue firing on all cylinders the next day.

Some research has shown that the brain (neurons) working hard all day can produce free-radicals that could be potentially damaging to healthy brain cells. When you sleep, these same neurons will produce antioxidants that help “wash” away these free radicals. Unfortunately, it was found that sleep deprivation can lead to an accumulation of these free radicals which could lead to a number of problems down the road.

This is basically the difference between you taking the trash out every day and taking the trash out once every 3 weeks. If you put off this ‘garbage” disposal it is going to take you a lot more time and energy to clean up and may have some unwanted side effects.

How to Get Better at Sleep

Okay, great… We are all convinced that we need to get more sleep but just how should I go about doing that with my busy life!?

The first step is making sure you understand that sleep is important and you need to make it a priority when you can. Obviously, spending 2 weeks in the field is going to cause havoc on your sleep but if you understand that it’s important you’ll be more likely to take the steps necessary to catch back up when you get home.

You are going to want to shoot for around 7.5-9 hours each night. Why 7.5? Because the average person’s REM cycle lasts 90 minutes. Have you ever woken up from a great night sleep and felt super groggy? Chances are you woke up during the REM phase of that sleep cycle. I recommend you plan your bed time accordingly and pay attention to how you feel when you wake up the next day.

Research also shows that you are going to want to sleep in as dark of a room as possible. Artificial light has been shown to have all kinds of sleep limiting effects so turn out that dinosaur night light, cover up that bright clock, and blackout those windows with some blackout shades or ultra thick curtains.

Lastly, get on a routine that you will actually stick to. Having a nightly ritual has been shown to help cue the brain into “winding down”. Personally, I head upstairs, take a shower in a dark bathroom, hop into bed and spend about 10-20 minutes reading some fiction (Fiction is mindless… I’ve learned to steer clear of fitness & business related books because they stimulated me too much). As I start to lose focus on the book I’m reading I put it down and am usually out like a light within the next 2 minutes.

Whatever your routine is, just try to stick to it, and you’ll begin to train yourself to fall asleep faster.

Brilliance in the (Sleep) Basics

I get a ton of questions about diet, nutrition, supplements, and training from folks looking to improve their fitness and 9 times out of 10 when I ask them how much sleep they are getting each night they are under the recommended levels. There are a ton of companies out there looking to capitalize on the uninformed by selling a supplement to improve your strength, life, fitness, and sweet gainz, however, none of them are as effective or as cheap as a good night sleep.

This is by no means an all-inclusive article on sleep, there are a ton of great information out there on the importance of sleep, its benefits, and how to do it better so if you have any other ideas or things that have worked for you please share them in the comments!

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