The Dangers of Poor Sleep and How You Can Fix It
The most powerful performance enhancing drug on the market is free and legal. Nothing else above nor below the counter has its muscle building, recovery, or health enhancing properties. It helps keep you free of every major lifestyle disease while enhancing your energy and mood each day. Yet many people bypass it while chasing bio-hacks and magic beans.
Lack of sleep is wrecking our immediate and long term health. Sleep was long thought of as an obstacle to getting more done, an inconvenience. Something the undisciplined and weak succumb to as the determined pushed on with less. We now have a clearer understanding of the role of sleep in our training and quality of life. Yet many soldier on with less than needed, functionally impaired. The sleep when dead mentality persists as lifters fail to appreciate how detrimental lack of sleep is to their goals.
Perfect nutrition, flawless programming, and maximized supplements can’t compensate for the shortfall of sleep. An essential component is missing and no amount of perfection elsewhere can replace it. Sleep is measured both in quantity and quality, both being restricted through our everyday decisions.
How Poor Sleep Hurts Your Progress and Will Eventually Ruin Your Life
The day after a night of bad sleep feels terrible. Some people claim they function well on 4-5 hours of sleep. Either they’re insane or numb to feeling like walking death, having forgotten what normal feels like. How you feel is tiny compared to the consequences of chronic sleep deprivation.
Lost training time due to injury kills progress. Poor sleep increases the risk of sustaining injury during training or athletic competition while also increasing the time to recover from major injuries. The micro traumas we accumulate, if unmanaged through recovery and volume maintenance, quickly become macro traumas. Macro traumas keep you out of the gym. Not being in the gym tends to interfere with being jacked and strong.
Classic bodybuilding taught us to prioritize sleep to grow. Then again those guys smoked and thought muscle confusion was essential. They did have the sleep part right. This message has since been clouded by modern hustle and grind philosophy. Now we need to get up early to workout while staying up late to work on entrepreneurial dreams after the 9-5 grind. Though it often seems we lack the hours in a day to get all we need done, if we sacrifice sleep those efforts lose their effectiveness. Sleep isn’t negotiable to make optimal muscle and strength progress. Sleep stands evenly with training and nutrition as the three pillars of success. Remove any one pillar and the structure crumbles.
Training requires stamina. Athletes functioning on restricted sleep show decreased endurance for training and competition. If you can’t maximize training volume and intensity you fail to achieve your best results. Combine other negative effects of poor sleep and you finish behind those who get sleep right. Athletes seek every edge in competition occasionally to the point of cheating. Getting adequate sleep is the most powerful performance enhancing tool available.
Not every consequence of bad sleep shows up directly in the gym. Even one night of restricted sleep impairs our reaction time and functioning as though you were drunk. Driving deaths due to fatigue are believed to outnumber those caused by drunk driving. Careers in medicine and emergency services routinely cause poor sleep and shift work leading to enhanced risk of accidents or mistakes harming the individuals and others they work to help. Dying in a crash on the way to the gym interferes with training.
We’ve all had a night or two of poor sleep only to watch nutritional discipline implode. We reach for high calorie processed food and indulge in more alcohol. Poor sleep compromises willpower and disrupts hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin respectively. Ghrelin is amplified causing greater craving for high calorie food while leptin is blunted, diminishing natural fullness signals. Sustaining this long term is a major causal factor in over-consuming calories and the resulting obesity. Sleep related hormonal disruptions lead to preferentially holding onto body fat at the sacrifice of lean muscle mass when we enter caloric restriction. Not only is poor sleep making us fat, but it’s making our efforts to get lean harder. Losing an hour of sleep to get up for early morning cardio isn’t as effective for fat loss as you’ve been led to believe.
Between the hormonal and willpower disruption and added waking hours to eat, poor sleep alone may account for most weight gain in society. Solving our societal sleep problem may alone reverse the upward trend in obesity rates. Over consumption of calories is the obvious cause, but poor sleep contributes heavily to overconsumption.
Onto the really nasty stuff. Poor sleep will expedite poor quality of life and earlier death through a number of unpleasant pathways. Beyond the immediate risk of a fatal accident, long term sleep deprivation is strongly linked, often causally to most major lifestyle diseases.
Poor sleep increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks. We see chronically elevated blood pressure in people who sleep poorly, a major cause of heart attacks. Combine this with the increase in obesity, a key factor in the increased chances of cardiovascular disease, and a heart attack is waiting unless something else kills you first. Sleep apnea may also increase cardiovascular disease risk. Poor sleep takes many pathways to poor heart health, increasing the chances of early death.
Compromised sleep impairs immune function, causing reduced t-cell production. T-cells fight pathogens and mutated cell growth. Suppression increases our risk of contracting infections, from common colds to ebola(well in theory). Many types of cancer risk, notably breast cancer, is increased with chronic sleep restriction.
Just one night of restricted sleep reduces insulin sensitivity and interferes with blood glucose regulation. Your training and nutrition efforts are hampered by impaired ability to partition nutrients into building muscle and burning bodyfat. Prolonged sleep restriction interferes with insulin’s ability to selectively direct blood glucose into muscle cells vs fat cells. Poor sleep develops a state where the body preferentially loses lean muscle tissue in a calorie restricted state while stubbornly holding onto fat. If you’ve struggled to lose fat even while in a caloric deficit and you’ve struggled to get enough sleep each night, you may have your answer.
Sleep issues are prevalent among those with psychiatric disorders. Patients with major depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia all show drastically higher rates of sleep issues and insomnia than the general population. The relationship isn’t as simple as single direction cause and effect, but instead a vicious cycle of the disorder affecting sleep only to see restricted sleep worsen the disorder. Many people deal with depression and or anxiety, seeing this interfere with our fitness and happiness goals. If prioritizing sleep helps to lessen or eliminate the incidence or severity of such mental health issues, we should make every effort to improve our sleep. Mental health issues are prevalent among fitness professionals and enthusiasts, who often use fitness as a tool to combat their struggles. Improved sleep may further this quest.
Men should pay special attention to the relationship between poor sleep and lower testosterone levels. Lower test means poor libido, difficulty building muscle, difficulty getting lean, and shows a strong relationship with our mood and depression. While vitamin D and zinc/magnesium products can have testosterone boosting effects when these are deficient, they don’t fully make up for sleep loss. We should take every measure to prevent the decline of natural testosterone levels to maintain our physical and emotional well being. It will probably save your sex life too.
Humans tend to put off future concerns for today. Heart attacks, cancer, diabetes all feel like the problems of other people or distant future issues. We should still care about reducing the chances of each happening. Each are frightening outcomes but suffering dementia terrifies me most. Losing my memory and identity along with a degrading body is the living definition of horror. Living as an oblivious shell who cannot recognize family or friends isn’t worth the short term benefits(if there truly are any) of sacrificing sleep. This fate motivates my priority of sleep more than any other potential consequence. Aside from feeling like unmitigated garbage from bad sleep.
The relationship between chronic sleep loss and Alzheimer’s disease appears strong as research advances our knowledge. The long term accumulation of the amyloid-B peptide in the brain is linked to Alzheimer’s. Sleep deprivation increases the concentration and chronic accumulation of amyloid-B peptide. What’s the point of building an enviable physique if your brain function erodes your memory and ability to function later in life.
Much of this feels like it applies to an impossibly distant future but the short term benefits to training results and wellbeing should be enough to motivate some change to sleep habits.
Why you sleep poorly? And how do we fix it?
Entrenched modern attitudes about sleep are magnified by new technologies to sabotage ourselves.
Despite more knowledge of why sleep is important to our physical health and mental wellbeing many of us still believe we don’t have enough time in the day. It’s not as easy as telling parents of young kids, those working long hours, and those trying to make time for fitness and nutrition, to sleep more while cutting tasks they feel essential. Behaviour change starts with knowledge and awareness. Our attitude about the need to work endlessly and fit more in is often at the core of sleep deprivation.
Most people feel there isn’t enough time in the day to work, workout, eat well, and take care of our responsibilities. Sometimes this is true, but more often those same people find an hour or three daily to remain current on television, youtube, politics, and social media scrolling. People struggle with saying no and setting boundaries within their workplace and life. Recognizing productivity barriers in your work environment goes a long way toward getting your work done. For many struggling to establish a workout routine, keeping work confined to working hours might be enough to start and stick with it. Set firm boundaries within the workplace to be able to focus. Learn to say no to time wasting requests from co-workers teaches them to value your time more and keeps you from losing the time allotted for your own work. Decide and commit to confining work to normal hours and see productivity improve.
Our expanded use of tablets, smart phones, along with laptops and tv’s means bathing in sleep inhibiting blue light all day and night. Blue light interferes with natural melatonin production contributing to poor sleep quality and duration. Humans evolved to receive waking signals from natural light and sleep signals from its absence as the sun rose and set. We’ve disrupted these signals with indoor lighting at night and aggravated the issue with electronic devices and our habit of using them before bed. Our societal social media addiction is its own problem while aggravating sleep issues. Choosing to avoid blue light exposure in the hours before bed goes a long way to restoring quality sleep. Commit to putting all devices away in the hour or two before bed helps. Most devices allow you to turn the light frequency to softer settings entirely or during hours approaching bed. Apple’s embedded Nightshift ability or the app F.Lux shift screens away from short wave blue light to softer red or yellow light waves, reducing sleep interference.
Prioritizing sleep opportunity isn’t enough. It doesn’t guarantee sleep quality, only increasing the window for more sleep. We sleep in entertainment centres designed to ruin sleep. Bedrooms should be reserved for two things, one being sleep. Devices in the bedroom, especially falling asleep to a tv, cause chronic sleep problems. Room temperature affects sleep. Cooler room temperature helps to fall asleep faster as our bodies naturally cool later in the day, a signal to sleep. Rooms between 60 and 68 Fahrenheit help release melatonin. If you have a partner, usually female, who likes a warmer room, having this conversation and getting her to bundle up more at night while turning down the thermostat might save your sleep and your relationship. Use blackout curtains and remove sources of light such as alarm clocks to restrict sleep disrupting light exposure.
Stress is a sleep killer. Elevated stress hormones late in the day combined with the inability to calm our thoughts and de-stress leads to nighttime anxiety and wakefulness. Acute and chronic elevation of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in conjunction with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, means we aren’t easily able to settle into the physiological state to sleep. Intense exercise close to bed time will elevate these hormones and may interfere with falling asleep. Learning to manage stress will aid in shutting off your mind at night. Like many of our sleep strategies it’s easier said than done, but many people swear by meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy to change how we think about the stress in our lives, and exert control over our thoughts. Adding a nighttime ritual to wind down for bed helps. A warm bath brings blood flow to the surface of your skin then allows for more rapid decrease in body temperature after getting out. Reading a book to get away from screen time is a popular tactic.
Large men and to a lesser extent women, both overfat and muscular are at greater risk of sleep apnea, a disorder where a person stops breathing regularly during sleep. Your brain gets less oxygen, reducing the restorative value of sleep along with increased risk of cardiovascular issues. For overweight individuals, getting tested for sleep apnea and getting a C-Pap machine to improve breathing during sleep can address this issue. Losing the excess weight, especially around the chest, neck, and midsection can reverse sleep apnea in obese individuals. The resulting snoring may also destroy sleep quality for a partner and eventually the partnership itself. Get checked out for sleep apnea and save your marriage. Large bodybuilders, strongmen, and powerlifters are especially vulnerable to sleep apnea due to their heavy muscularity around their neck and chest. Crossfitters not so much.
Caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol too close to bedtime cause major disruption in sleep. We have to be more careful about the timing and amount of this stuff to save our sleep.
It takes 4-6 hours to metabolize just half of the caffeine from your afternoon coffee, leaving it active long after you feel its direct effects wear off. Many users rely on caffeine to get through exhausted days, only to suffer the vicious cycle of caffeine disrupted sleep while resorting to the same caffeine to survive the following day. Some perpetually live in this state. Ending caffeine intake by early afternoon should allow enough caffeine to be metabolized to reduce or eliminate its sleep interference. Taking steps to reduce overall caffeine intake and need may help restore its effectiveness while negating its harmful impact on sleep. Lifters drinking evening preworkout drinks containing caffeine do more harm than good, meanwhile the ones without caffeine are expensive pee.
Alcohol functions as a sedative and is sometimes used as a misguided sleep aid. Yet alcohol interferes with quality sleep and we often wake up when the effects of alcohol have worn off. Even a single drink before bed can interfere with normal sleep quality. Anyone who’s had a late night of heavy drinking can attest to the disruption of normal functioning the following day. Reducing any liquid intake in the hours before bed helps avoid peeing, which disrupts sleep unless you prefer bed wetting. Avoid casual alcoholic drinks within a few hours before bed.
Nicotine’s stimulant effects too close to bed also interfere with the ability to fall asleep. Don’t smoke or chew tobacco near bedtime. Better yet, quit smoking or chewing, we’re long past tip toeing around how detrimental these habits are.
Shift work is more common today in many careers. Shift work has been demonstrated to have such a detrimental role in career risk it’s now listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Shift work prevents us from having a normal sleep routine by interfering with our natural circadian rhythm and our exposure to normal cycles of light. Similarly those who travel across time zones frequently experience major sleep disruptions requiring days to adjust. Give some hard thought to long term work alternatives to rotating or permanent shift work.
We fix the problem by sleeping more and getting better quality sleep. This statement alone is as effective as telling people to move more and eat less for weight loss, but it’s our starting point.
Getting more sleep starts with appreciating how essential sleep is and deciding it takes priority above all. Track every 15 minute segment of your day and see just how much time is wasted scrolling social media, watching junk on Netflix and YouTube. No one is saying cut out leisure or schedule yourself to the minute, yet you would find many of the people who don’t sleep enough are well versed in celebrity gossip, pop culture, and popular television. Slicing down social media and television time alone probably restores the lost sleep hours for most people. Its up to you to decide if it matters.
Having a set time you go to bed and wake each day goes a long way to constant quality sleep. I go to sleep 8 hours before I need to get up. If you commit to sleeping more, moving your bed time earlier by 15-30 minutes instead of 1-2 hours to begin with, can ease the transition and be manageable.
Add strategic napping to your routine. If you’ve succumbed to napping for an evening hour you remember waking groggy only to have trouble sleeping later. You’ve napped too late and for too long, experiencing sleep inertia where you awakened during a deeper part of the sleep cycle. Instead use short afternoon naps of 20-30 minutes to restore some daily vitality. Naps do not replace serious chronic sleep deprivation but they can provide a mental boost to be more productive. Naps are revitalizing, providing energy for a stronger workout, or a reboot after one. Clever athletes often use strategic naps to boost performance and recovery.
Each problem is rooted in choices we make no matter the denials and excuses made, leaving us with the ability to choose solutions. Individually or combined these issues account for most insomnia and sleep restriction.
We are systematically underutilizing sleep as a recovery and growth aid. It’s the most powerful tool accessible to you right now but it means changing your attitude about sleep and modifying some behaviours. If the incentive to maximize training results isn’t enough, hopefully the nasty array of lifestyle diseases causes by chronic sleep deprivation pauses you long enough to reconsider the value of one more episode of some garbage reality tv before bed. We can find the time to get everything we need done if we cut out the waste. Combine great sleep with optimized nutrition, workouts, recovery, and supplements to develop the ultimate physique to envy. If you want to learn more about science of sleep read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD.
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