I’m not a great sleeper – if I’m lucky I’ll get 6 hours of broken sleep, if I’m not it’s less. This past weekend I got even less as I cycled for charity from London to Brighton overnight (yes I’m mad!). It was a fab experience but recovering from a night of no sleep, and lots of physical exertion, whilst still trying to function, teach my classes and continue as normal got me thinking about sleep and what lack of it does to your body.
So many people suffer from lack of sleep – sometimes it’s work related – staying up late to meet deadlines, kidding yourself that in the name of productivity you need to be up until midnight writing your reports, or lying in bed on your ipad catching up on all the other things you haven’t had time to do in the day etc. We live in a world where it’s all go, all the time, and if we aren’t doing something we feel like we’re failing – I know the feeling – I can’t sit on the sofa without trying to do something else at the same time… like writing this article 😉 This mindset can affect the way we view sleep too and we justify sacrificing sleep to get more done. Of course in reality lack of sleep actually makes us less productive. In terms of our fitness lack of sleep can have a really big impact and can actually stop you reaching your goals.
So what happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep?
- Body Fat Gain
When you don’t get enough sleep your hormone levels change – most importantly in relation to weight loss are the hormones Ghrelin and Leptin which regulate appetite. Ghrelin is the hormone that stimulates and controls hunger. If you don’t get enough sleep this hormone increases which means you feel hungrier. Leptin is the hormone which suppresses appetite and we naturally produce the most of this hormone at night. So if you’re not sleeping you produce less.
When you don’t sleep enough you will end up hungrier the next day as you’ll have less Leptin and more Ghrelin in your system. On top of that you will be tired so you are likely to crave calorie dense foods that are high in sugar and fat to give you an energy boost (Imaki et al, 2002) . You have these, they lift you for a while, then you crash and need more – and you end up in a cycle of stuffing yourself with high sugar foods, and caffeine to keep going. In addition your bodies ability to deal with glucose declines with less sleep so you don’t metabolise it as efficiently which can also increase fat gain (Knutson, 2007).
- Muscle Loss
Another problem with lack of sleep is that with lack of sleep comes increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). This isn’t a bad thing in itself but if cortisol levels are elevated over a long period of time it can be. This elevated cortisol can result in muscle loss as it prevents the release of IGF-1 and testosterone (growth hormones which are important for muscle growth and retention). This means that if you are trying to lose body fat or weight then whilst you may still lose weight if you are lacking sleep, you will tend to lose muscle mass first before you lose fat (Nedeltcheva et al, 2010) – which no one wants right? . This becomes even more important for those trying to actually build more muscle as of course lack of sleep also means reduced recovery time so that will impact on muscle growth too.
- Reduced Willpower
When you have less sleep you end up with less willpower. You go in to “who cares” mode, So you’re more likely to give in to cravings or make poor decisions – like skipping the gym or eating a massive bar of chocolate. A study of over 2000 people over 6 years showed that those lacking sleep regularly over this period would tend to snack more, eat proper meals less regularly, add excessive seasoning and condiments to their food and consume significantly fewer vegetables (Imaki et al, 2002).
- Lack of Focus and Productivity
With no sleep the brain struggles to focus on daily tasks. Studies have repeatedly shown that lack of sleep impacts on mood, cognitive performance and motor function – so not only can you not think straight, you may not be able to walk. Specifically the areas of the brain involved in attention and working memory are most vunerable to lack of sleep. Also this effect can accumulate over time resulting in longer term impacts on brain function (Durmer and Dinges, 2005) . No amount of coffee or sugar can combat this. If you’re working out this will affect your ability to work at the right level – you won’t be able to perform as many reps, or push your self as hard, and most importantly your technique may suffer which can lead to increased risk of injury.
What can you do? I’ve written about ways to help you sleep before (see here) but here are a few other tips.
#1 Avoid using things like computers/ipads etc in bed – the light they produce signals to the brain that it’s daytime and prevents production of melatonin. So they are best avoided late at night – and if you wake in the night, do not check them. Get yourself an alarm chlock that isn’t your phone so you don’t need to turn it on to check the time. Things like kindles are designed with backlights that don’t have the same effect so these are ok.
#2 Try supplementing with magnesium. This is an important mineral for the skeletal, nervous system and muscles. It plays an important role in hydration, muscle relaxation, energy production and deactivation of adrenaline – and that’s the critical one for sleep. Many people are deficient in magnesium (globally it ranks as the 2nd most deficient vitamin.mineral, after vitamin D). Insufficient magnesium will almost certainly impact on sleep so a great first step is to supplement.
Magnesium is vital for the function of GABA receptors in the brain and nervous system. GABA is a neurotransmitter which the brain requires to switch off – without it the brain cannot calm itself for sleep. Obviously it’s far more complicated than that but in simple terms when GABA levels are low you won’t find it as easy to switch off and sleep.
In addition because it helps with muscle recovery it’s great for anyone working out regularly. I take magnesium every night and have really noticed a difference. In the few days post the all night race I upped my dose and I’m sure it’s helping. The recommended amount is 400 – 500 mg a day. I take this one (taking 4 capsules a night). You can also take it as a combined calcium, vitamin D and magnesium supplement which I also use (not at the same time!) and I’d certainly recommend it (link here).
#3 Read before you go to sleep – use a book or a kindle, but not your ipad/iphone. This provides less stimulation than watching tv etc and will help to create a bedtime routine. Choose something completely unrelated to work – I go for rubbish fiction that’s engaging and easy to read.
#4 Cut the coffee! Cutting out caffeine at least 5 – 6 hours before you go to sleep will certainly help you to relax and rest. Also remember it’s not just caffeine – chocolate, sweets, high sugar desserts and snacks etc will all have a stimulant effect so try to avoid them in the evening. I know for some of you this is going to be difficult – especially if you’re working out in the evening and taking pre-workout or using fat burners etc or eating late. So try to have your fat burner/pre-workout 30 mins to an hour before you work out but only when you’re doing high intensity workouts. This will mean you can maximise its effect in the workout and work most of it out of your system before bed.
Try to ween yourself off coffee if you can – so try mixing decaf with caffeinated coffee as a starter. Coffee shops will do this for you too – check how many shots are in their coffees and then ask for half and half 🙂 You’ll get your hit and the taste without so much caffeine in your system. It will be hard at first but you’ll soon find you don’t need so much.
#5 Take some time out. Try spending 5 – 10 mins a day just sitting, focusing on nothing but your breathing. This will really help you to “chill out”. You may feel like you don’t have time for this but come on, everyone has 5 mins right? By doing this you learn how to calm your mind when you want to – and means you can then use this technique to switch your brain off when you are struggling to sleep. There are lots of apps that can help you with this (not to be used in bed of course 😉 ) – apps like “calm” and “headspace” are very popular. Give them a go!
Everyone’s required amount of sleep will differ – for some it’s 7hrs, for some it’s 9hrs. There’s no magic number – you’ll have to find what works best for you – too little and you won’t be able to function, too much and you’ll wake up feeling like you’re jet-lagged! But try the tips I’ve suggested and see if you can improve your sleep this week.
Sweet dreams! 🙂
Please remember, I am not a medical Dr and even if I was the medical and/or nutritional information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this site.
Durmer JS1, Dinges DF, 2005, Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation, Seminars in Neurology, 25 (1) 117 – 29
Imaki M, Hatanaka Y, Ogawa Y, Yoshida Y, Tanada S, 2002, An epidemiological study on relationship between the hours of sleep and life style factors in Japanese factory workers. J Physiol Anthropol Appl Human Sci. Mar;21(2):115–120
Knutson, K. L. (2007). Impact of sleep and sleep loss on glucose homeostasis and appetite regulation. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 2(2), 187–197.
Nedeltcheva AV, Kilkus JM, Imperial J, Schoeller DA, Penev PD. Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Ann Intern Med. 2010 Oct 5;153(7):435-41.