Getting enough sleep is absolutely critical, not just for health and well being, but also to ensure optimal results from a body composition perspective.
"Although correlation research is not conclusive, there appears to be a persistent relationship between less sleep time and greater fat mass. This association persists after controlling for the most predictable potential confounding agents"
So how can you go about optimising your sleep? Here is my guide to sleep....
Your sleep-wake cycle is one of the many daily biological processes that follow the 24 hour cycle known as the 'Circadian Rhythm'. Your circadian rhythm can be thought of as an internal clock that regulates each system in the body.
At different times of the day your body is primed for different activities. As anyone who has travelled over long-distances and several time-zones will attest, your body does not function optimally when your biorhythm gets out of synch.
The results of this include a decreased metabolism, more cortisol production and less anabolic hormone production, lower insulin sensitivity, poorer recovery from exercise, a worse cholesterol profile, more hunger, impaired mental performance and lower sleep quality. Here are some tips to ensure you stabilise your biorhythm and optimise sleep quality.
1. Be Consistent:
If you maintain a regular schedule with sleep, your body will adapt to your schedule automatically. Therefore it is recommended that you stick to the same sleep and wake times every day (including weekends) - see below.
2. Avoid 'Social Jet lag':
Social Jet lag is a term coined by Till Roenneberg. It is caused by the shift in sleep schedule, often occurring at weekends. The scenario usually looks something like this: Monday to Friday you have a set schedule as you work and therefore need to get up at a certain time in order to be at work on time. Then the weekend rolls around so you don't set an alarm and sleep in for an extra couple of hours. Roenneberg explains that switching sleep schedules feels like changing time zones: "The behavior looks like if most people on a Friday evening fly from Paris to New York or Los Angeles to Tokyo and on Monday they fly back. Since this looks like almost a travel jet lag situation, we called it social jet lag,"
3. Get Bright Light Exposure:
A normal 24 hour light-dark cycle would usually look something like this:
We spontaneously awaken in the morning just after the body temperature minimum and the peak of melatonin rhythm, and we sustain higher alertness during the daytime with an elevated body temperature and the absence of melatonin. After that, we spontaneously feel sleepy again in the evening when body temperature decline and melatonin release are initiated, and continue to sleep into the morning hours when body temperature begins to rise and melatonin release terminates (Takasu et al, 2011). However, with 24/7 modern lifestyles, we often get bright light exposure around bed time (lights, televisions, laptops, phones, iPads) and a lack of bright light exposure when waking. Therefore, in order to optimise sleep quality we should:
- Minimise bright light exposure in the hours before bed: Strong light exposure will stop your body producing melatonin (the hormone that causes sleepiness). Ways to minimise light exposure include back-out blinds/curtains so that the room you sleep in is as dark as possible. You should also download f.lux for your phone and laptop. This app will decrease the amount of blue light emitted from your electronic device, thereby minimising it's disruptive effects on sleep. See here for more info.
- Maximise bright light exposure in the morning. This can be achieved by getting outdoors and into natural light, or by purchasing a daylight lamp (known as a 'Light Box' or 'Full Spectrum lamp'.
4. Minimise Fluid Consumption Just Before Bed:
Try to drink more fluid earlier in the day, and taper off consumption in the hour or two before bed. No rocket science here, this will minimise the chances of waking up having to go to the toilet!
5. Consume Carbohydrates and Protein Pre-Bed:
Carbs and protein increase the uptake of tryptophan to the brain, which converts it to serotonin and then ultimately melatonin. Therefore, a pre-bed meal which is higher in protein and carbohydrates (and low in fat) tends to promote better sleep. You are probably best selecting 'safe starches' such as rice and potatoes, rather than grains such as bread. These tend to be a bit harder on the digestive system, which can affect sleep quality. It's probably a good idea to leave an hour or two after eating before going to bed as a large meal right before bed may affect your comfort whilst sleeping.
6. Use Supplements to Assist in Sleep Quality:
The following supplements can be useful to help sleep quality:
- Melatonin: Melatonin is the key hormone that helps you sleep. The maximal dosage is 3mg taken 30-60 mins before bed.
- GABA: GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps you calm down. So if you're someone who finds it hard to wind down then taking a GABA supplement will probably be useful. The most popular GABA supplement is Valerian.
- Glycine: If you struggle to stay asleep, then 3g of glycine before bed can improve sleep quality with no sedative side effects.
Another great tool for anyone who struggles to calm down in the evening is meditation. There are many forms of meditation that you can practice, but perhaps the easiest is mindfulness meditation. This requires you to focus intensely on something that does not evoke an emotional response for several minutes. The purpose of meditation is to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. This sounds easy, however it is something that will require a great deal of focus.
8. Eat Kiwis and Tart Cherries:
Both of these fruits have been found in research to help with sleep. Researchers at the Taipei Medical Centre found that consuming 2 Kiwifruits 1 hour before bed resulted in subjects:
- Falling asleep 35% faster
- Subjects got 13.4% more sleep overall
- Subjects slept better: The amount of time spent awake after initially falling asleep dropped 28.9%
Tart cherries have been found to be naturally high in melatonin and can assist in sleep quality and duration.
9. Limit Caffeine Consumption Before Bed:
For optimal sleep quality, it is advised that you avoid caffeine and any other stimulant at least 4 hours prior to your bed time. Therefore stick to having your coffee in the mornings! Having caffeine later in the day may affect your ability to fall asleep.