The importance of sleep for body composition and performance

Sleeping with protein  Recreational gym users, athletes and most that lift up a dumbbell or go to a group exercise class are now well adverse in the importance of recovery with adequate protein, re-hydration and rest days. However, in most cases the importance of sleep for athletic performance, health and aesthetic goals seems to be either ignored or misunderstood. Many clients we deal with or have dealt with tend to assume that sitting up playing the PlayStation until 2am or only getting 4-5 hours’ sleep every night is enough for recovery… Unfortunately this is not the case and here’s why:

Sleep is crucial for all aspects of health, physical and cognitive performance. When we sleep it often takes 90-100 minutes before we enter the first REM sleep cycle. REM is the stage of sleep which is most beneficial for us as this is where the brain, body and endocrine system rest and recover. The initial REM phase doesn’t last very long, usually 10-15 minutes. However every cycle there after increases in duration. Therefore the longer we sleep the more accumulative time the body spends in either phase 3 of the NREM or the REM stage of sleep. Both these phases represent a deep sleep which is best for recovery. When sleep is cut short the body doesn’t have time to recover from the stress accumulated throughout the day and during training.

The national sleep recommendations are between 7 and 9 hours per night with 8 hours being optimal. Having said this, well renowned strength and conditioning coaches also recommend or even prescribe 20minute naps to their athletes to aid their recover between sessions. By not accumulating enough sleep there has been evidence of increased insulin resistance. Not only does this hamper the athlete’s ability to build lean muscle but also over time increase the potential of developing Diabetes Type II (Mesarwi et al., 2013). As well as this, Mesarwi et al., (2013) observed that individuals who experience less sleep on a regular basis tend to overeat and are therefore more likely to experience obesity or weight management difficulties.

This is somewhat supported by Omisade et al., (2010) who investigated the acute effect of reduced sleep on cortisol and leptin levels. They observed that the sleep deprived group reduced cortisol levels in the morning which are usually at their highest, however throughout the day cortisol levels increased and remained higher than usual. Cortisol levels continued to increase towards the latter end of the day. Cortisol is more commonly known as the stress hormone and although it has benefits, too much cortisol can increase visceral fat.

Whilst we are discussing sleep and its effect on hormones let’s look at the positive effects sleep has on body composition. During deep phases of sleep as outlined above, the body produces growth hormones which are vital for hypertrophy and recovery. Furthermore, sleep is strongly associated with testosterone which is also a vital hormone when looking to improve body composition. To summarise, adequate sleep can help improve the cortisol:testosterone ratio.

A reduction in sleep can also affect a client or athletes cognitive performance. According to Killgore and Weber (2013) sleep deprivation also affects memory by reducing encoding when it precedes learning and impairs consolidation of memory traces when it occurs after learning. To summarise, lack of sleep can affect one’s ability to complete tasks or skills which have been previously learnt and mastered as well as the ability to develop and learn new skills.

Now we’ve concluded that sleep is important and vital for performance, health and body composition orientated goals, here are our top 5 tips for a goodnight’s sleep:

#1. Switch off all electronic entertainment devices at least 1 hour before bed. These include smart phones, tablets, computers and even the TV. All these stimulants engage and heighten our nervous system, not what we want before bed.

#2. Read a book. Reading before bed is not only beneficial for our education and development but also helps your relax and reduce stress according to the University of Sussex. Ideal just before bed!

#3. Don’t lift weights less than 2 hours before bed. When we train we elevate out body temperature, this makes falling into a deep sleep more difficult and as outlined above we must fall into a deep sleep if we want to reap the full benefits sleep has to offer.

#4. Reduce and even remove all caffeine products 3-4 hours before bed.

#5. Supplement Magnesium. Magnesium is vital for the GABA receptor found in the brain, the GABA receptor is responsible for calming the brains activity levels and reduces the neural activity in a similar way which medication such as benzodiazepines do, which when trying to sleep is certainly useful. Furthermore, in a recent study by the American Academy of Paediatrics, Magnesium was singled out as one of the most important minerals rivalling some of the more commonly discussed minerals such as Calcium. It was also suggested that Magnesium is just as important if not more important than Calcium for children in the development of healthy bones.

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