The importance of sleep

Funny how I always emphasize the importance of training, nutrition and rest, with proper sleep being a crucial part of rest, yet I’ve been sleeping less/worse lately, mostly because I travel throughout the country a lot. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a few bad things happening over the last few weeks and I suspect that my lack of proper sleep is mostly to blame for it.

  • Increased appetite. Eating to maintain my current bodyweight is hard and losing weight feels like it’s impossible. Whereas normally I tend to eat around maintenance level or slightly above, recently I’ve felt like I’m starving unless I eat 4000+ calories a day. (I estimate my maintenance level around 2900 calories.)
  • A great increase in acne. My back has been looking like a fucking gravel tile over the last three weeks or so.
  • More aches and pains, mostly in terms of trigger points, but my joints are sore every now and then as well.
  • Bad concentration. I have a hard time focusing when I’m training, and I find it harder to put energy into things like work and proper nutrition. I also noticed some related things like having less patience, as well as occasionally wanting to strangle every single person who walks in front of you in train stations or other crowded places and stops dead in their tracks all of a sudden in the middle of the walkways. (Okay, the latter has nothing to do with my lack of sleep. I really do feel the need for the legalization of a low voltage cattle prod for situations like that.)

(Note that these seem a bit like signs of overtraining, but I’m not feeling ill at all, I’m not doing anything crazy in training, my strength levels in training are fine, my libido is fine, my overall mood is fine and my resting heart rate is fine as well, so I doubt that’s the case. Also note that correlation =/= causation: I can’t say 100% sure to what extent the above things are caused by a lack of sleep.)

 

An accurate depiction of my upper back recently.

 

Besides the shitty effects I’ve noticed in the short run, there’s a whole host of problems associated with lack of (proper quality) sleep, like an increased risk of certain diseases. A friend of mine is currently involved in research that even links lack of sleep to the development of Alzheimer. Since several of the aforementioned effects could severely impact my chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse and I really don’t want to be dependent on caffeine just to be able to not fuck up my workouts, I decided to finally follow my own advice for once. I’ll list a few guidelines that I normally recommend to people.

  • Sleep 7 to 9 hours. These numbers are somewhat arbitrary, since quality of sleep is a lot more important than the actual hours you put in, but especially if you do some intense strength training, you need your sleep. Increasing quality of sleep despite not having those hours of sleep is still beneficial, but not always easy and most likely not ideal either. Just don’t think that 4 hours of sleep is enough just because you can function with it. Weightlifting coach Greg Everett sums it up nicely by saying that  “The fact that some people function or even seem to thrive on a few hours of sleep every night says more about the incredible adaptive capabilities of the human body than the actual ideal amount of sleep”.
  • Sleep in total darkness. Every bit of light during sleep can influence your quality of sleep. Turn off your laptop, tv and phone if they emit any light. Put some tape on your alarm clock to block out the light it emits. Have blinds on your windows that allow absolutely no light to come into the room. I’m not sure if eye masks give the same effects. I would think so, but I don’t know if light touching the skin also influences sleep quality.
  • Wake up at the same time everyday, regardless of the time you go to bed. If at some point you start waking up automatically at this time, you’ve done it right. Yes, I realize this one is hard to do for most people, especially if you have a social life, but it’s an important one according to Kacper Postawski, who wrote a book on the subject. He describes a protocol to improve your sleep and this part is integral to its success.
  • Get your body temperature up after waking up. Going for a walk, taking a hot shower, doing a bit of yoga or whatever you enjoy, it can all help.
  • If you’re really tired somewhere later in the afternoon, take a 15-45 minute nap. Shorter than that doesn’t do much. Longer than that can make you wake up feeling even more fatigued. Try to avoid doing this too late in the evening or you may have trouble falling asleep. I’ve found that I need to have my naps AT LEAST 4 hours before I intend to sleep at night, preferably earlier than that.
  • Back off the stimulants. Caffeine or other stimulants can mess with your body temperature and your daily rhythm.
  • Do something to unwind after your day and transition into sleep mode. De-stress, meditate, read some light fiction, whatever  works for you. Avoid bright lights, tv or computers in the hour before you fall asleep. Despite what you might think, they don’t actually relax you, even if they are pleasant and get your mind off of stressful stuff.
  • Don’t leave electronics near your head when you’re asleep. (Not very scientific, I know.)
  • Experiment with how you react to food. I find that I fall asleep easier on a full stomach, but it is generally not recommended.
  • Experiment with supplements. Melatonin (especially in higher doses) can help you fall asleep quickly, although I would consider this a last resort, since melatonin production can be improved with some of the other advice I mentioned here as well. It’s a popular, scientifically backed supplement though. Other supplements that may help are ZMA and vitamin B-complex, as well as 5-HTP (supposedly gives some people nightmares though) and tryptophan. Most of the support for it is anecdotal though, so I suggest you do some research on these things and see for yourself whether it’s worth trying for whatever the price it’s going for. There’s other stuff like valerian as well, but I’ve never tried it nor have I read up much on it. Just keep in mind that supplements are generally not a good substitute for the advice I gave in the earlier points.

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” – Ernest Hemingway

 


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