Imagine if there were a pill or action that we could take through which, without any additional work or effort, we could improve cardiovascular health, increase brain function, build more muscle, and boost our moods and mental state. How much would you be willing to pay for access to this “magical” elixir?
Before you reach for your wallet, you should know that you already have access to this mysterious performance enhancer. It’s called “sleep,” and it is one of the most forgotten and neglected health benefits in our society. Instead of recognizing sleep for the amazing improvements in health that it promotes, the cultural norm is to view lack of sleep as almost a badge of honor – as something to power through without or boast about how little one needs. Yet, insufficient sleep is responsible for many chronic and acute medical conditions that severely impact one’s overall quality of life.
Sleep is a biological imperative; no animal that has a brain can live without it. And while, for obvious reasons, very few studies have been performed to see how long humans can survive without sleep, research has shown that rats die from sleep deprivation more quickly than they do from lack of food. Perhaps that particular result underscores the importance of sleep?
But this article is not meant to instill fear; instead, the goal is to capture the tremendous benefits that sleep provides in order to increase your quality of life as well as your performance on race day. Among other important roles in physical health, sleep is involved in the following:
Healing of the heart and blood vessels. Sleep minimizes inflammation, and prolonged sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.
Muscle growth and overall development. During Stage Three of sleep, human growth hormone is secreted by the body, and blood flow moves to the muscles and tissue for repair and regeneration, allowing the body to grow stronger and be less susceptible to injury.
Immune system function. Ongoing sleep deficiency decreases the body’s ability to fight common infections and alters the manner in which your immune system responds to foreign invaders.
Healthy bodyweight and body composition. Sleep regulates appetite hormones, and a full night’s sleep has been shown to suppress the release of ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite, and stimulate the release of leptin, a hormone responsible for satiety.
Do any of the above benefits seem like they would benefit an active athlete hoping to achieve a personal best result in his or her sport of choice?
While I could write a seemingly endless number of pages about the additional benefits of sleep (and, by contrast, the negatives associated with sleep deficiency), the fact remains that most people understand that sleep promotes a healthy body and mind; they simply don’t get enough of it.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society conclude that most adults function best after seven to nine hours of sleep per night. However, a large number of people fall short of this range on a regular basis. And when you couple that shortfall with the fact that many of the health problems mentioned above occur when sleep persistently falls below six hours per night, that’s a very fine line to walk.
So what can we do to increase both the quantity and quality of our sleep? Or, perhaps phrased more adequately, how can we sleep better? For better or worse, sleep is highly psychological – one study even revealed that having a computer in the bedroom, even when turned off, negatively impacts the quality and duration of our sleep. The scientists concluded that subjects’ brains associated the presence of the computer with work obligations, thereby leading to excessive worry about responsibilities and reduced ability to fall asleep.
As a result, what we are doing (or what our brains think we are doing) in and around the hours before bedtime can have a substantial impact on how well we sleep. To better reap many of the incredible benefits that sleep provides, consider the following:
1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – a pattern that solidifies your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Furthermore, try to keep the same time schedule on weeknights and weekends, taking care to limit the difference to no more than an hour. Staying up late and sleeping in late can disrupt the sleep-wake rhythm.
2. Limit caffeine consumption to the morning and, in any case, no later than 1:00 p.m. The half-life of caffeine ranges from 3-7 hours in healthy adults; meaning that, if you consume a cup of coffee (approximately 200mg of caffeine) at 3:00 p.m., then you may still have 100mg of caffeine in your system at 10:00 p.m. The same goes for alcohol – avoid it as much as possible near bedtime. Consider that an opportunity to meet your friends for a beer at happy hour instead of late at night!
3. Make your environment ripe for sleep – keep your bedroom quiet, cool and dark. Studies have shown that the ideal temperature for sleep is 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and while you may not want to absorb the air conditioning bill to reach that temperature, just know that the cooler, the better. And remove all electronics (including TVs) from your room; the bedroom should be for sleep and sex only.
4. Use 60 to 90 minutes before bed for quiet time. Avoid strenuous activity and minimize screen time, such as from a phone, computer or television. These gadgets emit light that skews heavily towards the blue end of the spectrum, and when light hits your eye, the retina relays signals directly to your hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls sleep cycles.
5. Avoid heavy and/or large meals within a few hours of bedtime. While a light snack is permissible, using the body’s resources for digestion upsets the normal stages and complex processes undertaken during sleep.
6. Spend some time outside in the sun every day, preferably in the morning to stimulate your circadian rhythms, and exercise regularly (an activity which, if you are reading this article, you likely already have covered)
If all else fails, try taking a hot shower immediately before bedtime. Sleep is precipitated by a decrease in body temperature, and a hot shower artificially raises body temperature to allow for a more substantial drop.
Oh, and if you think you are one of those people who doesn’t need a lot of sleep, just know that “short sleepers” (as they are called in the scientific literature) who need only four to five hours of sleep per night are commonly thought to make up less than 1 percent of the population.
Do you really want to take those odds?