Technically there are three different types of rest but for the sake of writing length we are only going to talk about one for now, Sleep. When life throws us for a loop, one of the first things that gets set on the back burner is our sleep. We have to get to that soccer game and make dinner, but we also have emails to finish before tomorrow morning, so we go to bed at midnight and still wake up at our usual 5AM. Most of us can quickly get used to our sleep schedule, so if ours happens to be 5-6 hours, our bodies adapt and think of that as our normal. When this happens, we become so adapted that we don’t remember what it feels like to get proper sleep: both in terms of quantity and quality. This is a problem because unless we consciously make changes in our schedule and behaviors, we might not ever feel it’s important to get more sleep, since we’ve adapted and “feel fine” with our current schedule.
How does this impact our health and fitness journey though? We exercise and eat unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods; that’s all there is to it, right? The answer is, “Not at all!” Getting inadequate sleep has been linked to numerous health issues, one of them being weight gain. While the proper caloric balance and energy expenditure is necessary for weight loss, if your hormones and all other physiological processes are not in balance and functioning properly, weight loss can easily be hindered- if not prevented completely- ensuing in weight gain. One study showed that getting less than 6 hours of sleep was enough to derail any weight loss efforts. A lack of sleep promotes systemic inflammation in the body; inflammation is linked to multiple forms of cancer. In addition, disturbances in hunger hormone levels, such as leptin and ghrelin, occur due to inadequate sleep. Leptin down-regulates, while ghrelin up-regulates, making us hungrier and less satiated when we do eat after not getting enough sleep (another factor in unwanted weight gain). Insulin resistance, a steppingstone for diabetes, is also shown to be linked to a chronic lack of sleep, as well as risk for cardiovascular disease. As if these correlations weren’t enough, the onset of depression has been associated with inadequate sleep patterns; depression and obesity serve as risk factors for each other, as well.
Why are there such significant repercussions when our sleep patterns are suboptimal? It’s due to our circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that remains even when external cues are not present. In an optimal sleep/wake cycle, our hormone levels increase and decrease according to the time of day. Cortisol increases in the early parts of the day as an activating hormone to prepare our bodies for activity and decreases as nighttime approaches, preparing us for rest and repair. By winding down for bed later and later, which includes decreasing electronic use, exposure to blue light, and stimulants such as caffeine, we prevent our body from downregulating cortisol early enough, which delays the increase in melatonin, growth hormone, and other hormones necessary for repair during our sleep. Not only are we now not getting enough physical and mental restoration from our repairing hormones, but we are setting ourselves up for more physiological stress the next day. We wake up tired from the lack of hours of sleep and the lack of quality sleep, so we double up the caffeine, which just furthers our increase in cortisol. Having chronically high cortisol is extremely disadvantageous to our body. It’s a catabolic hormone (it breaks substances down), and prevents repair/building processes from happening (i.e. muscle repair after a grueling workout). Over time, the immune system can become compromised as well as the adrenal glands, the part of our body working overtime to crank out the cortisol needed for us to function on a disrupted sleep/wake cycle.
Setting an early enough sleep time to ensure you get a solid 7-8 hours of sleep (and sticking to it) is a vital first step to putting your body back into an optimal sleep/wake cycle. By getting to sleep at an early enough time consistently, we can begin to form a better routine for our bodies to function in. Another crucial recommendation is to lay off stimulating substances as bedtime approaches. This includes caffeine, bright light exposure from electronics, and heavy exercise too far into the evening. These stimulate cortisol production, which is the opposite of what we want before bed. Good nutrition, water intake, and self-care such as relaxation techniques to alleviate personal stress will immensely improve sleep as well. You can’t experience permanent physical and mental improvements without rest and repair; be sure to get those 8 hours of sleep to really take your health, physique, and mindset to the next level.