Sleep – The magic ingredient

Sleep – The magic ingredient

Sleep is the time where the body repairs, recovers and adapts, in terms of health this is probably the single most important period of anybody’s day.

There are some vital elements of life that contribute towards optimal health, sleep is probably the single most important of them all.

When we look at the blue spots of the world (area’s that have longer than average life expectancy and with lower than average disease rate), there are 5 of these within the world:

-Ikaria, Greece

-Okinawa, Japan

-Ogliastra, Sardinia

-Loma Lina, California

-Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

There are a couple other spots that claim to be a blue spot but without National Geographs approval they don’t get the official title. 

There’s a place in Africa but without official birth records it can’t be approved.

So going off the topic of sleep briefly, within these area’s of longer than average life expectancy and lower than average disease rate there are a few factors that are commonly present:

-Being interactive with a broad aged group society

-Being active on a daily basis

-Eating organic, locally sourced, seasonal foods

-Having purpose within your community

Some really simple activities to be taken into consideration when looking at what we can change to achieve optimal health and fitness.

But anyway, back to sleep.

Sleep would be the number 1 staple in any coaches prescription, even before writing a training or nutrition protocol for any athlete.

You can only adapt to what you can effectively recover from and sleep is the king of recovery.

From a physiological standpoint impaired sleep quality also affects your hunger and satiety hormones, leptin and ghrelin, it’s kind of like your bodies way of saying 

“Hey, we didn’t get enough rest last night so we want you to top up our energy with extra food, also if you could move/exercise/focus a bit less today as well, that would be great………much appreciated, your body”

Add to that the fact that your decision making ability gets impaired with sleep debt, so not eating that ice cream after work becomes a bit of a harder decision, we can soon see why people who have impaired sleep have a higher BMI, higher risk of illness and shorter life expectancies.

Now 8 hours sleep per night  isn’t a set marker for everyone, it’s just a rough average, the actual amount of sleep you need as an individual is as unique as you are.

Age, physical fitness levels, mental health status, gender, the quality of your sleep and total energy output for the day, personally I also think there’s a genetic role that gets played in this equation as well but as of yet there’s not really enough evidence to support that so I may have to come back and do a revised edition to this chapter in 20 years time.

How I help my clients to discover the amount of sleep that is optimal for them is to allow themselves to wake without an alarm at least a couple days a week and then that will give you a good idea.

This is just the easiest way to measure how much is adequate for you.

Just go to sleep, wake up when your body naturally tells you to and you’ll discover how much sleep you roughly need.

Everyone is slightly different and due to the factors mentioned above, every day and week will be slightly different but if you do this a couple times a week you’ll have a good idea of how much sleep you roughly need. Pay attention to your energy levels, physical performance, cognitive behaviour as well as other proxy measures so you can reaffirm your ideal sleep hours but what I can tell you with 100% confidence, people that sleep the best, get the best results.

It’s as simple as that.

Sleep length isn’t as important as sleep quality though, there’s a big difference, we want adequate length and adequate sleep quality.

There’s no point lying in bed for 8 hours if you never get into REM or deep sleep.

So before you rush off to sleep without setting an alarm let’s have a look at the four different sleep cycles and what adequate sleep looks like.

Here’s a diagram displaying what a perfect nights sleep should look like-

It won’t always look this good but the above example is a pretty impressive example of how your sleep cycles should look.

As you move towards your wake time the amount of time you spend in Deep Sleep will reduce and REM will increase and you want to see the deeper sleep achieved at the start of your sleep period.

Every night will be slightly different but look for the fundamentals to be similar to the above example.

Not only your ability to recover, repair and fight off disease but also your ability to perform as well.

As sleep quality decreases, your cognitive and physical performance decrease as well. Both short term memory, long term memory, decision making ability and alertness, many historical disasters have been the result of lack of sleep.

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, The Challenge Explosion and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill were all the result of sleep deprivation.

Not to mention the ridiculous amount of major road accidents that happen everyday in every country across the world.

Thank god for Elon Musk and his AutoPilot feature he’s putting into his new Tesla’s.

Elon to one side, I think it’s safe to say that sleep is pretty important.

If an individual has impaired sleep length or quality it will reduce the adaptation to the days training meaning they won’t get the gains he/she should expect, their nutrient partitioning won’t be as favourable (less muscle, more fat) and they’ll be less enthusiastic to get in the gym and beat their previous performance so potentially they won’t be progressing optimally.

Whilst cortisol levels are elevated human physiology has a reduced ability to activate Parasympathetic Nervous System activities meaning less ability to burn fat and build muscle. These anabolic pathways only occur when we are relaxed, rested and well fed.

Sympathetic Nervous System pathways are designed for performance, blood goes to the limbs, pupils dilate and we’re ready to perform and react not grow muscle and burn fat.

Two different pathways for two completely different outcomes.

So this is where things are different now to 10 years ago.

We all live busier more stressful lives (on average) and this is ever increasing,  there’s more pressure on us to perform and produce better results at work, more social events, kids want more, more pressure from social media to have more, do more which all push stress levels up and affect sleep length and sleep quality.

So with all this comes slower rates of weight loss.

The basic fundamentals of weight management account for energy balance but the world class coaches know that the health of the individual is what determines the speed at which the calorie deficit takes affect.

With a large majority of people now pushing out their working hours, pushing out their social interactions, doing shift work and nightshift we see a lot of people come in with sleep deprivation issues, most don’t realise it.

Nightshift and shift work play havoc with the natural flow sleep-wake cycles, we call this your ‘circadian rhythm’.

I had a client who was working fifo, 1 week of nights, 1 week of days, 1 week off, an absolute grenade to his circadian rhythm.

Weight loss, muscle growth, even his mindset took a beating to the point where he actually lost all control of his sleep patterns. He’d be awake for 48 hours then sleep for 6 then be awake for 4 and sleep for 18, he was in a right mess. As the problem was developing we referred him through to a sleep specialist but the issue continued until he had to take 3 months off work and take medical assistance until he regained normality.

It was a lot of work that he went through but once he did regain control and had some time off, the results he experienced were incredible, his body composition went through more change in a few weeks than it had in the previous 12 months whilst his sleep pattern was intermittent. 

I’m gonna take the opportunity to try and explain a bit about what happens to your biology during night shift and how best to manage your circadian rhythm.

Below is a chart showing Cortisol and Melatonin Levels throughout the day.

As we know from previous discussions, Cortisol is the known as ‘the stress hormone’ but it’s should be called ‘the energy hormone’ as that’s it true purpose, it just gets labelled ‘the stress hormone’ as that’s the context it most frequently gets discussed in, exactly the same purpose and stimulus.

In a healthy organism, Cortisol is always high in the morning causing us to wake and it’ll get random spikes through the day in response to environmental factors.

Melatonin is the feel good happy hormone which is high in the evening allowing us to sleep and they work alternatively to each other. The times in the graph are irrelevant as every individual has their own personal circadian rhythm.

It’s good practice to keep to the same wake/sleep times each day. Waking up with the sun is a great natural way to regulate your circadian rhythm, not always possible in some countries, at some times of the year but sun light signals to the body that it’s time to be alert and awake.

I’m sure you’ve all experienced the fact that it’s easier/harder to wake up in the summer/winter.

Sunlight helps regulate your natural circadian rythme.

What you’re doing when you switch to night shift is you’re turning your own circadian rhythm on its head.

Here’s an example of what a normal circadian rhythm would look like.

Some consequences of working  night shift or having disturbed sleep patterns are:

  • People making poor nutritional choices due to having low Cortisol levels during the day and the body requiring immediate energy for the tasks at hand.
  • Directly affecting your anabolic and catabolic pathways and directly hindering your rate of results and recovery
  • Negatively affecting your immune system
  • Feeling lethargic and performing poorly during their work outs or skipping work outs. (physical ability isn’t actually affected, only mental willingness)

There’s a few things we can do to reduce the effects (these are also solid practices for continued application) but ultimately we need to create awareness around the effects of night shift and just set realistic expectations for that period and the week following as it can take a week to re-calibrate.

A well balanced diet and a well engineered general health supplement stack is a great starting point. 

Ensure you’re looking at light when you wake up, this signals to the brain that it’s day and signal the chemical pathways as normal. If you’re waking up at night use a 10,000 Lux capacity lamp, these can be purchased off the internet relatively cheaply and offer an excellent return on investment. 20 minutes exposure as you get ready at the start of each day will contribute towards better regulation.

Ensure you’re not looking at light when you go to bed. Make sure your room is as dark as possible. (this sounds obvious but so often overlooked) Tin foil over your windows is a good idea.

Prepare for sleep, don’t just walk in the door, lights on, shower and head down. Spend 30 minutes preparing for sleep. Get those lights off, perform 10 minutes of deep breathing exercises, phone off, calm your mind, list your tasks for the day ahead and ensure you’re ready for sleep when you hit the pillow.

We can substitute Melatonin as a supplement to help regulate your rhythm better but this is only available from the US or from an AUS doctor on prescription. Phenibut is a great alternative and available in most supp stores.

Magnesium or Gaba is also a great supplement to use here.

In regards to your training, your physical capabilities aren’t one bit effected by reduced sleep quality, it’s just your mental willingness that creates the problem so be mental strong and execute the weights as per the program.

As you already know I’m massive on sleep and stress, these are the 2 most common dysfunctions I see in people and 2 massive problems when we’re trying to achieve body composition goals! Both will totally roadblock all results!

If you want some support with your sleep, health or weight management, drop me a message at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *