Sleep is one of the most important and fundamental aspects of life.
Although we tend to focus our attention on diet and exercise, sleep is arguably just as, if not more important than both. After all, we can go several weeks without food; however, the world record for no sleep is just 7 days!
If you are looking to fend off disease, lose fat, add muscle or achieve anything else related to health and fitness, sleep is a must.
How Sleep Affects Your Weight & Fat Loss
If you struggle with your sleep, or, often get less than 6 – 7 hours per night you may be increasing your chance of disease and weight gain.
Although correlation-based studies have several limitations, there are close links to the amount of hours you sleep per night and obesity risk .
One large review found that adults who had shorter durations of sleep at night were 55% more likely to become obese. Even more startling, this study found in children, those figures were increased to a whopping 89% .
Sleep also plays an important role in your natural circadian rhythm which affects your regulation of food and other biological processes, particularly the release of the hormone, growth hormone, which naturally spikes up at night around midnight.
Other controlled research has highlighted several key factors that will affect your bodyweight and fat loss efforts. These include :
- Blood glucose (sugar) and carbohydrate control.
- Appetite regulation.
- Hunger hormones such as Ghrelin and Leptin.
- Total food intake.
- Desire to eat high sugar and processed foods which are calorie dense.
- Insulin sensitivity.
- Increased Diabetes risk.
Other Issues Caused From a Bad Night’s Sleep
Along with weight maintenance and fat loss, a bad night’s sleep can cause cognitive issues, decrease exercise performance and increase disease risk.
For exercise performance, you’ve probably experienced how your performance takes a noticeable nose-dive after just one night of bad sleep. In the research, they’ve shown impaired speed, reaction times, shooting accuracy and strength .
Next up is brain function and again, nearly everyone reading this can likely relate to the effects of limited sleep on concentration, focus and brain function .
One of the most interesting studies monitored this in medical students, finding they made 36% more errors in medical treatments when they had a bad night’s sleep. In contrast, as you may expect, a good night’s sleep improves all these aspects, such as reaction time, performance and memory .
Sleep is also closely linked to disease risk and overall health. Firstly, there are close links to insomnia or poor sleep and type 2 diabetes. Bad sleep could also affect heart / cardiovascular disease risk factors. For example, one review found those who had limited sleep (less than 7 hours) noticeably increased their risk of heart disease .
For your immune system and illness, just one night of bad sleep can quickly lower your immune system. In longer-term studies, one 2 week study found those having just 1 hour less sleep per night increased their risk of developing a cold/flu by 300% .
Lastly, a good night’s sleep can also help reduce inflammation, which we know plays an underlying role in many serious diseases, joint issues and obesity. There are many forms of inflammation and at present, lower amounts of sleep are linked to inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease .
Now you understand the importance of sleep, here are 6 ways to improve it.
1. Block Out Blue Light Exposure at Night
In modern day life, blocking out blue light exposure is one of the most important factors in ensuring quality sleep.
Blue light is created from electrical devices, including artificial lights, TVs, laptops, tablets, smart phones etc.
Blue light can negatively impact your sleep as it stimulates your brain to still think it’s day time. This then impacts your natural circadian rhythm, which controls many biological functions including the onset of sleep. It also blocks the release of the hormone melatonin, which helps you relax and causes the onset of sleep .
There are several popular ways to reduce blue light exposure, which is recommended once the sun has set for the evening, or from 8 – 9pm until you hit the bed. Some of the most common methods include:
- Download software on your laptop called f.lux, which creates an orange back light and blocks the normal blue light (white screen).
- Purchase some orange glasses and wear them in the evening when watching TV or working on a laptop etc. This helps to blocks blue light exposure .
- Install an app on your mobile or tablet. Recently, Apple released this as part of an update, which can be set in night time mode. You can also find apps for other devices such as Android or Samsung.
2. Watch the Stimulants and Time Them Correctly
Although caffeine or other pre-workouts can be a great tool to enhance your training, they may not be wise if you train after 5pm.
Over 90% of the US population consumes caffeine on a regular basis and, within the fitness and sporting world, many of us consume pre-workouts later on in the day before an evening training session (25, 26).
The issue is that caffeine levels can stay elevated for 4 – 8 hours post ingestion. Therefore, if you take your pre-workout before heading to the gym at 6pm, you may still be running on caffeine when you plan to head to bed at 10 or 11pm .
In research, they have found that those who consume drinks containing caffeine within 6 hours of heading to bed had poorer sleep quality, and this may be a far lower dose than many of us are taking in our pre workouts .
For this reason, if you do struggle to sleep at night, it may be wise to ditch the pre-workout if training after 5pm.
3. Take These Supplements
We all know it’s important to focus on natural lifestyle changes first; however, I’ve highlighted above the short-term effects of a bad night’s sleep. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to use certain supplements which will provide an immediate benefit, while you make the other necessary changes described within this article to improve sleep naturally.
The first and most obvious supplement is melatonin, which produces our natural sleep-inducing hormone. It’s for this reason that melatonin is probably the most popular sleep aid, with it being used to treat sleep issues such as insomnia. In research, results show it can help participants fall asleep faster, increase energy the next day and improve sleep quality as well .
The recommended dose is around 1 – 5 mg taken around 60 minutes before bed. As with all supplements, you should consult with a medical professional first as it alters your brain chemistry and hormones.
In addition to melatonin, there are some other natural and safe supplements you may wish to consider. They probably won’t have as strong an effect; however, they may be safer for longer term use. These include:
L-Theanine: L-Theanine is becoming a popular amino acid based supplement to enhance relaxation, sleep and reduce cortisol or stress. Try taking around 200mg 1 hour before bed. .
Glycine: Is another amino acid with a few studies suggesting it can enhance sleep quality. Doses tend to be set at around 3 grams. .
Valerian Root: A few studies have shown this root can improve the onset time for sleep, along with overall sleep quality. Try taking around 500 mg .
Ginkgo Biloba: Another herb with some positive studies in sleep, relaxation and stress reduction. Try taking 250 mg before bed .
Magnesium: A popular mineral responsible for over 300 chemical reactions within the body, magnesium has some data suggesting it can aid with relaxation and sleep quality .
4. Optimize Your Bedroom Environment
One under-appreciated technique is to place some emphasis on your bedroom environment.
Far too often, people will have distracting lights such as the red light on TV or alarm clock, external noise, poor quality mattress or pillows and the incorrect temperature which can drastically affect sleep quality .
By fixing these issues, you can quickly improve your sleep quality and onset of sleep. Here are some key points to address:
- Invest in a high quality and comfortable mattress, blanket and pillows
- Remove any external lights from standby buttons or street light. Purchase blackout curtains/blinds if necessary.
- Set the temperature to something comfortable – slightly cooler tends to help most people.
- Limit external noise where possible.
- Clean your bedroom and decorate so it’s a warm, inviting and relaxing environment.
5. Optimize Your Diet in the Evening
The food you eat will also affect your sleep quality in the evening.
There are several strategies that may help you improve sleep. Firstly, when dieting you may struggle to sleep because of hunger, especially if you are on a typical low calorie diet. For this reason, it may be wise to shift slightly more of your daily food/calorie intake to the end of the day, which can reduce hunger late in the evening.
In addition to this, people will often recommend a higher carb intake at night. This is because carbohydrates release the hormone tryptophan, which can make you feel tired or relaxed. In research, they actually found a high carb meal consumed 4 hours before bed helped people to fall asleep quicker .
Finally, it may also be wise to reduce water intake a couple of hours before bed to reduce the chance of waking up in the middle of the night.
6. Apply These Other Strategies
Along with the main points discussed above, there are some other aspects you may want to work on to truly master your sleep. These include:
Reducing daytime napping: Irregular or long naps during the day can affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Try to eliminate daytime napping or limit it to less than 30 minutes .
Skip the Alcohol: A moderate amount of alcohol may reduce your sleep quality and is linked to sleep apnea. For this reason, it’s best to skip the alcohol if you are trying to improve sleep. The only caveat to this is that large amounts may enhance sleep, as many of you will know. However, that is sadly not a wise long-term strategy .
Chill out: Taking the time to create a ‘pre-bed routine’ can be another great strategy to enhance your sleep. You can perform meditation, read a book, write in your diary, listen to music or take a relaxing bath. Several of these techniques have been employed successfully to treat patients with insomnia .
Exercise: It goes without saying, but regular exercise will enhance your sleep. Numerous studies have found this and it is also used to treat insomnia. In fact, results from studies have found 50% greater improvements in sleep quality and that exercise was even more beneficial than drugs used to treat insomnia .
As you can see, the importance of sleep can’t be emphasized enough. Now you understand the wide array of effects sleep has on your physique and health, it’s time to take action and prioritize your sleep and sleep quality, just like you would with diet and exercise.
Just a few days of good sleep can provide positive improvements for your life. Start today and see how an extra couple of hours sleep can help improve your life.