At this point in my life I have had approximately 11 good nights of sleep. Ok, that is an exaggeration but at 30 years old, I have had a decent track record of poor sleep. I've tried so many supplements and in the past, a decent amount of pharmaceuticals to help me sleep. Nothing ever "fixed" me and most drugs or supplements are like the band-aid you put on right before going swimming. Sort of a pointless effort.
Sleep Vs Unconsciousness
What most supplements and drug companies don't or won't tell you is that there is a difference between being unconscious and being asleep. This makes a HUGE difference.
Ok, ready for a quick bit of layman's science? Your adrenals function in part to keep you alert. They raise blood sugar, promote glycogen storage, release fatty acids into the blood and stimulate you in response to the appropriate situations and events. Sitting on the couch reading this? Active but low adrenal function. Running away from the security guard after pocketing a sweet pair of stretch pants at Walmart? High adrenal function. Petting your dog? Low adrenal function(unless he/she is terrible). First date? High adrenal function.
So, the adrenals just don't respond to physical stressors but also emotional, social and mental stressors too. Being in debt, going to a job interview, working too late filing your taxes; these can all drive adrenal function up. Adrenaline works more acutely, it is the hormone that REALLY kicks in when something needs immediate response. Cortisol responds as well too, but it balances adrenaline out because it works more long-term. Without cortisol you'd be dead, so don't think less is always more. But we want these at the right times.
If adrenal hormones are too high, especially at night, you won't sleep. If you do, it'll be fitfull. You won't hit as many cycles of REM sleep and it'll reduce your recovery, energy levels, memory and fat loss efforts.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid. You know that stuff you rub on bug bites to stop them from itching? That hydrocortisone cream (cortisol is also known as hydrocortisone) suppresses white blood cell and immune response. Thus, your swelling goes down, itching is relieved and you feel better. That's great for a single use but what if internally your cortisol and adrenaline were high all the time and mimicked this external effect?
Now, what if your high cortisol is suppressing immune function most of the time? Sure, you never get sick, good for you. But you know how people get colds in the summer, or on vacation? That is probably the first time they are really resting for weeks, so their stress hormones decrease, immune function finally kicks back in and THEN they get the immune response to bacteria, virus or whatever that we call being "sick".
So without these hormones you won't have proper energy or response to your environment. But with high levels, especially at night, you won't sleep well and that is where this whole mess goes downhill. Before we get there: what is sleep?
What Is Sleep?
Sleep is largely the absence of stimulating adrenal hormones. Remember these terrible test questions?
**darkness is the absence of light as " " is the absence of adrenal hormones. ( I already gave the answer).
But being unconscious can range from deep sleep, to anesthesia induced unresponsiveness to even daydreaming that turns into a short nap. So powerful drugs that force you into an unconscious state do not necessarily make you sleep, because your adrenal hormones can still be active, which leads to basically an internally active but unconscious state. And that sucks.
That's why people can sleep walk, sleep eat, sleep drive and have sleep sex. Full adrenal function in a forced-unconscious state. Though it explains all the Chuck E Cheese tickets in my car.......(sleep Chuck E Cheese'ing?)
You also need quality sleep because it is when your brain compiles and processes the events of the day; information you learned, memories, motor function. These are called engrams. Basically, they are circuits that correspond to either memories or motor patterns. You form these mostly while you sleep which is why, my professor at UCONN Dr. Armstrong always said that "sometimes the things you fall asleep reading you suddenly know upon waking". His point was that immediately sleeping after processing information created more permanent engrams which resulted in better memory formation. The same goes for learning a new skill like the clean and jerk, riding a skateboard or holding onto information like dates, times, names and so on.
Without quality sleep these things fall apart. Try to teach someone sleeping 4 hours per night a new skill, or some complex math equation or just the names of some of the characters in Power Rangers, it won't stick the way it should.
Fat Loss Results and Sleep
So we know that poor sleep from a messed up schedule, excess stress and lack of downtime means the wrong immune response, poor sleep and decreased quality of life. But what does the lack of sleep do for our fat loss?
Here's what Kirk Parsley has to say about shortchanging your sleep. The average American needs 7.5 hours of sleep a night, give or take a half an hour. How many of us get that, regularly? Shortchanging yourself just one hour of sleep out of what you need results in:
- 30% decrease in testosterone
- 30% decrease in insulin sensitivity
- 30% decrease in leptin sensitivity
His analogy is that under-sleeping means you "basically wake up semi-diabetic". Strong words. You regain some insulin sensitivity as the day progresses but this really shows you why even those good carbs you are eating may not seem to be working out. On top of that, decreased leptin sensitivity means you won't be as efficient at burning bodyfat for fuel.
Here's The Bad News
You'll be hungry, especially for carbohydrates. Your blood sugar will be low so energy will be low. Your insulin sensitivity is reduced so the calories you eat don't go to muscle, even when training hard, they go to fat cells. Decreased leptin sensitivity means you won't burn those stored calories for energy, and the cycle continues.
Does this sound like you? Sound like anyone you know? Training hard and not losing any bodyfat despite expending a decent amount of energy every day exercising?
I've written in the past about how in overweight subjects, glucose (sugar) is not burned efficiently for energy during exercise, bodyfat is. It is the body's way of reducing the fat storage. But if you pile lack of sleep on top of this, you'll blunt the fat burning from exercise and increase your desire for carbs. The carbs you won't use for energy.
My personal experience reflects this. I worked for quite a long time to really improve my insulin sensitivity and carbohydrate tolerance. I kept protein high, fat low to moderate and slowly increased my carbohydrates over time. Once my weight and energy normalized, I was able to bring my fat intake up with no negative effects.
However, whenever my sleep is affected (as it often has been), I start to feel hungry, tired, lethargic and wired all at the same time. Since my cortisol response has always been high, I tend to lose weight, but some it is muscle because cortisol breaks down protein to turn into glucose, so I end up lighter but weaker. Changing my schedule and sleeping at least 7 hours a night has resulted in a couple pounds of fat loss despite the same calorie intake and less exercise output. I measure my waist and track my weight and take pictures. My waist has decreased about a 1/2 inch from the improved sleep. This is on a high calorie diet. Your mileage may vary but it is hard to say that more sleep won't make you feel better and be healthier. And improved health usually comes with decreased bodyfat.
But if we take anything from the science and whatever weight my personal experience carries, it is this: You need REAL sleep. Not Ambien sleep, not drunk passed-out sleep, not collapse from exhaustion sleep and not Benadryl or cough syrup or any of those products sleep. Because it isn't real sleep. And that's the problem.
Americans pride themselves not just on working hard, which there is inherently nothing wrong with. But working MORE. Like, the more we work for and less time we take off and the more miserable we are the greater our badge of honor. Well, if fat and sick and miserable and semi-successful is your goal, have at it. But it'll kill you sooner, that's a fact.
This Really Matters
If you've read all of the above you should realize by now that even with lots of exercise and healthy eating, poor sleep can severely impact your fat loss. It'll make you weaker, fatter, less virile and you'll forget more and have a hard time learning new things.
But this means not just sleeping more but arranging your day and prioritizing so you CAN sleep more.
I've worked with enough clients and spoken with enough coaches to realize that this is a glazed over topic. People don't want to address it because they can't buy sleep in the grocery store. It means going to bed earlier, turning off electronics, sleeping in a cool, dark room. Having some sort of mediation, music, prayer or reading or journaling that winds you down before bed. It means changing a significant portion of your life. But it is for your life.
Most of us are totally gung-ho for the exercise portion. One hour 3-5 times a week, no problem. We'll sweat and squat and press and jump and burn our lungs and then walk out feeling good. For some, it stops there. Outside of the gym nutrition is pizza and wine and bread and Starbucks. Then others buy in. They know food makes a huge difference and they are willing to work to improve that.
Sleep is the final frontier. It's the area no one really wants to enter into because after all, "aren't we working hard enough with all the exercise and eating?". Now, for me, I'm tenacious when it comes to finding a cause to a problem. I'll buy 30 supplements and try every sleep tactic and trick and lifestyle change until I find the one that works. Most don't. I've wasted plenty of time and money finding that out. The best ones are also the least sexy. They are also the most pain-in-the-butt.
To save your time and butt, I'll compile the best tips and you can run down the list for yourself. You won't like it. It'll suck. You'll complain and throw a fit. Or maybe you won't, maybe you'll.....
-Do these, from top to bottom-
1. Cut out all caffeine. Try this for a week. Yeah, you'll be tired and have a headache for a couple mornings but you will sleep.like.a.rock.
2. Are you sleeping weird? 9 pillows? Sleeping on your arms? Snoring? Stop all of that. Sleep with a Breathe Right Strip, cut it down to one or two pillows and find an ergonomic sleep position. That means kick your dog out of bed, don't worry, dogs have been sleeping out of human beds for ....oh, forever.
2. Turn off all electronics and bright lights an hour before going to bed.
3. Your hour ritual before bed should include one or some of the following: Read, journal all your thoughts or recap your day, pray, meditate, listen to quiet relaxing music.
4. Make your room super-dark. I'm talking Bat Cave dark. And make it cool. I'm talking Bat Cave cool. Use a sleep mask if you need to.
5. Take a supplement if you need it. Chamomile or valerian tea. 300 micrograms, (that is MICROgrams) melatonin or less. A tea blend with skullcap or passionflower to ease the mind. Maybe some phosphatidylserine if you really have high nighttime cortisol.