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Restoring Sleep for Health and Fitness

Performance Training Personal Training

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Whether it’s because of a newborns cries, noisy new neighbours or a late-to-bed spouse, it’s a safe bet to say that we each will have experienced the signs and symptoms of mild sleep deprivation at some point in time.

Irritableness, lethargy, constant yawning, reduced focus and the all-encompassing brain-fog, are just some of the early short-term signs that a person is struggling with sleep.

Whilst we may survive unscathed from the odd night of restlessness, the necessity for long-term sleep health becomes more apparent when we consider some of the effects of chronic sleep deprivation; tremors, hallucinations, depression, seizures, even death in some very rare cases…

It appears that sleep could be just as important for our long-term health as how active we are or what we eat…

Very little is still know about what sleep actually is and what’s going on during the process. However, of what we do know, it seems sleep primarily is for restoration of brain function.

Whilst our bodies have the capacity to replenish energy whilst on the move, evidence suggests the brain needs these designated periods of recovery from which to process the days activities and events.

The growing body of sleep science has taught us that sleep is a multi-stage process, comprising of five distinct phases in which we exhibit differing levels of activity in numerous areas of the brain.

At its simplest separation, sleep is divided into two categories; Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid-Eye Movement (REM).

NREM sleep alone comprises of three stages, N1, N2 and N3, in which sleep becomes progressively deeper and deeper.

REM sleep is what we typically associate with periods of deep sleep and dreaming. In spite of this commonly held belief, the science is indicating that dreaming actually occurs across any stage of the sleep cycle. It does however tend to be that REM-staged dreams are longer, more emotional and more memorable than those in the shallower stages.

When sleep is reduced in quality or deprived of quantity, it’s typically REM-stage that is missing. We fail to move sufficiently low enough through the stages to encounter this deepest sleep level.

Studies have shown that sleep itself complies of smaller cycles, each of which lasting on average for 90mins, rather than a single extended process. During monitoring of test subjects in sleep clinics, findings suggest that when allowed to rise without the use of alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances (noises, toilet break…), we naturally wake on a multiple of this ~90min cycle (90min, 3hrs, 6hrs, 9hrs etc…).

During this 90min cycle, we progressively move between the stages of NREM sleep (approx. 65mins) into REM sleep (20mins) and back into NREM for the final 5mins.

Whilst the effects of sleep on our health are clearly recognisable in both short and long term cases of deprivation, from a fitness and training standpoint, a lack of sleep can also severely diminish progress in much more specific ways.

Alongside the low-energy, reduced focus and decreased performance commonly associated, sleep deprivation also increases our level of stress hormones in the body. This increase in stress hormones decreases the circulating levels of growth hormone, suppressing our immune system, increasing inflammation and heightening the likelihood of delayed-onset muscle soreness post exercise.

Not only do we not make progress, we begin to take a step backwards.

But how do we go about improving sleep?

Quantity and Sleep Cycles

There’s no getting around it, we each need a certain number of hours, repeated each night, within a consistent timeframe.

We’re a species heavily influenced by circadian rhythms that internally track and interact with the rotation of the Earth on it’s 24-hr cycle.

We are biologically entrained by light to wake with the sunrise and sleep with the sunset.

As the rising sunlight hits the back of our closed eyes, hormones are released that begin to raise us gradually out of the deeper stages of sleep ready to waken.

However, our 21st-century lifestyle often deeply effects our ability to remain in sync with these natural oscillations, with sleep often becoming our lowest priority. Work, family life, socialising and technology, each play an impact on restricting our ability to obtain a regular sleep pattern.

Yet what research in the field is increasingly telling us, is that it is not specifically a case of maximising the total length of time in which we sleep that determines how we optimise quantity. If that where the case we wouldn’t see individuals thriving on much less than the often recited recommendation of 8hrs a night.

What appears to be a more efficient indicator, is the number of uninterrupted sleep cycles that an individual undertakes during rest.

We’ve all experienced this to some degree. Mornings in which we may have woken from a seemingly limited 6hrs of sleep, yet feel surprisingly restored and ready to take on the world, only the next night to sleep for 10hrs and wake more tired that when we went to bed…

For many of us, the time in which we wake is relatively set in stone. Often heavily dependent upon our working schedule and morning routine. Yet the timing in which we go to sleep is usually what limits us in achieving sufficient sleep quantity.

If we choose to apply the concept of sleep cycles, each ~90mins in duration, factoring in the number of cycles may be a more efficient manner in achieving much needed sleep quantity.

Rather than aiming solely for the recommended 8hrs, often unachievable for many, a more appropriate factor to consider may be how may full sleep cycles we can achieve within a given night.

Assuming a 6am wake time, we can establish potential bedtimes based on cycle quantity rather than hours slept. For example…

Maximising the number of full cycles rather than aiming for total hours slept, provides a sound foundation on which to build our sleep routine.

However the optimisation of sleep quantity can only be considered in relation to sleep quality to enable restful recovery.

Quality – The Determining Factor

For us to better understand how we can improve the quality of our sleep, we must first recognise the complete environment surrounding our sleep habits and routine.

From what we digest during the day, the thoughts we have in the hours leading up to bed, to the quality of our sleeping environment, a host of factors come in to play when our goal becomes to improve the depth we travel during sleep.

To begin to create a positive sleeping environment within our home the two biggest impactors on sleep quality are noise and light.

Onset of sleep sees an active dulling of the senses as we close our eyes and begin to rest. Nothing can be more distracting to this state than blinking lights and dynamic noises.

In the technology dependent world we live in, it’s not uncommon to have light-sources from numerous devices kept active as we sleep. From TV’s on stand-by to tablets or phones on charge, we repeatedly run the risk of waking from light exposure.

The simplest recommendations to remove light distraction…

  1. Black-Out Curtains or an Eye-Mask: a simple investment that can dramatically reduce light exposure during sleeping.. 
  2. Turn Off Unessential Devices: save on battery life and electricity by reducing the glare of stand-by lights
  3. Turn Off Notifications: many of us keep our phones turned on through the night as a safety precaution to ensure we can be contacted in case of emergency, understandably so. However, if it’s too much of a stressor to turn it off completely, simply turn off all notifications for non-essential applications or switch to “airplane mode”. If it’s not important enough for a phone call, it’s probably not important enough to be woken up for…

When it comes to removing noise distractions from the sleeping environment, we’re often faced with uncontrollable variables such as passing traffic, neighbours, wildlife etc… Whilst we may not be able to do too much about what goes on outside our homes, we still have the capacity to limit controllable sources of noise within the bedroom itself.

  1. Remove Ticking Clocks from the Bedroom: a dynamic noise source, the tick-tock nature of the clock can often become a huge distraction to a restful sleeping environment. Remove it from the room or better yet, invest in a silent or digital clock.
  2. Use a Static-Noise Generator: something as simple as a fan in which the low hum can reduce the impact of uncontrollable noise sources outside. Especially practical in summer when heat may also be a deciding factor in restfulness and an open window may be needed
  3. Turn Off Audio Notifications: in much the same way light from Apps will distract, audio has just as much chance of waking us during crucial stages of sleep.
  4. Use Ear Plugs: this often is a last resort as it may provide some level of discomfort for some, but ear-plugs are literally designed for noise removal, worth considering…

The comfort level of our sleep surroundings are an often unconsidered factor when we look for best-bargain options on beds, mattresses, pillows and sheets. Remember, we will spend up to a third of our life spent sleeping. It pays huge dividends long-term to invest in good quality essentials for sleep comfort.

  1. Invest in the Mattress NOT the Bed Frame: whilst the bed frame may hold the aesthetic appeal, the mattress is where money should be spent. Remember, the frame offers nothing more than suspension, the mattress separates an average nights sleep from a great nights sleep. Invest in a mattress with a supportive coil or spring count (300 in a Double, 375 in a Queen, 450 in a King) and a higher warranty (12-15 years), often indicative of increased quality. I purchased a Simba mattress 3-4 years ago and it is safely one of the best investments into health I’ve made.
  2. Consider Size: a double bed is still designed for one person… considering a move towards a King or Queen sized bed will provide greater individual support and comfort with the load dispersed more independently between occupants.
  3. Number of Pillows: personal preference will dictate number, however if you’re having to use more than 2 pillows at night, it may be a sign or more underlying musculoskeletal or airway issue that may need to be addressed. Invest in a decent pillow that offers you sufficient support and comfort and the head and neck.
  4. Thread Count Matters: there is nothing more irritating to the skin whilst sleeping than poor quality, scratchy materials on pillow cases and bed sheets. Invest in higher thread count materials and you’ll reap the benefits longer term. Most major supermarket chains will stock a 300 count option at a reasonable price. Remember, its not just an aesthetic, its an investment in your health.
  5. Temperature Control: In addition to opening a window or air-conditioning, the use of multiple lighter blankets during summer, which can be easily removed, allows flexibility in temperature control during hotter weather. Having a high “tog” duvet for the colder months and lighter option for summer is a wise investment in sleep quality.

Whilst having the best possible sleep set-up and materials imaginable in the bedroom, our mentality can often be a huge determinant in achieving a restful nights sleep. Sleepless nights with anger, doubts or anxiety may be a part of many of our regular weeks for uncontrollable reasons, but we do have some options for promoting a healthier mentality prior to sleep.

  1. Learn to Relax: walking, socialising with family, reading, listening to music… each of us will have our own method of promoting relaxation. The aim is to provide the mind an opportunity to remove itself from the issues of the day. A personal recommendation is the App’s Headspace, Calm or Waking Up which all offer guided forms of reflexion and meditation. 
  2. Develop a Sleep Preparation Routine: whether this involves some basic rules such as “No TV after 9pm”, “No work talk in the bedroom” or “30mins of light reading before bed”, aim to build a basic routine in the hours that lead up towards bedtime without increasing the effects of daily stress, anger, doubts or anxiety.

Yet what we do to promote both sleep quality and quantity doesn’t begin and end with the hours before, or the bed we sleep on. We can all do more during our waking hours to promote a healthier relationship with sleep.

  1. Exercise: the apparent cure to all that ails us it seems… a reduction in body fat and increase in physical fitness can play a big effect on those individuals who suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. It doesn’t necessarily matter what, just look to increase daily activity above current levels as a a basic starter.
  2. Sun Exposure: better yet, exercise outdoors. We are a species heavily influenced by circadian rhythms, we live for sunlight and the effects it has on the body. Levels of sunlight exposure are ~15x greater when we are outside then in. Make use of the outdoors.
  3. Eat for Sleep: We know what we should do, so lets do it. Take a look at our Pillars of Nutrition here.
  4. Manage Stimulants: for many of us, Caffeine is an integral part of our daily routine. Whether its coffee in the morning, pre-workout before the gym or caffeinated soft drinks, we’re exposed to various sources throughout the day. In spite of its numerous benefits in reducing fatigue and increasing mental awareness, it significantly impacts our ability to sleep. Caffeine has a half life of 9hrs, to minimise the impact on sleep, we should look to limit consumption after this 9hr marker. Going to bed at 11? Aim to have your last caffeinated beverage between 1-2pm.
  5. Limit Alcoholic Beverages: whilst it may not be realistic or reasonable to cut out alcohol during the week entirely, limiting consumption to 1-2 units per night can promote some of the stress-relieving effects that a lower intake may have, without it trickling over into becoming a toxic stressor to the body and preventer of sleep quality.

Consistency is King

Whilst the weekends may provide an opportunity to play catch up on our poor sleep habits during the week, we can actively make decisions regarding sleep quality that will greatly increase our health, fitness and performance starting today.

No matter what elements you choose to add in to your daily routine, fundamentally we must be consistent with it to reap the benefits long-term.

When sleep becomes a habit in line with our circadian rhythms, it has the capacity to dramatically change our recovery, mindset and performance.

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