In our busy, task-oriented society, most of us are familiar with the concept of stress. What we may fail to realize is our body’s response to the physical threat of being chased by a bear is the same as the anxiety of an upcoming exam, overtraining to the point of depletion or a lack of sleep because our little ones.
In response to poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, and chronic anxiety our brain (specifically the amygdala and hippocampus) signals to the hypothalamus to release a cascade of hormones. These hormones include epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol that put our bodies in “fight or flight mode” in preparation for an imminent threat.
If this state becomes our norm, we can experience weight gain (effect of cortisol mobilizing glucose from our bodies storage sites), irritability and mood dysregulation (hormone imbalance), and may find sleep and concentration difficult (epinephrine and norepinephrine activating our nervous system). Our immune system will be impaired making us more susceptible to disease and sickness. Our gastrointestinal system will not be functioning optimally leading in abdominal discomfort and malabsorption.
The Importance of Sleep
Why is sleep important? Our sleep facilitates recovery and metabolism. When we are young, certain hormones required for growth are optimally released during sleep. This is the reason young people tend to sleep for longer periods. Studies have also proven that less than 6 hours of sleep does not allow adequate memory consolidation (i.e., staying up all night before an exam actually does your academic performance more harm than good). Quality sleep will enable us to:
- Consolidate memories and process the day
- Lose fat & gain muscle
- Recover and repair from training
- Regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels
- Regulate hunger and satiety
- Eliminate cellular waste products
The body regulates these functions through our circadian rhythm and sleep wake cycles. The former is dictated by a 24-hour time clock in which hormones will be released at set intervals. Our sleep wake cycles are heavily influenced by light and darkness.
Key Takeaways to Improve Sleep & Recovery
Why are these physiologic principles important? They are the underlying reason for recommending these “sleep rituals” to improve your sleep & recovery. Precision Nutrition offers the following suggestions:
- Dim the lights and/or get “blackout curtains” (melatonin is released when the eyes transmit the signal of darkness to the brain)
- Set an alarm to go to bed . . . have a regular sleep schedule
- Try to get 7-9 hours of sleep if possible
- Take a cool or warm shower, whichever works best for you
- Listen to calming music
- Turn off all stimulating electronic (i.e., video games, TV, social media, computers)
- Journal or write tomorrows “to do list” to avoid lying in bed thinking of what you need to do = “brain dump”
- Deep breathing, meditation, yoga
- Practice self-care and introspection, find the root cause of the stress you feel
- Aromatherapy (Lavender has been proven to be helpful in aiding sleep)
- Snuggling a pet or loved one (the release of oxytocin from a loving relationship puts the body in a calm and comfortable state)
- Herbal tea (Chamomile) *Note: do not drink too close to bedtime to avoid waking up needing to use the restroom
- Cut off caffeine use at least 8 hours prior to bedtime
- For some, a small dose of Magnesium (200-400mg) may be beneficial *Note: always speak with your healthcare provider before adding supplements to avoid drug interactions
- Other sleep aids include valerian root, melatonin, kava, l-theanine or 5-HTP (serotonin)
Final Thoughts . . .
Like exercise and nutrition, we do not accidently become fit and healthy. The same applies to our sleep and recovery! We must plan and prepare to recover. Try using a few of the recommendations above to create a “sleeping ritual” that allows you to live a high quality, healthy life. Next week we will discuss the nutritional aspect of recovery and how to augment our performance in the gym!