Sleep is a fundamental part of daily life and it’s critical for our physical and psychological wellbeing. There are myriad benefits to not only getting the right amount of sleep per night but also developing long-lasting and effective sleeping patterns. Some of the most well documented and researched include:
Brain function – When we sleep, new pathways in the brain are formed and helps us retain more information and develop new skills.
Physical health – Sleep is essential for repairing the heart and blood vessels. An increased risk of stroke, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure have all been linked to sustained sleep deficiency.
Hunger levels – Ghrelin is dubbed the ‘hunger hormone’ and its production is increased when we’re awake. Inversely, leptin is a hormone that helps us relegate our appetite, so getting enough sleep helps the body balance the two.
Safety – Sleep deprivation can severely affect our decision-making and reaction times. Studies have found that sleepiness can influence driving ability as much if not more than being under the influence of alcohol.
Despite the obvious importance of sleep, it’s estimated that 45 million people in Europe have some form of sleep disorder or regularly suffer from disordered sleep. It’s sadly something that many people choose to overlook or simply ‘put up with’, even when the scientific benefits of sleep are largely irrefutable.
Growth hormone and sleep
Alongside the aforementioned benefits, sleep is essential for boosting muscle mass and repairing cells and tissues. Despite its importance, it can often be overlooked by many exercisers. As a personal trainer or similar fitness professional, you’ll perhaps have come across this with your clients. They’ve followed your programme to the letter, they’ve kept a food diary so you know their nutrition is on point, but when it comes to sleep it’s the last thing on their mind.
It could very well be the missing piece of the puzzle, that all-important step up that helps them achieve their goals. So why is sleep so vital for muscle growth and repair? Well, it’s all related to your hormones. For a simple definition, hormones are chemical substances produced in the body. Depending on the chemical, it helps regulate the activity of certain organs and cells. Hormones are involved in many, many processes in the body including digestion, reproduction, metabolism and mood control (something that perhaps sounds quite familiar to the layperson).
Human growth hormone (HGH) is produced by the pituitary gland which is located at the base of the brain. The pituitary gland is sometimes called the ‘master gland’ as it also has control over other glands in the body including the ovaries and testicles, adrenals and thyroid.
In the case of HGH, also referred to as just GH (growth hormone), our bodies need a ‘message’, distributed by the hormone and transported from cell to cell in the bloodstream, to make use of the protein we’ve consumed during the day. The essential amino acids present in said protein is what our muscles use to both repair and grow. To understand just important this whole process is, one particular study found that the surge of growth hormone we experience while we’re sleeping simply disappeared when sleep deprivation occurred.
Just as with hunger levels and brain function, a lack of sleep greatly could have some potential several negative effects in the long-term. In fact, there have been studies that have shown that ‘sleep debt’ “decreases the activity of protein synthesis pathways and increases the activity of degradation pathways” and this could actually lead to a loss in muscle mass.
So, as fitness professionals, it’s important that you make your clients aware just how effective sleep can be, particularly if they have goals related to muscle growth. While increasing the volume and intensity of training to make up for a lack of sleep might seem like a sound idea in the long term, it simply isn’t going to be sustainable.
Improving sleep habits
Just as devoting time to an exercise programme or healthy eating regime can promote positive habitual behaviour, making it easier to stick to in the long term, the same is true of sleep. If you’ve had trouble with sleeping in the past because of any of the ‘bad’ or unhelpful habits listed below, it’s going to be a case of essentially re-training yourself.
Here are some simple strategies you can start to implement, or if you’re a fitness professional, these are great tips to pass on to your clients.
Sleep schedule – One of the most effective strategies is to aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. That includes both weekdays and weekends. For those who work a standard, Monday-Friday, 9-5, it’s very tempting to lie in at the weekend to try and ‘make up’ for lost sleep. This can actually have an adverse effect on the body and disrupt your circadian rhythm.
Allow time to wind down – Up to an hour before bed, avoid any activities that are going to overly stimulate the mind of the body. That includes strenuous exercise and using devices that emit blue light as this will suppress the secretion of melatonin (the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle).
While modern mobile and tablet devices have a ‘night-time’ mode which limits the amount of light they emit, you’re still running the risk of overly stimulating your brain.
Watch what you eat and drink – Where possible, avoid eating a large meal a few hours before bed. Nicotine and caffeine shouldn’t really have a place in a bedtime routine as both are stimulants. Particularly for the latter, it’s estimated the half-life for caffeine is around five hours, though its effects could actually be felt for anywhere between 1.5-9.5 hours.
Depending on when your planned bedtime is, it’s probably best not to consume large amounts of caffeine in the afternoon. Finally, while alcohol can be classed as a central nervous system depressant, so it may possibly help you get to sleep, it can greatly alter the quality of sleep you get, so it’s best avoided.
Consider napping – It’s estimated that 85% of mammals are polyphasic sleepers, meaning they sleep for multiple periods throughout the day. Babies and young children still have polyphasic sleeping patterns but as we get older we become more and more monophasic.
This means we have effectively split our day into two parts, one for being awake (morning to evening) and one for being asleep (night). There is some evidence to suggest that reengaging with a polyphasic cycle, by having a nap(s) during the day, could boost alertness and performance. The current thinking seems to be that anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes could be beneficial.
Manage your environment – Just as you want to reduce the amount of blue light you encounter before bed, you’ll also want to make sure your bedroom environment is configured in a way that is most conducive to sleep. Simply put, your bedroom should be dark, quiet and cool. You should also consider your mattress and pillows as studies have shown that a cheaper, less comfortable option can negatively impact sleep quality and actually increase the risk of chronic conditions such as low back pain.
If you’re interested in learning more about the science of sleep or perhaps are looking for some tools and resources to help you get a better night’s rest, you might find the following useful to you.
Of course, if you suspect something more serious is affecting your sleep then should contact your GP. Similarly for fitness professionals, if your clients’ needs are beyond your scope of practice, you should always refer them.
- HFE’s interview with Nick Littlehales, an elite sleep coach who has previously worked with football teams, athletes and British Cycling. Nick’s number 1 bestseller Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps… and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind encourages the reader to fundamentally rethink how we approach sleep
- Sleepstation is an NHS-endorsed and clinically validated sleep improvement programme
- Movement for Modern Life, an on-demand fitness platform that offers a range of relaxation and stress-relieving yoga flows. Visit our Platinum Partners page for more information about getting 20% off a monthly or yearly subscription