There is no substitute for sleep. That’s it. If you want to perform well, then go to bed at a decent time, get 8 hours of sleep each night. There is no further explanation needed. But just in case you want to know more, then here we go.
Sleeping is not being lazy. Sleeping is recovery. Too much sleeping is being lazy. Not enough sleep is detrimental to your performance, mood, stress and health. For what ever reason American culture has tried to equate working longer and sleeping less with productivity. Staying up later and later at night. Either working, partying, watching TV, surfing the internet, or what ever your late night distraction may be. The truth is that most of us are probably not getting the rest that we need. We either have bad sleep hygiene, bad schedules, or just a bad understanding of what it means to rest.
In order to understand why we need sleep and how to get it, we first must take a look at how it happens. It really boils down to our hormones. In this case, the hormone that we talk about when we sleep is Melatonin. Melatonin is essentially a messenger in our body that tells our body to rest; to slow our heart rate, slow our breathing, and slow down brain activity. In vertebrates, melatonin is produced in darkness, thus usually at night, by the pineal gland. It is generally about the age of three months that our body begins to develop into a circadian rhythm. We are more awake during the day and then as the sun goes down we start producing melatonin and come about 9pm we start getting ready for bed. Ideally we get our 8 or so hours of sleep and then get up as the sun comes up. During this period of sleep, we rest and recover. Our body is relieved of external stressors and able to rest, but our body also takes this time to repair damaged tissues. This includes reducing inflammation, healing and strengthening muscle fibers, restoring cognitive function and the list goes on.
One of the other hormones that comes into play is adenosine. Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body to start getting ready to sleep, adenosine is the hormone that causes you to feel tired and feel the need to sleep. It is essentially that pressure to make you want to sleep. In general adenosine has an inhibitory effect on your Central Nervous system. It will begin to limit cognitive function as well as responsiveness. Interestingly enough, drinking coffee or other caffeinated products, has the capacity to block adenosine receptors. So when your body starts to feel that sleep or need-to-rest pressure from adenosine, caffeine will block the ability of your nerve cells to receive that signal. This prevents you from feeling as tired and combined with other effects of caffeine will prevent the degradation of cognitive ability.
The problem with missing out on sleep is that you miss out on the ability to rest and recover. When we are training, sleeping is the time when we rebuild muscle. It is the time where our muscle fibers are repaired. The inflammation that occurs as a result of our training has time to be filtered and reduced. If we are training hard but limited on sleep, then you will eventually plateau or even start to lose progress because you are causing more damage than your body can manage. Taking stimulants such as caffeine, allow you to maintain your Central Nervous Systems ability to function, but it does not give your body the time to repair itself. Similarly, only getting a few hours of sleep and then taking a couple of naps during the day has the same effect; your body never gets the time it needs to fully recover. Just as it was said in the beginning, there is no substitute for sleep.
How do we get better sleep.
The key to sleep is good sleep hygiene. This includes how we get ready for bed, when we sleep, and the environment in which we sleep.
- Turn off the electronics. Having a TV in the bedroom has ruined more sleep than can be measured. Simply put, your bed should be used for sleep and sex. Electronics or other “blue light” sources can confuse the pineal gland and cause the delay in melatonin production. Turn the TV off, put down the cellphone.
- Get rid of the additional noise, light, and temperature extremes. Excess night time noises can disrupt sleep or even wake you up completely. Keep your room from being to hot or too cold. Generally low 70’s or 60’s. Lastly, one of the things that unknowingly causes people problems is the alarm clock. Turn the clock so that you can’t see the time. Especially if you have a bright red LED clock. Waking up and looking at the clock not only exposes your eyes to bright light, but also causes your brain to become active by thinking about how much more time you have before you get up. Thinking about the fact that you have another hour to sleep will stir up thoughts and take away from your ability to rest.
- Be mindful of what you eat or consume before bed. Limit fluid intake after 8 pm, otherwise you will have to wake up to urinate. Especially avoid food or drinks with high amounts of sugar or caffeine. Similarly stay away from large amounts of protein before bed. As your body digests and processes the protein it can prevent your body from resting. If you do need to consume protein for the sake of putting on body mass, stick to a slower digesting protein such as casein. Lastly, alcohol will knock you out, it will not help you sleep. Alcohol is a depressant and will make you feel tired but instead of allowing your body to rest, your body has to repair alcohol damaged cells.
One of the biggest obstacles to maintaining good sleep hygiene is life. We need to sleep for 8 hours, but for various reasons the other 16 hours of the day tend to mess that up. This is especially the case for people doing shift work. Late nights or hours that can take us off our normal Circadian Rhythm. Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Military, Nurses, college students before finals, and families with newborns generally are lacking the most sleep. Staying up for hours and hours becomes a “Badge of honor” or even bragging rights in some of these cases. The problem is lost sleep is never able to be made up. You can’t catch up on sleep, but you can mitigate some of the effects of lost sleep by taking a nap. You restore some cognitive function, but you never make up for the recovery time you didn’t get.
“Live and rest like a farmer, not a bartender” – John Welbourne
Another time that tends to interfere with our sleep is when we have to change from working day crew to night crew and vice, or simply having to change time zones. Some people will attempt to get used to the time difference by trying to stay up to force yourself to adjust to the new time. The reality remains is that you will never make up for that lost sleep and your performance will be drastically impaired. The best strategy is to get as much sleep as you can in preparation. Staying awake for the purpose of getting used to staying up late is the equivalent of taking a bat to the head for the purpose of getting used to getting a bat to the head. It doesn’t help.
There is no substitute for sleep. Guard your sleep time as if it was a priceless heirloom. Utilize some good sleep hygiene and understand that if you want to be able to perform, you have to get some rest.
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