Alpha males notoriously underestimate the importance of sleep. “I only need four hours” is a phrase thrown around so often in gyms and locker rooms that some dudes actually think it’s true. Living life aggressively is what we do and this I-can-sleep-when-I’m-dead mentality is part of our determination, right? Wrong. When you understand how significant sleep is to your body composition, strength, health and overall wellbeing, it becomes pretty obvious—the better we’re able to sleep, the better we’re able to live.
A quick reminder on the science of sleep:
Sleep is divided into two major categories: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep (yes, in REM sleep your eyes rapidly move around like you’re watching a sprightly leprechaun do a shuttle run.) You spend most of the night in NREM sleep and gradually work towards REM sleep every 90 minutes or so. The later stages of sleep is where the money is at in terms of restorative function, and you can only get there if you cycle through the initial stages, which is why sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity.
So why is sleep so damn important?
You produce most of your growth hormone when you sleep. Growth hormone (GH) is aptly named because it is essential for you to grow. But its benefits aren’t limited to bigger and stronger biceps—GH increases your calcium retention (to help maintain your bone mass), it promotes fat loss, it reduces fat storage, it supports your immune system and it keeps your organs operating smoothly. GH isn’t the only hormone affected by sleep. Ever go to bed hungry? If you have a full night's sleep, you'll wake up not hungry. During sleep, the body balances two hunger-controlling hormones—ghrelin and leptin. A study in the journal PLoS Medicine showed a strong correlation between limited sleep, high levels of hunger-inducing Ghrelin, low levels of satisfaction-inducing Leptin and obesity. Lack of sleep will make you fat. Still, this only touches on the benefits of sleep. We’re still learning how sleep mitigates aging, helps reinforce lessons in the brain and informs our natural circadian rhythms (our 24-hour physiological process). It’s pretty well understood that optimal sleep levels do wonders for all of this, but we’re still working out the details.
So what are optimal sleep levels?
Like nutrition, sleep needs are unique to the individual. For males between the ages of 17-35, the national sleep foundation recommends 7-9 hours. Lifestyle and activity levels play a huge factor—the harder you live, the more sleep you need—so you’ll have to figure out your own personal sweet spot. NEXT: Why you aren't sleeping enough, and how to fix it >> [pagebreak]
The most common reasons we don't get a full nights sleep:
“I don’t have the time.” Most of us don’t sleep enough simply because we feel as though we don’t have the time. In order for you to change your sleep habits, you need to change this perspective. Sleep isn’t when you’re not living. It’s actually when you’re living better. "I'm not tired." Yes, you are, which brings us to...
If you’re wired at night:
1) Take a look at your sleep environment. Try reducing ambient light and noise as much as possible (if you wake up in the middle of the night, you shouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face). That means getting some decent blinds and covering up the blinking green lights on your modem. 2) Develop a nighttime ritual. It may sound cheesy, but the body loves repetition. A half hour before you want to fall asleep, turn the lights down, get into your Superman PJ’s (no? Just me?), and read some easy fiction. It’s a great way to let the worries of the day fade away and prepare the body for sleep. 3) If you can, go to bed every night and wake up every morning at the same time. You set your inner alarm clock (the aforementioned circadian rhythm). You’ve probably heard it a million times, but it really does work like a charm.
Still no luck?
Consider some natural supplementation. Magnesium is a great place to start. Most people who work out are deficient in magnesium (which is a central nervous system relaxant—among other things.) Try a few pumps of topical magnesium lotion or oil on your legs before bedtime. You actually absorb the magnesium through the skin (transdermally). This bypasses the digestive system and is an exceptionally effective way to get magnesium into the system. Within 20 minutes, you’ll be ready to pass out. You can get topical magnesium at your local health care store or from a reputable online dealer. This is my favorite. If you're still having trouble, see a doctor. Sleep is at the foundation of strong and healthy living and the more we learn about sleep, the more vital it becomes. In order to optimize your training, your nutrition and the quality of your life, you’ll need to keep dreaming. Rob Sulaver is owner and operator of Bandana Training. For more info, check him out on Facebook or follow him @BandanaTraining.