Sleep Fitness

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The goal of this article is to challenge the way you think about your sleep.  We all know that we feel like crap if we don’t get enough, and we feel better after a good nights sleep.  Other than that, sleep is very mysterious.  Science has been looking at sleep from every angle and asking every question, including why we need to sleep at all.  The first big clue to the importance of sleep is found just by observing how fiercely our bodies demand it.  When we’re low on water, we get thirsty, and when we’re very low on water, we get very thirsty.  The same is true when we get hungry or when we get tired.  We can all condition ourselves to get by on less, but the big question is whether or not our bodies learn to function optimally on less too.


Let sleeping dogs lie

photo by andrewr

Better understanding the benefits of sleep and how it works will help us determine how we think about our own sleep.  My hope is that by the end of this article, you will start thinking in terms of your own “Sleep Fitness”.


For those that are either too busy or too tired to read this entire article right now, please skip to the last paragraph.


Which one of these describes your relationship with sleep?

  1. My sleep is just as important as my diet or exercise program and I manage it with just as much care.
  2. My sleep management consists of a sleeping pill and an alarm clock.
  3. My sleep is important so I try to get to bed by 11pm… I don’t like feeling tired at work.
  4. I only get about 5-6 hours of sleep each night, but I’m used to it.
  5. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.


Most of us don’t give a lot of thought to our sleep and make adjustments only when problems surface that push us too far outside our norm.


America as a whole is sleep deprived, and with the mountains of sleep research, it’s time for everyone to wake-up (or maybe go to bed).  We live in a 24/7 society where staying plugged in has become normal and expected, but we are paying for it.


  • Over 100,000 auto accidents documented each year are caused by driving drowsy, and estimates have the real number to be 10 times that amount, or 20% off all accidents each year.  That’s more than alcohol and drug related accidents combined.
  • Investigators concluded that sleep deprivation was a significant factor in the nuclear accidents at both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
  • A Harvard study found that hospitals could reduce medical errors by as much as 36% by limiting the doctors to 16 hours per shift and 80 per week.  Considering that the Institutes of Medicine estimates that between 50,000-100,000 deaths and over one million injuries are caused by preventable errors, then I’d say 36% is quite a lot.


What are the benefits of sleep?

Our brains our amazingly complex ,and who knows how long it will take science to truly understand what’s going on under the hood, but here are some of the benefits research is suggesting we get from sleep.


  • Survival-  Rats normally live 2-3 years, but die after just 5 weeks when deprived of REM sleep and just 3 weeks with no sleep at all.
  • Memory- If we’re too tired it’s hard to focus and pay attention.  New memories have a hard time sticking even for the short term.  During sleep the brain goes to work on new memories by forming and reinforcing neural connections that make those memories useful and stable.  Your brain also stores the information about what you had for lunch in a different place than it stores what you like for lunch and where you like to eat lunch.  It’s believed that the second two are formed during sleep.
  • Inflammation- Blood levels of inflammatory proteins were found to be higher in people getting less than 6 hours of sleep.  Inflammation is not just about sore joints, it’s linked to premature aging, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
  • Child Development- Growth hormone is released during period of deep sleep.
  • ADHD- Most parents know this already, but kids tend to get hyper when they’re not getting enough sleep.  A study in the journal Pediatrics showed that kids with less than 8 hours of sleep each night were more likely to be hyper, impulsive, and inattentive.
  • Weightloss- Sleep has been found to be directly associated with both metabolism and appetite.  Sleep deprived people are hungrier and were found to lose a lower percentage of fat while dieting.
  • Stress- Cortisol is our stress hormone and at night it’s supposed to drop and give way to melatonin and serotonin.  Sleep deprivation throws this balance off.  Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant with neuroprotective benefits.  Serotonin is our “Feel Good” or “Happy” neurotransmitter.  Normal levels of serotonin promote relaxation and a good mood, while a deficiency can lead to depression, anxiety and fear.  Too much cortisol over long periods can tax our adrenal system and suppress our immune system.  It can also put you at a higher risk of becoming insulin resistant.
  • Depression & Anxiety- This goes back the previous point, but it’s worth saying again.  Sleep is known to have a direct relationship with both depression and anxiety.


How does sleep work?

It’s important to understand the basic process of sleep in order for us to better manage our Sleep Fitness.   Whether I put 8 pounds of sugar in bag 1 scoop at a time or all at once doesn’t matter… I still have 8 pounds when I’m done either way.  The same can’t be said about sleep because it happens in cycles and stages that change over the course of a night.


We have a biological clock called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that controls most of our circadian rhythms.  Think of it as one of those timers that you plug your Christmas lights into, only much cooler.  Our circadian rhythms are the normal changes in both our mental and physical characteristics we experience throughout the day.  What’s important to note is that external factors can reset or disrupt our biological clock.


We need to look a bit at the stages of sleep too.  This explains why quality is every bit as important as quantity.  There are 4 stages of sleep in our sleep cycle, we spend about 90 to 120 minutes in each cycle and then it starts over again.


  1. Transition to Sleep-  We can be woke-up very easily, the eyes move slowly ,and our muscles often jerk.
  2. Light Sleep- Our brain waves become measurably slower and eyes stop moving.  About 50% of our total sleep is spent in this stage.
  3. Deep Sleep- Super slow Delta waves show up and start to taking over the show.  Generally there is no muscle activity.  It’s hard to wake someone one when they are in these stages and when you do they will be very groggy.  Deep sleep is associated with both memory consolidation, restoring the body and boosting our immune system.
  4. REM (rapid eye movement)- Yep, eyes move, dreams happen and your muscles are mostly paralyzed.  REM is associated with learning.  One study found that if you taught people a skill and deprived them of non-REM sleep, that the skill was remembered, but if they were deprived of REM sleep, it was not.


We hit REM for the first time after being asleep for about 90 minutes.  The first cycle of REM is relatively short and increases as the night goes on.  In-fact for the first 3 hours of sleep we are hardly in REM at all.  If we’re lucky, we will spend about 20% of the time asleep in REM, but most of that will be in the last 2 ½ hours.


It’s easy to see that 8 hours of interrupted sleep would not equal 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, even if you weren’t necessarily aware of the interruptions.


Most of us are supposed to get between 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night, and after just 6 days of getting 6 hours of sleep each night, we have the same level of impairment as someone who’s been awake for 24 hours straight!  But not us… we know when we’re too tired, right? NOPE!  Studies done at Penn State found that people getting 6 hours per night for 2 weeks would report for the first couple days that they weren’t as alert, but after 4 or 5 days they said they were fine.  Their perceived level of alertness and functionality adjusted and they felt normal, but testing showed their cognitive functions decreased at steady rate over the entire 2 weeks.


Tips for improving your Sleep Fitness

These are just tips and some may seem extreme or even odd, but they work.  Adopt the ones that make sense for you and ignore the rest.  Just one change can make an enormous difference.


  • Sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as you can get.  Light, especially blue light, affects our production of melatonin and serotonin… as well as doing a number on our biological clock.  Use blackout blinds and face your alarm clock away from you or cover it.
  • Use a sleeping mask if eliminating light sources is difficult.
  • Keep a sleep diary.  This simple exercise alone can give you a ton of insight into your own sleep needs and change the way you think about sleep… Sleep Fitness 101.
  • Pay off your sleep debt.  It will be difficult to figure out how much sleep you need each night until your sleep debt has been paid in full.  Make an effort to get extra sleep each night and sleep until you wake-up naturally as often as possible.  This debt will not likely be paid back in just a weekend.  Between this and your sleep diary, you should be able to hone in on the amount of sleep that’s right for you.
  • Stop drinking 2 hours before bed.  If you’re getting up 3 times a night to go to the bathroom, then your sleep quality will suffer.
  • No caffeine 6 hours before bed.  Caffeine blocks adenosine which in needed for sleep.
  • Keep your naps short.  If you need to nap then limit them to 20 minutes and not within 5 hours of bedtime.
  • Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to enhance the quality of sleep, but make sure you’re not exercising within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Alcohol will make it easier to go to sleep, but it affects your ability to enter deep sleep and REM until the alcohol metabolizes later in the night.  So have a glass of wine or beer with dinner, but not before bed.
  • Take a warm bath or shower… increasing your body temperature induces sleep
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.  Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on the weekends.
  • Relax… Turn the TV off, meditate, stretch, listen to calming music, or read.
  • Write it down.  If you normally lay in bed with you mind racing then try writing it all down as early in the night as possible, then put it away for morning.
  • Use a fan or noise machine.  Either one will help to mask other noises that can interrupt your sleep.
  • Wear socks to bed.  A study has found that wearing socks reduces the amount people wake-up at night (I told you science is asking every possible question).
  • Avoid sugar before bed.  Blood sugar swings can make it harder to go to sleep and stay asleep.
  • Have a high-protein snack and some fruit a few hours before bed to provide some tryptophan for the brain.
  • Boost your melatonin.  Get plenty of light during the day and make a conscious effort to get less and less at night.  Thomas Edison really upset the natural balance and because of that, you might want to look at a melatonin supplement.
  • Create a pre-sleep routine.  You will start to train your brain for what’s coming next.  It also will help you think in terms of the time you need to get ready for bed.  For example if you plan to go to bed at 10pm then a pre-sleep routine let’s you know to start at 9:15 instead of 9:55.
  • Sleep Fitness… change your relationship with sleep by understanding and respecting it as a vital aspect of your health.  That mindset will make you more conscious and protective of your quantity and quality of sleep.


This world is a busy place and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.  Your particular circumstances might make it impossible to adopt the perfect sleep routine, but I’m willing to bet that you can do much better.  Scan thru the list of tips above and put a few to work… the ones you know you can do right now.  For example, I LOVE drinking tea at night and I was used to drinking tea until I went to bed.  What’s wrong with a half a pot of green tea?  One of the changes I’ve made was simply stop drinking tea after 8pm.  So here’s the challenge… For just two weeks think about sleep in terms of your “Sleep Fitness” and pick one or more tips that you can easily follow.  Please let me know how it goes.


Co-Founder of NutritionGeeks, retired USAPL drug-free powerlifter, volunteer youth wrestling coach, father of 3 amazing boys and interested in all things health

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