Sleep: The Missing Ingredient

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Let’s start from the beginning…I mean the very beginning. Research suggests that our Paleolithic ancestors lived a lifestyle that was, in general, very different from our own (wow – you think!?). But just how different remains a debate. According to Ancestral Health experts a typical caveman day may have looked something like this:

  • Wake up as the sun rises
  • Forage for some berries and/or plants to eat
  • Rest
  • Play around with your fellow tribesman
  • Rest
  • Stalk some prey and (hopefully) kill it for dinner
  • Rest
  • Eat and dance and hopefully get laid
  • Sleep as the sun sets
  • Repeat

There obviously exist several iterations to the above scenario, but you get the point.  Now contrast the above with a typical human schedule these days, or to your own schedule for that matter. It’s likely that unless you work in a pre-school your life doesn’t involve sporadic “napping” (if you do work in a pre-school, hopefully you get to nap with kids).  Moreover, I would argue that a vast majority of people don’t go to bed as the sun is going down. I don’t want to fall into the rabbit-hole argument of our “uber-productive” and “workaholic” society – so I’ll leave that to the professionals. But I think it’s safe to say that our current lifestyle is not conducive to getting proper sleep.

A great article by the Daily Mail publication calls this phenomenon “tired but wired.” You want to sleep, but the day’s events are running through your head at a frantic pace. Not to mention that we are surrounded by artificial light sources (indoor lights, computers, televisions, etc) that mess with our circadian rhythm – which is the body’s natural cycle of sleeping and waking – at varying degrees of brightness (scientifically referred to as luminosity).  Caveman Steve, as I’ve affectionately called him, didn’t have any light sources beyond the sun, moon, and stars.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”

So why do we need sleep?  I must reiterate that I’m not a scientist, but the evidence is pretty substantial that sleep is a vital component in any health lifestyle. In fact, some research suggests that humans would die from lack of sleep before they would die from starvation. Hyperbole aside, the supposed healthy effects of a good night’s sleep are numerous:

  • Increased neurological performance (particularly short and long-term memory)
  • Proper endocrine balance
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Musculoskeletal growth and repair (of particular importance is the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) during sleep)
  • Better response to the affects of aging

If you’re a “glass half empty” kind of person and the above doesn’t appeal to you, I’m sure you could find a much longer list of the unhealthy affects of insufficient sleep. I won’t list them all here, but some important ones worth mentioning are:  bad moods and depression, increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone that affects a whole host of physiological functions), memory impairment, and even weight gain. In fact, there is a great article by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that points out potential links between sleep deprivation and regulation of the appetite by the brain.

So you might be wondering what constitutes a “proper” night’s sleep. Eight solid hours nightly seems to be the most common prescription. Although the myth of 8-hour-sleep has been argued against – and quite eloquently in this article from BBC News  – the counterpoint seems to be that 8 hours is “as close as we can get” to ancestral circadian rhythms given the demands of our daily lives.  Obviously, you are the master of your domain so feel free to read the BBC article and form your own opinion**.  Additionally, there are many related works on the benefits of polyphasic (multiple phases) sleep you can find with a simple Google search.  Robb Wolf does a piece on polyphasic sleep here.

**If you do decide to read the BBC article in it’s entirety, and you want a balanced perspective, check out Robb Wolf’s and Mark Sisson’s respective articles on the topic.

So…What’s your Point?

My point is that a healthy sleep schedule, however you define it, is an absolutely VITAL component of any exercise regime. Despite the stresses of your life, which I’m sure are numerous, you have to find time to allow your body to sink into the deepest levels of sleep where all the healthy things I mentioned above are allowed to take root. Whether you sleep in multiple phases (and you’ve managed to “trick” your body into reaching the deepest levels of sleep faster) or you’ve chosen the “old-fashioned” solid-8 block the key is allowing your body its recovery time. Without sleep any of the effects of crossfitting, clean eating, or intermittent fasting will be null and void.

Tips for Better Sleep

Whatever your schedule, the tips below should aid in improved sleep

  • Sleep in a dark room. This may seem simple on the surface, but it entails getting your room as close to the “pitch-black” caves of our forebears as you can. Folks have mentioned using “light blocking” curtains and turning off ALL electronic devices to eliminate any potential ambient artificial light.
  • Melotonin and other supplements. Some studies have suggested that taking melotonin before bedtime, which our body naturally releases as part of our circadian rhythm, improves sleep. I don’t take any sleep supplements, so I can’t speak intelligently on the topic nor recommend anything. However, a simple Google search will yield a wealth of information on this and other supplementation.
  • Nap. If your schedule allows, try to mix in some brief naps or rest periods during the day.

 

If you have anything to add please feel free to comment on this post.

 

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