What factor plays the most influential role in human health... genetics, exercise, diet or something else? According to William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D., and surprisingly, the answer is sleep. Dr. Dement, a Stanford University professor whose pioneering research into sleep began in 1952, shares an entire career's worth of scientific discoveries in his recent book (Delacorte Press, 1999).
He reviews not only the basic physiology of the sleep mechanism, but also discusses the numerous ways that sleep impacts our life-from the changing sleep requirements as we age, to the causes of insomnia, to mood and longevity. There are also some lessons here for the strength trainee, or more specifically, the strength trainee who is not looking for muscle and strength gains in a bottle of steroids.
The Lifestyle Approach
One of the critical elements which makes the HARDGAINER and BEYOND BRAWN approach to strength training a quantum leap of rationality above most other approaches, is its emphasis on lifestyle. The HARDGAINER philosophy is an integrated unit of habits. Recall Bob Whelan's advice in issue #60, wherein he advocates compound exercises together with mental toughness, proper nutrition, long-term dedication, and getting enough sleep.
This mindset fits well with Dr. Dean Ornish's now-famous medical research, wherein he documented an actual reversal of heart disease when patients adopted a new lifestyle which included sound, low-fat nutrition and stress reduction.
Can you make strength and size gains while concurrently neglecting your sleep requirements? Yes. However, you can also drink a glass of water through a straw while standing on your head, but there are better and more efficient ways to go about it. Will following the advice of THE PROMISE OF SLEEP ensure a 30-pound increase in your bench press? No. But sleep is one link in the chain which every trainee needs for long-term, consistent progress and optimized health, and like all of the other links, a thorough understanding of this factor can make a difference in your weight-training results, and a significant one at that.
Mortgaging Mind And Body
Thanks largely to the electric light bulb, everyone reading these words is already well-acquainted with some of the effects of getting less sleep than they need. My personal attitude for many years was that I could "train" myself to get less sleep than the recommended eight hours, perhaps as little as five and a half to six, and that my body would adapt to such a routine if I gradually reduced my sleep time.
I also felt that sleeping in on Saturday compensated for any negative effects that may have accrued from such a regime during the week. But one of the fundamental findings of Dr. Dement's research is a phenomenon he has labeled "sleep debt." In short, your body knows when you've cheated it of a night's rest-typically eight hours-and it keeps a biological ledger of sorts if you continue to do so.
The easiest way to measure the impact of continued sleep deprivation is through something called a "multiple sleep latency test." Using an electroencephalograph, researchers can quantitatively assess daytime fatigue by measuring how quickly a person falls asleep during various times of the day under ideal conditions. In test after test, the more nights a subject went without a full night of sleep, the more fatigued they became during the day, without exception. When the same subjects were then put on a regime exceeding eight hours a night, their daytime alertness was gradually restored.
I found it particularly interesting that the midday, post-lunch fatigue which I've experienced virtually every day throughout my adult life is not related in any way whatsoever to what or how much I eat at lunch time, but is a manifestation of my own accrued sleep debt. As I've strived to reduce this debt by regular, longer nights of sleep, I'm finding that I have greater alertness throughout the day, without any need for caffeine.
Of interest to the strength trainee is the larger impact of chronic sleep deprivation. Even if you're willing to accept the waves of drowsiness that accompany a lack of sleep, or have learned to mask these symptoms with caffeine and/or hyper-stimulating daytime activities, your body must still carry the load. Like a drunk who thinks he can drive his car home "just fine," a sleep-deprived individual has degraded motor and intellectual skills regardless of his or her subjective self-perception. Mood is also impacted, leaving the sleep-deprived "more easily frustrated, less happy, short tempered, less vital." So, therefore, a trainee's motivation and ability to psych up for an intensive, productive workout may be dramatically improved by merely getting regular, sound nights of sleep.
Failing to get this sleep also negatively impacts the immune system. One study of 1,600 adults revealed that male "poor sleepers" were 6.5 times more likely to have health problems, and female "poor sleepers" were 3.5 times more likely to have health problems. Although no studies have attempted to demonstrate such, it's reasonable to think that if you're compromising your immune system, you're also likely to be compromising your recovery ability from intensive workouts. An individual's response to any workout regime is surely related to overall health status, and once this is degraded, poorer results will follow.
The Endocrine System
After more than a ten-year layoff from weight training, I returned to find a shocking number of ads in the popular muscle magazines promoting a variety of supplements intended to alter the trainee's hormonal balance in order to increase size and strength. Regardless of the validity of such claims, it's true that hormones drive the body's mechanisms of tissue repair.
As Dr. Dement notes, growth hormone is key, and "stimulates protein synthesis, helps break down the fats that supply energy for tissue repair, and stimulates cell division to replace old or malfunctioning cells." If you wish to alter your body's hormonal balance to accelerate recovery and supercompensation from your training program, a full night of sleep may again provide the answer.
As you fall into your deepest phase of sleep-"stage 4" sleep-the quantity of growth hormone released into your bloodstream is increased due to the action of growth hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH). GHRH is itself a sleep inducer, which fits with the suspected function of sleep: a physical state which serves to augment tissue repair, conserve energy, store sugars, and boost the immune system. Conversely, wakefulness appears to reverse these processes, at least in part.
During waking life, stress hormones are increased, which mobilize sugars for daily activity, in addition to partially suppressing your immune system, and the levels of growth hormone are diminished. Biochemical evidence supports the role of sleep as a critical restorative process, the neglect of which carries a very real physical cost.
Good sleep habits will foster regular good sleep, and the more of these you incorporate into your lifestyle, the better your sleep will be. However, no sleep advice is dogma. If you fall asleep quickly by listening to punk rock, keep doing it. But if you're having difficulty slipping into a slumber and staying there, consider the following:
1. Reduce the intensity of your evening activities and practice an evening ritual. In the two hours (ideally) preceding bedtime, it's time to put aside tasks that stress you out. If you turn in at 10:30, it's a bad idea to start going over credit card bills you can't pay at 10:00. Exercise, while promoting sleep when practiced regularly, can often interfere with sleep if performed too late in the day. Better to work out as soon as you get home from work than to eat a large meal, wait an hour and a half, then work out. For many people, scheduling exercise and dinner three or more hours from bedtime works best. Calming ritual behaviors can also help you wind down by providing psychological cues for sleep, and might include taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and reading a book.
2. Create an ideal sleep environment. Get curtains that totally shut out light. Close the windows for silence. Adjust the temperature so that it's cool and comfortable.
3. Strive for regularity in your wake-up and to-bed schedule. The more regular your rhythm, the easier it will be to drop off to sleep, and to sleep soundly for a full, deep eight hours. If a dinner, movie, party, etc., keeps you up late one evening, compensate the next day(s) by turning in earlier, or sleeping later, or both.
4. Avoid caffeinated beverages in the evening. How early you need to begin avoiding caffeine varies according to individual biochemistry, how much you drink at a sitting, and how high of a caffeine tolerance you hold. For most individuals, the half-life of caffeine in the bloodstream is five hours (and can be as high as seven), so it's possible that your last cup of coffee might be at lunchtime or earlier. On the other hand, alcohol in the evening is fine, but in moderation. Studies reveal sleep disturbances when 3-5 glasses of alcohol are consumed in the evening.
When Good Sleep Habits Fail
Sometimes the best of intentions (with regards to sleep habits) aren't good enough, due to a plethora of physically-based sleep disorders. The good news is that many common disorders which can wreak havoc on your mind and body are not only treatable, but curable. The bad news is that some disorders are exceedingly common and frequently go undiagnosed.
If you're either tired during the daytime or snore, or both, you have the early warning signs of sleep apnea, a very common disorder. Arm yourself with knowledge by reading THE PROMISE OF SLEEP and see a qualified physician. Sleep centers are listed in the back of the book. Many other disorders with many other symptoms exist, but are beyond the scope of this short review, so take the time to learn about them yourself.
A friend of mine recently "admitted" to me that he slept eight hours per night, with a strong tone of guilt in his voice. Conversely, I've heard many friends and co-workers over the years declare with pride how little they sleep, with the implied corollary of how hard they had been working. Both sides of this issue point to a kind of social disease which deprives many of us of the sleep we need to replenish and repair our bodies and minds. As Dr. Dement states in his book, sleep is something to enjoy without guilt. "Sleep quotas are biologically fixed, and there is no more shame in needing ten hours a day of sleep than in needing a size ten shoe."
Regular, sound sleep holds the promise of a more vital waking life without the need for any synthetic stimulants or hyper-stimulating environments. If you're a strength trainee, sleep may be amongst the key components that helps you to add the next 10 pounds to your bench, or 20 pounds to your squat. Incorporating healthy sleep into an overall fitness-oriented lifestyle will optimize your general health and help ensure your strength progression for many years to come.