How about a boost in muscle growth, fat loss, and recovery? How about getting a more restful sleep while doing so? The following tips can help to optimize hormonal output to help with our body composition and performance, and make us feel better while doing it!
This optimization includes not only the anabolic hormones, but reducing levels of the catabolic hormones as well.
Considering the impact that sleep has on our overall health, it deserves to be higher on our priority list than it usually is. In fact, people who are chronically sleep deprived likely have lower Testosterone, decreased immunity, greater chance of developing diabetes, and overall increased chance of mortality.
Better body composition, rest, and overall health? What are we waiting for?
Slower is Better
The idea behind sleep-induced hormonal optimization is largely based on two hormones: growth hormone (GH) and cortisol (although Testosterone and glucagon can also be manipulated).
As you probably know, GH is great for both fat loss and muscle growth, while cortisol causes muscle breakdown, fat deposition, and even decreased immune function. Clearly we need to increase GH while decreasing cortisol in order to optimize our performance and body composition.
It's also important to understand that we sleep through dynamic cycles of differing brain and muscle activity, with hormonal output changing each cycle. The best way to boost GH is to induce "slow wave sleep," which is a very deep sleep cycle. If you have a disturbed sleep then you can bet that slow wave sleep is affected, and your hormones will be, too.
Through a more restful sleep, not only will GH output be optimized, but cortisol as well. The latter hormone is released in times of stress, which can occur when we don't get enough shuteye. So what we want to achieve is a deeper slow wave sleep that equates to reduced cortisol and higher GH. Considering that we sleep more than any other activity, the long term impact of such optimization is imperative.
1. Bring the Noise
Blocking out noise is an obvious way to help people not only fall asleep faster, but also reach a more restful stage of sleep and stay that way. The most common way of doing so is to use ear plugs, but this may not be as effective as we'd like, because any sounds made by our own body – even breathing, – are amplified. Paradoxically, the best way to block out noise – all noise- is to produce your own white noise.
By having a constant sound that isn't too loud, other, more disturbing sounds are blocked out. Since noise is probably the most common disruptor of sleep, you're bound to have a positive effect from this.
Of course you have to be sure that the white noise you choose isn't going to bother you. A fan is the most frequent choice.
There's one side effect that needs to be mentioned, and that is you'll definitely become used to having your 8 hours of white noise every night. I've gone away on vacation without any white noise, and the silence can be deafening.
Additionally, any disturbing sounds that I normally wouldn't hear will now be amplified because we become accustomed to not hearing any. If you suddenly start disrupting your sleep, you'll have a harder time optimizing hormonal output, and your progress in the gym will suffer.
From both personal experience and the people I've spoken with, the benefits of white noise on sleep far outweigh any potential negatives – just be sure to bring your fan.
2. Pitch Black
Light is another common sleep disruptor that we may not even be aware of. In fact, many people don't close their eyes completely, which allows excess light in. [I have a "friend" who does this and I'm told it's quite creepy.] Besides, the thin skin of our eyelids doesn't really block out all that much light. If you're normally photosensitive, then this alone may explain why you're always tired, not to mention experiencing sub-standard progress in the gym.
Why the worry? Well, sleep is dependent on a hormone called melatonin, which in turn is quite sensitive to light. In fact, light destroys melatonin which helps keep us awake during the day. If we're trying to sleep, even the small amount of light penetrating our closed eyelids is enough to disrupt some people's slumber.
Simple solutions are to keep the room in which you sleep as dark as possible while you're sleeping. If you're particularly light sensitive (which I am), then you may want to hang a dark sheet over any windows, in addition to the current covering.
Alternatively, and more simply, covering your own eyes with something as common as a dark shirt will help provide the conditions you're after.
Bonus Tip: once you wake up, it's best to be exposed to as much light as possible. This doesn't mean you should shine a flashlight into your eyes, but it means that any window coverings should be removed to let the sun in. You'll find that it's easier to wake up and become active when higher levels of light are present upon waking.
3. Body of Support
For bigger athletes, it becomes more and more difficult to position ourselves properly in an attempt to lie for a prolonged period of time. After all, there's more weight crushing down on all of our pressure points at any given time. The simplest tip is to simply lose weight, but for those who are trying to increase muscle mass, this isn't really an option.
Additionally, as we age in both years and training experience, we're more likely to have injuries, which in itself can create a "unique" set of sleeping positions for comfort. One of my more experienced athletes swears that the only way he can get comfortable is to lie on his stomach, turn his head to the right, place his left arm overhead and his right arm out to the side at a 90-degree angle at the elbow. After he gets into that position, he still has to adjust his hips and legs.
The solution is to use a second pillow to prop up a specific body part so it's more comfortable to sleep. A standard example is "the perfect sleep position" which involves us lying on our side with a pillow between our knees. Ergonomically speaking, this position alone can save people a lot of pain every day.
Check out www.RelaxTheBack.com for various pillows and wedges that can be used for sleep as well as...
4. Making Sexy Romance
You're not going to see this tip in Reader's Digest.
Biologically speaking, one of the ways we've evolved to limit our sexual appetite is that we become sleepy after orgasm. This helps ensure that we don't spend all day (and all night) having sex at the expense of other survival necessities.
Combine the physical exertion with the post-coital neurotransmitter release, and you should be both sleepy and physically tired; perfect conditions for sleeping. If you're really astute, you can use your partner to prop up your body parts and pass it off as cuddling.
One potential problem is that some people actually become invigorated by sex, which obviously makes this tip invalid. If you're not sure which group you fall into, practice.
Warning: Despite the positive impact that sex may have on sleep quality, it could potentially result in the worst sleep destroyer known to man; children.
5. Relax. Seriously.
Stress of daily life can be a killer of good sleep. Worrying about: bills, kids, jobs, exams, the evil monkey in your closet, whatever, will keep you awake no matter how tired you feel.
In addition to the sleep deprivation, the stress will also increase cortisol output (it's not called "the stress hormone" for nothing). This leads to the usual muscle breakdown, fat storage, and susceptibility to illness that comes with such a state. Clearly this alone is important enough without yet discussing the additive problems from disturbed sleep.
The solution is to relax (duh). Okay, so how do you do that? Well, as most of us are used to pushing hard to get results, it doesn't work that way with relaxation. In fact, despite the common suggestion, you can't try to relax – it just has to happen. As silly as it may sound to have to describe it this way, I've heard enough athletes try very hard to relax, and when they can't force it, they get frustrated and even more stressed out.
Of course there are ways to help this along and they're as individual as you are. Some people enjoy reading before bed while others find it stimulating. Some people like watching TV, while others are incredibly frustrated that there's nothing but crap programming available (yet Arrested Development was still cancelled). And of course sex was already discussed.
As hokey as it may sound, most people find that relaxation techniques involving a form of mediation as the best way to relax. I'm not talking about auras or chanting here (unless that's your thing), it's just a way to trick our bodies into a reduced state of (non-sexual) arousal.
Listen to a hypnotist and you'll know exactly what I mean.
6. Early Exercise
For many people, exercise is an invigorating experience. The catecholamine release, the intensity, and the endorphins all add up to make training, whatever kind you do, a stimulating event.
Even though we're often physically tired after exercise there may be a positive neurotransmitter balance that favors alertness. This is exactly why the old trick of exercising before bed doesn't often work. Workouts performed earlier in the day have the benefit of helping us stay alert when we need it most.
Pertaining to the last tip, this early exercise also helps alleviate stress that could otherwise keep us awake while increasing cortisol output. It's really preaching to the choir to discuss the benefits of exercise on Testosterone Nation, but you may want to pass it on as added incentive for your sedentary friends and family.
Bonus Tip: Cortisol output is elevated when training late at night, so training earlier in the day may prevent this negative effect.
7. Late Night Snack
I've always been a proponent of nocturnal feedings as one of the most effective ways to arrest night-time catabolism and enhance muscle growth. In fact, the second article I ever wrote deals with this topic: Stop The Catabolic Insanity. Since then, it's been discovered that nocturnal feedings also help many people sleep by alleviating late night and early morning hunger.
If you have a high muscle metabolic rate, which most T-Nation readers do, then your body is burning fuel, and LOTS of it, all of the time. If your body runs out of fuel (which happens to most people every night), then we start to break down muscle, which is made worse by the fact that this process can continue for several hours unabated.
In addition to burning muscle, our body begins to break down fat, which of course is a good thing – within reason. Our most powerful fat loss hormone is epinephrine (aka adrenaline), so it only makes sense that our body uses this stimulant hormone when it needs energy.
Now it's no secret that the last thing you want pumping in your body is a stimulant hormone when trying to sleep. In fact, if you've ever tried a low carb diet, then you may have experienced an earlier than normal awakening, as our body tries to survive starvation by releasing stimulatory epinephrine. Combine that with the hunger cravings and your diet may be set to fail.
By feeding nocturnally, even while on a calorie-restricted diet, we can minimize muscle loss, maximize fat loss, and keep our stimulant hormone levels low. Having a protein-only nocturnal drink helps ensure that this nutrient will be used for energy, with only minimal increases in epinephrine (so we'll still be burning fat).
This will maintain muscle as our most metabolically active tissue, which will help a calorie-restricted diet stay effective for a longer period of time. Of course the enhanced sleep that you may get can help to maintain immunity, which is usually already compromised in a calorie-restricted state, but is exacerbated by sleep deprivation and cortisol.
Bonus Tip: The slightly increased caloric intake may also decrease the amount of cortisol released. As another catabolic hormone, cortisol chews through muscle to provide our body with energy while we're fasted. By feeding our body with protein, we keep fat loss chugging along while minimizing muscle breakdown. Of course protein is the thermogenic nutrient, which may help with fat loss even more!
8. The Ritual
Do you have to think about washing your hair? How about showering?
If you're like most people, these are periods of lost time where you're doing something but you don't actually have to think about doing it. They're so automatic that you can daydream about anything else and come back down to earth when the task is complete. If we can establish such a state before sleep by establishing a repeated pattern, then we'll set ourselves up for a perfectly relaxed state.
A typical pattern may be:
- Make Metabolic Drive® Protein shake
- Add fat
- Consume drink
- Brush teeth
- Turn on fan
- Set alarm
After following such a pattern for long enough, we'll not only induce the relaxed state, but we'll condition ourselves to make the whole process more effective. Like Pavlov's dogs, once that fan gets turned on (for example) our pre-programmed physiological relax-sleep response will kick in and the improved hormonal response will follow.
9. Sleep Supplements
Most of the supplements available for inducing sleep have been around forever. I'm sure that many of our Grandmothers used chamomile to relax before going to bed, and there's actually a little scientific support for this practice. In fact many of the traditional sleep aids have a natural relaxant effect, the first step to a good night's rest, rather than directly inducing sleep.
ZMA has grown in popularity over the past several years, and it's often reported that it helps induce a deeper sleep in addition to making the process occur more quickly. Add on top of that the potential for a Testosterone boost and the low cost, and ZMA is a good choice for anyone to try.
Even the old trick of warm milk may prove effective, although any effect may be minimal in protein-junkies such as most Testosterone readers. The idea is to take a protein containing a large amount of the amino acid tryptophan along with carbohydrates to help induce sedation. This is not an optimal practice for body composition and performance, but if you're at the end of your rope it may be worth a try.
Other common sleep remedies include valerian, St. John's Wort (SJW), and Kava Kava, although the latter may have toxicity issues, while SJW can have interactions with other medications. It's best to always do your research and present it to your MD before trying anything.
No discussion about sleep aids would be complete without mention of melatonin. This is the very hormone that helps us sleep, and was considered to be a miracle drug by many in the 90's. There's still a lot we don't know about this hormone, including the effects on our endocrine system, so as always, caution is recommended.
A combination of PhGABA, 5-HTP and L-Theanine practically guarantees you a relaxed, restful night of sleep without any morning hangover effects. Many who don't get results from melatonin swear by Z-12™, which uses this deep-sleep stack.
10. The Last Supper
As alluded to earlier, the fast that occurs when we sleep is an incredibly catabolic time that's contrary to our body composition and performance goals. The best way to minimize the damage is to have a slow digesting and absorbing final meal shortly before we sleep.
Such a meal should include a slow digesting protein and fat so that we're steadily supplied with nutrients for as long as possible while we sleep (For more information see The 80 Gram Casein Protocol). The problem occurs when we have too much food volume in our stomach. This is an absolute killer of sleep, or even comfort.
The solution is to maximize Nutrient Density such that we have the nutrients that we need, but a small volume in our stomach.
Using a maximum of 500ml of water to make the final meal will ensure that this occurs. If you're using The 80 Gram Casein Protocol, this turns the mix into the famous protein pudding that everyone raves about. In fact, this will also help to slow digestion, providing you with an even longer "fed" period.
11. Nap Time for Adults
We had it right when we were kids; sleep all night, eat, play, sleep some more, eat more, repeat. Of course all that our body did was grow. One of the reasons why this may be so beneficial for growth is because napping in the afternoon is associated more with slow wave sleep and GH output, compared with napping earlier in the day.
In addition to increasing anabolic hormone output, a nap in the afternoon can be quite refreshing, as well as help relieve the stresses of the day.
Practically speaking if you sleep too long during the day, then this will disrupt night time sleep, so it's important to find the right balance for boosting GH at both times.
As part of The Anabolic Index Optimized Nutrition and Performance Manual, hormonal optimization through sleep is a good start to reaching, and then surpassing your goals. By improving sleep quality and nutritional status we can optimize hormonal output, every single night. Multiply that by 365 and then by how many years you intend to sleep, and you have a dramatic impact on your health, performance, and body composition.
[These tips are meant to help the average Testosterone reader sleep better and ultimately reach his or her body composition and performance goals. If you're chronically having sleep disturbances, as 14 million Americans do, then you should speak to your MD about it.]
Q: Your [sic] wrong. I get enough sleep every night. I'm jacked and swole and girls like me so I don't need to use these tips.
A: It's a good possibility that you sleep quite well right now. These tips have been presented as a way for you to not only improve your Zen-like sleep, but also optimize your hormonal output.
Q: Reading your article helped put me to sleep but I didn't use any of the tips.
A: Yes. Very funny Shugart.
Q: How do I use a nocturnal feeding for better sleep during my low-carb diet?
A: I've used 40g of Metabolic Drive about five hours into my sleep with great success. When cutting, I wouldn't add any fat to this drink. As always, try to keep the lights off and make the meal as automatic as possible so you minimize sleep disruption.
Q: I want to use the supplements and herbals you mentioned to help me fall asleep. What are the dosages and how do I use them?
A: There are no firmly established protocols, but some people have reported the following: 1-2 cups of chamomile, or 400mg of valerian extract, or 3mg of melatonin 1-1/2 hour before bed.
Special Thanks to Maya Kumar and Nathan Devey for their invaluable assistance.