Things You Didn't Know About Sleep

(Or Lack of it!)

Here's another well-referenced investigation by our friendly neighborhood warrior nerd, offering facts and tips on what might just be the reason for your progress stalemate. This is one article in which the author will actually feel better if you fall asleep while reading it!

"Sleep loss due to voluntary bedtime curtailment has become a hallmark of modern society."

– Spiegel, K., 2003

Sleep. It's one of those automatic things most of us take for granted. In fact, if you don't have insomnia and have been managing 6-8 hours of it most nights, you probably think you're doing fine. I did too, before I took a serious look into the matter.

Let me start creating awareness by throwing some disturbing facts at you. Did you know that prior to the invention of the incandescent light bulb, we reportedly got about 12 hours of nightly sleep on average? Or that enough sleep deprivation in rodents causes death? Talk about a dirt nap!

Did you know that there's a nearly linear relationship between hours of sleep and body mass index (a crude marker of obesity in non-athletes)? Or how about the fact that sleep debt builds up on you, contributing to carbohydrate intolerance and fat gain over time?!

Of course this is to say nothing of immune dysfunction, altered physical performance, and mental clarity.


So let's once again break out the mental floss. We may just hit upon the reason for your stalled diet progress or lack of recent performance and muscular gains.

Rested or Resistant?

The first thing that sent me on this little investigation was sleep's effects on dietary carb metabolism and body fat. Sleep debt does indeed have harmful effects on glucose tolerance and endocrine function.(16, 17, 22, 24)

This is partially due to evening cortisol elevation (perhaps another reason to keep carbs in check at dinnertime). How do you think this might affect someone with other negative affecters of carb metabolism like family history of diabetes, lots of emotional stress, central body fat, or chronically sore muscles from eccentric training (negatives)?

Although undesirably elevated insulin responses to dietary carbs can be partially reversed with physical activity, (21) it can't fix the problem, even if one can muster the energy to get his butt moving. So, it seems to me that unlike genetic tendencies, sleep is a variable that's under our control and thus needs consideration.

Cortisol Conundrum

"Evidence links sleep loss to hormonal changes that could result in obesity."

– Vorona, R., 2005

Despite the questionable promulgation of cortisol supplement commercials on obscure cable TV channels, cortisol is in fact being increasingly blamed by researchers for body fat and metabolic problems in modern society.(2, 4, 5, 6, 13, 15, 16, 25)

The subtleties of intracellular vs. circulating hypercortisolemia make it tough to simplify, however.(15) In fact, some scientists are suggesting the 11beta-HSD1 inhibitors (blocking the enzyme that creates cortisol from inactive cortisone in a cell) should be pursued.(25)

Though we definitely need some cortisol, today's lifestyles often lead to chronic total-body excess. Stress, over-dependence of java, and sleep debt do add up. Coffee presents a real conundrum because it maintains wakefulness. But we must ask ourselves, "at what cost?" As Lee Haney once said in simple but true language, "Stimulants are borrowed energy; it's not real and has to be repaid."

Amen, Lee. If used as a crutch, conventional stimulants like coffee contribute to later bedtimes and can jack up cortisol, adrenaline, and inflammatory markers, including IL-6, in undesirable ways.(9, 23, 26) When added to T and LH suppression in training individuals, (12) we see the consequences of sleep deprivation (poor T: cortisol ratio, also known as anabolic:catabolic ratio) could be serious.

And I won't even get into the fact that leptin secretion (our friend in fat loss) is normally increased at night and decreases during extended sleep deprivation.(14)

Deprivation and Dieting

When we think of dieting, we generally think of calorie (kcal) restriction, not sleep restriction. And yet as thyroid (T3) and leptin concentrations naturally fall with "dieting," decreasing our physical activity, maybe we had better think more about sleep restriction.

A study in adolescents not only showed an 80% rise in the odds of obesity for each hour of sleep lost each night, but also a 3% drop in daytime physical activity for each hour of sleep disturbance.(7) Can you afford to be sluggish or less active during the day when you're attempting a "cutting phase"?

I've ranted before about keeping up non-exercise physical activity (NEPA) with the help of a pedometer as a means of preventing downward compensation for gym efforts as a diet progresses. Now I'm seeing that getting total sleep up to the nine or 10 hour mark for a few nights (or at least getting a daily nap) may really help us do the same thing!

It's been shown that hard training athletes (not unlike those who are doing extra cardio with their usual lifting) have sleep disturbances in part related to higher nighttime epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine concentrations.(10) Similarly, a doubling of training load has been reported to induce insomnia and depression as part of the overtraining syndrome.(20) So those of you who are ramping up training efforts may want to get more total hours on the pillow to compensate.

Insomnia vs. Intensity

But what about in-the-gym types of performance? I found one study done with sleep-deprived young healthy male soldiers that, although questionable on some measures, revealed a 7% reduction in upper body power.(8)

Time to exhaustion is reduced in extreme sleep deprivation (30-72 hours), too, apparently related to the glucose intolerance.(21) The temptation for lifters in this scenario might be to caffeinate with a double espresso before lifting, in order to compensate, but that's both temporary and contributory to further sleep loss! I've said it before: another blast of "lighter fluid" won't cut it for long when what you really need is another "big nine-hour log" on the fire!"

So let's see... activity-wise we have less NEPA outside of the gym and less muscular power while in the gym. Yeah, I'd say these are pretty good additional reasons to get your Zs. So, toward these ends, I have a few tricks from my travels that perhaps I should share.

My Fellow Insomniacs

Although I'm not literally referring to diagnosed sleep disorders in this article, let's explore a few ways we sleep-deprived T-citizens might improve our hormonal state, carb metabolism, and very possibly ourr physiques as they relate to sleep. These tips may be especially helpful to men, who appear to get less sleep.(24)

My best advice would be to simply Google something like "sleep deprivation society" but for now, here's a collection of published facts and personal experience...

  1. Get in a 9-12 hour night at least once or twice weekly.
  2. Take a full 100-minute nap or minimally a 20 minute power nap to compensate for unavoidable nighttime losses during the week.
  3. Meditate for 20 minutes during the day; winding down with breathing techniques and progressive relaxation before bedtime is especially helpful.
  4. Turn off the bloody television by 9:00 PM!
  5. Limit casual coffee drinking to half-caf or decaf. If training in the evening, rely more heavily on music and replace full-strength joe or stimulants in your pre-workout ritual with another cup of half-caf or green tea.
  6. Get into a bedtime routine, just as you probably have developed a pre-workout routine. Take a hot shower, try 30 minutes of reading something that's not too engrossing, pop-in a movie you've seen many times... you get the idea. You might be surprised how a small series of behaviors, done every night, readies your mind for sleep.
  7. Sip a hot decaf or herb tea, with artificial sweetener if you wish,(19) or have a small snack like natural PB on light whole wheat toast with a glass of Carb Countdown-type milk. Don't be tempted by late evening carb binges to induce "food coma."
  8. Try gentle white noise if you tend to silently stare at the ceiling or pop awake, eyes wide open, in the wee hours. A bedside, "nature sounds" audio device or water trickling fountain may help. I'm a bit of a fan addict, myself; it lulls me to sleep and drowns-out nighttime noises that may otherwise wake me up.
  9. If you do wake up incurably at like 2:00 AM, try 30 minutes of breathing meditation or light reading or web surfing rather than lying there irritated. Just don't get too engrossed.
  10. As a last resort, I have rarely taken one of those anti-histamine sleep aids (contraindicated if stimulants are causing the insomnia!) but only to re-establish an earlier bed time. I can't recommend readers do this but they do have their place for some of us.

Sleep Summary

As researchers have noted regarding sleep debt: "these alterations are qualitatively and quantitatively similar to those observed during aging and sometimes during depression." Clearly, this is unacceptable to a T-Man.

Even though some studies use total sleep deprivation to study adverse effects, others look at more practical causes ("categorical variables" or "independent variables"), such as accumulated time of sleep disturbance or a four-hour nightly sleep limit over a few nights. In these ways they can see how healthy people respond. I just thought I'd add that qualifier. We need to keep things real, eh?

So in the name of recovery and physique, do yourself a favor and stack yet another card onto your deck of bodybuilding success possibilities. With so many people asking me for reasons behind their seemingly unexplainable progress staleness, I encourage you to think holistically. In the biological messiness of human existence, there are indeed contributors to everything you might experience. And sleep is one that is often overlooked.

Good night, all.

References and Further Reading:

  1. Aikens, J. et al. Psychological predictors of glycemic change with relaxation training in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Psychother Psychosom. 1997;66(6):302-6.
  2. Andrews, R., et al. Abnormal cortisol metabolism and tissue sensitivity to cortisol in patients with glucose intolerance. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Dec;87(12):5587-93.
  3. DelAguila, L., et al Muscle damage impairs insulin stimulation of IRS-1, PI 3-kinase, and Akt-kinase in human skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2000 Jul;279(1):E206-12.
  4. Epel, E., et al. Are stress eaters at risk for the metabolic syndrome? Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1032:208-10.
  5. Gluck, M., et al. Cortisol stress response is positively correlated with central obesity in obese women with binge eating disorder (BED) before and after cognitive-behavioral treatment. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1032:202-7.
  6. Goth, M., et al. Correlations between the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis and the metabolic syndrome. Orv Hetil. 2005 Jan 9;146(2):51-5.
  7. Gupta, N., et al. Is obesity associated with poor sleep quality in adolescents? Am J Human Biol. 2002; 14(6):762-768.
  8. Legg, S and Patton, J. Effects of sustained work and partial sleep deprivation on muscular strength and endurance. Eur J Occup Physiol. 1987; 56(1): 64-68.
  9. Lovallo, W., et al. Stress-like adrenocorticotropin responses to caffeine in young healthy men. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1996 Nov;55(3):365-9.
  10. Netzer, N., et al. REM sleep and catecholamine excretion: a study in elite athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2001; 84(6): 521-526.
  11. Pawlow, L. and Jones, The impact of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation on salivary cortisol. G. Biol Psychol. 2002;60(1):1-16.
  12. Remes, K., et al. Effect of physical exercise and sleep deprivation on plasma androgen levels: modifying effect of physical fitness. In J Sports Med. 1985; 6(3): 131-135.
  13. Rosmond, R. Roles of stress in the pathogenesis of the metabolic syndrome. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005; 30(1): 1-10.
  14. Saaresranta, T. and Polo, O. Does leptin link sleep loss and breathing disturbances with major public diseases? Ann Med. 2004; 36(3): 172-183.
  15. Salehi, M., et al. Obesity and cortisol status. Horm Metab Res. 2005 Apr;37(4):193-7.
  16. Sheen, A. Clinical study of the month. Does chronic sleep deprivation predispose to metabolic syndrome? Rev Med Liege. 1999; 54(11): 898-900.
  17. Spiegel, K., et al. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet. 1999; 354(9188): 1435-9.
  18. Spiegel, K., et al. Impact of sleep debt on physiological rhythms. Rev Neurol. 2003; 159(11 Suppl): 6S11-20. 
  19. Suchecki, D., et al. Palatable solutions during paradoxical sleep deprivation: reduction in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity and lack of effect on energy balance. J Neuroendocrinol. 2003; 15(9):815-821.
  20. Uusitalo, A., et al. Abnormal serotonin reuptake in an overtrained, insomnic and depressed team athlete. In J Sports Med. 2004; 25(2): 150-153.
  21. VanHelder, T and Radomski, M. Sleep deprivation and the effect on exercise performance. Sports Med. 1989; 7(4): 235-247.
  22. VanHelder, T., et al. Effects of sleep deprivation and exercise on glucose tolerance. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1993; 64(6): 487-492.
  23. Vgontzas, A., et al. IL-6 and its circadian secretion in humans. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2005; 12(3):  131-140.
  24. Vorona, R., et al. Overweight and obese patients in a primary care population report less sleep than patients with a normal body mass index. Arch Intern Med. 2005; 165(1): 25-30.
  25. Walker, B. Activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in obesity: cause or consequence? Growth Horm IGF Res. 2001 Jun;11 Suppl A:S91-5
  26. Zampelas, A., et al. Associations between coffee consumption and inflammatory markers in healthy persons: the ATTICA study.Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 80(4): 862.