In our quest for improved health and a better body, we focus intensely on how we eat and exercise, and rightly so.
However, by neglecting to consider the impact that adequate, good quality sleep has on our health and our ability to lose weight and gain muscle, we often come up short.
Despite mounting scientific evidence regarding the importance of sleep to our overall wellbeing, most people fail to get the bare minimum amount we need each night.
One of the largest consumer sleep studies ever conducted globally reviewed data from 1.5 million nights of sleep. The research revealed that 79% of people in the U.S. sleep less than seven hours a night – the minimum recommendation.
It’s a trend that continues to grow in prominence in South Africa as well. “After I appeared on The Biggest Loser, I moved into the wellness space. Working with a broader client base helped me realise how prolific sleep deprivation is,” explains Biogen-sponsored health and wellness expert Lisa Raleigh.
“Lack of sleep is a big problem because it affects our health, our cognitive function, our performance and our ability to effectively lose weight and keep it off.”
Adequate sleep also helps to restore and regenerate the nervous and immune systems. That’s why there has never been a more important time to proactively address our sleep issues. As the world lives through a global pandemic, every extra hour of sleep can help to strengthen your immune system and can also aid your recovery from illness.
A prolific problem
Due to its prevalence, Lisa includes a comprehensive sleep assessment in every new client consultation.
“It is as important to work on your sleep as it is on diet and exercise for holistic health. That is why I want to know how well my clients sleep and determine their sleep habits.”
According to Lisa, these factors often determine the success of the diet, supplement and exercise interventions she recommends.
“Poor sleep generally means clients don’t have the motivation to exercise and they quickly lose their mojo. They also struggle to concentrate at work and their cognitive function suffers.”
Chronic sleep debt also wreaks havoc with your hormones, which has serious implications for various bodily functions, your metabolism, energy levels and, ultimately, your waistline.
“Sleep deprivation causes hormonal imbalances as the body produces excess adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol,” explains Lisa.
Cortisol is catabolic, which means it breaks down muscle and accelerates bone loss, but also increases fat storage.
Compounding the hormonal problems linked to a lack of sleep is a double-whammy of lowered leptin levels and a rise in ghrelin.
A decrease in leptin levels slows down various metabolic processes and increases hunger, which means sleep-deprived people are more likely to overeat.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago’s General Clinical Resource Center found that dieters who were sleep-deprived also produced more ghrelin, which triggers hunger and reduces energy expenditure.
“With less energy, our bodies crave sugar and processed carbs because it wants an easily accessible energy source. We also tend to rely on stimulants like caffeine to get us through the day,” continues Lisa.
This combination merely produces more adrenaline and cortisol and amplifies the hormonal imbalances, which ultimately causes weight gain and suppresses our immune system.
Sleep deprivation causes:
- Increased cortisol production: Breaks down muscle, raises inflammation and compromises the immune response.
- Decreased insulin sensitivity: Reduces muscle glycogen stores, limits muscle repair and increases fat storage.
- Decreased leptin production: Leads to cravings and overeating.
- Reduced activity levels from mental and physical exhaustion.
According to Lisa, various factors impact our ability to get a good night’s sleep. One of the most prolific problems is artificial light.
“Any form of artificial light has the potential to negatively affect your sleep. Screens emit blue light and our modern lifestyles expose us to hours of extra light long after sunset. This alters our circadian rhythm, which controls our biological clock and our sleep-wake cycle.”
Exposure to artificial light also reduces melatonin production at night, an important sleep-regulating hormone. This often results in an inability to fall asleep quickly, night-time wakefulness, or altered sleep patterns.
Insufficient exposure to natural sunlight contributes to poor sleep as well. The sun’s UV rays help to regulate our circadian rhythm. The heat it generates prompts the body to release less cortisol later in the day and boost melatonin production as daylight wanes to make us feel sleepy. By spending all day indoors, we don’t expose our skin to UV rays, thereby suppressing this process.
Routine is key
Addressing the factors that contribute to our sleep issues starts with proper sleep hygiene. And all healthy sleep habits are built on a foundation of a solid routine.
“Going to bed at the same time every night is vital,” says Lisa. “It is best to get to bed as early as possible because the hours before midnight are golden when it comes to sleep quality. Melatonin levels peak between midnight and 2 am. Deep sleep at this stage in the night will provide the greatest benefit.”
After establishing a standard bedtime, start building a routine conducive to better sleep around this schedule.
“Don’t exercise intensely within 3 hours of bedtime. Exercise raises your body temperature, which can hamper your ability to fall asleep and disrupts your sleep during the night,” Lisa explains.
“Avoid alcohol if possible and don’t eat big, carb-laden meals in the evening. Night-time feasting can make you feel alert as your gut works to digest and metabolise your meal and glucose surges through your body.”
Anyone who is sensitive to caffeine should avoid coffee and energy drinks from midday.
Lisa also recommends a wind-down routine. “Avoid blue light from screens at least 90 minutes before bed. You can also wear wraparound red lenses to filter out blue light from LEDs, indoor lights and screens. Taking a bath, meditating and reading also help to relax your body and mind. Just avoid reading anything too stimulating before bed.”
And don’t work in bed because it prevents you from turning off your mind and over-stimulates your senses. You don’t need that right before you try to fall asleep.
Become a super sleeper
- Move more. Just 30 minutes of exercise a day correlated with 14 extra minutes of sleep per night in one study.
- Increase your exposure to sunlight during the day. It will help you fall asleep quicker and improves deep sleep.
- Reduce exposure to blue light from screens at night. You will fall asleep faster and sleep deeper.
- Reduce your sugar, alcohol and caffeine intakes. This will improve sleep quality and reduces nighttime wakefulness.
Overhauling your bedroom environment is also important to support restful sleep throughout the night. The best sleep happens in total darkness, so block out any light around doors or from electronic equipment.
“Any light sends a signal to your brain that wakes you up. Place tape over any lights in your bedroom and cover the gaps in your doors to block out passage lights. Blackout curtains are also extremely beneficial to keep out external light sources,” continues Lisa.
Investing in the best equipment you can afford will also deliver better sleep returns.
“We spend 8 hours a day sleeping and only 2 hours a day in our cars. Yet people aren’t willing to spend a fraction of what they pay for their vehicle towards proper ergonomically-designed pillows and mattresses.”
A quality pillow and mattress will support your sleep position during the night and can reduce issues such as sleep apnea and poor circulation. Lisa says lying on your side in the fetal position, with a pillow between your knees is often the most comfortable position for restful sleep.
“And a good mattress with independent sections means your partner wont disturb when they move at night.”
Temperature control is the final factor to consider, says Lisa. “A cool room is best. We use an air-con to regulate our room’s temperature with a humidifier to maintain moisture in the air, but a fan blowing away from you also works. And avoid warm, heavy duvets or blankets, especially in summer.”
If you still struggle to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep, consider adding supplements to your routine.
“A natural product like Biogen Sure Sleep contains herbal ingredients such as valerian extract, passionflower and hops extract, which can help you relax and calms you by taking the edge off,” explains Lisa.
A supplement that supports natural serotonin production, like Biogen’s 5-HTP Neuro can also support better sleep quality, while also boosting mood and better managing stress.
“Other off-the-shelf supplements that may offer additional support include magnesium, calcium, CBD and GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for calming your central nervous system. We’ve also successfully used essential oils to help our daughter sleep better at night as they can open sinuses and have a calming effect,” continues Lisa.
She adds that certain herbal teas before bed can help calm your body and mind, while digestive enzymes may help your digestive system process food more efficiently before bed to ensure the process does not disrupt your sleep.
Getting back to sleep
If for whatever reason, you experience any disruption to your sleep at night, you can take steps to limit its impact on your sleep quality.
“If you wake up at night, don’t turn on any lights if possible. Get an orange torch to help you navigate through the house if necessary.”
This will help you get back to sleep sooner, which is important because losing even an hour of sleep a night will lead to sleep debt. And cumulative sleep debt negatively impacts our immune system, brain function and our basic physiology, which ultimately results in various negative effects.
“Despite common beliefs, you can’t catch up on sleep. That means sleeping in over weekends won’t have the same benefit as a week of solid sleep. While the odd late night is okay, if you establish and maintain good sleep habits, you’ll quickly recover and get back into a healthful sleep routine.”
And that is the ultimate characteristic of a super sleeper.