Of all the determinants needed for bodybuilding success, sleep would be one of the more underrated. A night of quality sleep is an absolutely essential requirement for the normal functioning for all bodily systems, and this includes the muscles and their ability to recover.
Achieving adequate nutrition, and training with great intensity are areas bodybuilders typically excel in as, in many cases, they are given explicit instructions on how to master each in the many bodybuilding magazines and books on the market.
How to achieve, and the importance of, adequate sleep, are usually only briefly touched on, which is a shame because this is the very process that allows nutrition and training to do their respective jobs.
It is during the sleep cycle, which encompasses four distinct stages (one through to four or light sleep through to deep sleep) and two states (non-rapid eye movement (REM), stage one to two, and rapid eye movement sleep) that protein synthesis occurs, growth hormone is released and our mental and physical resources are rejuvenated. Failure to achieve optimal sleep means compromising any or all of these important processes.
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Each sleep cycle is important for bodybuilders and the general population because all of the stages and states that accompany each cycle have a specific role to play in the growth and repair of all of the cells of the body. In fact, sleep is crucial for survival as demonstrated in rat studies (the normal life span for rats is three years but those deprived of sleep typically live for only three weeks).
In humans, metabolic activity in the brain is down regulated after sustained wakefulness and the immune system is severely compromised. Sleep also helps restore mental ability while encouraging optimal social and emotional functioning.
As mentioned, sleep involves four distinct stages and two states. During non REM sleep the brain gradually becomes less active to where, in stage four, we experience our deepest sleep, which, along with stage three (featuring fewer delta, or very slow, brain waves compared to stage four) represents up to 20 percent of total sleep time.
During deep sleep all muscle and eye movement ceases. It is also during these stages that waking is hardest, signifying the fact that it is a most important restorative part of the sleep cycle.
Click Image To Enlarge.
Sleep Restores Mental Ability While Encouraging
Optimal Social & Emotional Functioning.
Therefore entering into the preceding two stages of non REM sleep (stage one: light sleep or the transition between wakefulness and sleep, which represents five to ten percent of total sleep time and stage two: 40 to 50 percent of total where brain wave begin to slow down and there are occasional bursts of rapid waves) uninterrupted is vital for the achievement full physical and mental recovery.
REM sleep directly follows non REM sleep and accounts for 20 to 25 percent of total sleep time. This state occurs every 90 minutes during a normal eight to nine hour sleep period.
Brain activity is most active during REM sleep (it is a time when we are likely to be dreaming), and brain metabolism may increase by up to 20 percent. Heart rate and blood pressure increases and the eyes shudder quickly back and forth (hence the rapid eye movement description) during this state.
It is also thought that memory consolidation occurs during REM sleep. Studies have shown that when a subject is selectively deprived of REM sleep they have greater trouble remembering complex material (1) lending credence to REM's ability to strengthen our neural capabilities (specifically the neurons of the hippocampus, which is primarily involved in learning and memory).
Optimal sleep time differs from person to person but it is generally agreed that between seven to nine hours is best for full mental and physical restoration.
Often a person will need more sleep over a certain period if they have been deprived of sleep for several nights, generating a so called sleep debt. If one does not compensate for a sleep debt (generally three or four nights of less than optimal sleep) they can usually expect some degree of mental and/or physical impairment (reaction time and judgment are usually the first abilities to be compromised).
Another important sleep consideration is the concept of a circadian rhythm, which is an essentially a biological variation that occurs every 24 hours. These can take various forms, but the sleep circadian rhythm that dictates our sleep cycle is the most important.
The circadian rhythms are controlled by a biological clock that governs all bodily processes. The hypothalamus is the brain structure (an endocrine gland) that controls the sleep/wake circadian rhythms and light directly affects this rhythm.
If our circadian rhythms are in any way compromised (jet lag, where the body has to adjust to a different time zone, which severally disrupts the sleep/wake cycle, for example) we will experience disorientation and lessened brain function and physical/mental recovery due to the delicate chemical imbalance.
Important chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) such as melatonin, prolactin, testosterone and growth hormone are secreted at night at specific points of the sleep/wake cycle during our circadian rhythms. If circadian rhythms are disrupted these chemicals cannot do their respective jobs, making consistent sleep patterns important. The right amount of sleep within the same time frame each and every night is ideal.
And for those unfortunate enough to experience insomnia, where sleep comes sporadically at best or not at all, at worst, the problems can be extremely detrimental to mental and physical well being.
Since emotions and general brain function are governed to a large extent through sleep, depression and psychosis can result from a sustained absence of sleep. In such cases medication or alternative strategies must be employed. Though medication is a popular strategy for insomniacs, it is not without its share of side effects. This is why many seek other methods.
Various substances can also affect the quality of sleep we get and these must be avoided in the evening/late afternoon hours if restful sleep is to occur.
The aforementioned neurotransmitters that govern sleep can be altered and changes in their balance can occur if we consume certain substances before bed. Caffeinated beverages such as coffee or the so-called energy drinks can stimulate excitatory neurotransmitters causing enhanced wakefulness.
If stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks promote wakefulness then depressants such as alcohol will have the opposite effect, right? Yes and no. Consuming alcohol before bed may promote sleepiness, but - depending on the quantity consumed - still impacts brain chemistry, causing periods of unrest during sleep and eventual wakefulness. The best advice here is to leave both alcohol and caffeine alone before bed if restful sleep is sought.
Some prescribed depression medications (the SSRI type in particular) can also cause wakefulness and even extreme-stage insomnia. Same thing applies to the nicotine found in cigarettes, a powerful, profoundly addictive stimulant.
A better alternative to stimulants and depressants before bed is a food source high in potassium (like a banana), some magnesium, zinc, all of which also have the added benefit of growth hormone production. The popular ZMA supplement is a perfect way to promote restful sleep.
Many people also report enhanced sleep after eating something high in protein, like five to six egg whites or a chicken breast. The key here is not to eat too much as this may cause over stimulation of the digestion process, resulting in wakefulness.
Mr. Ryan Swan
The best indicator of sub-optimal sleep is sleep deprivation. But how do we know if we are sleep deprived? Sleep deprivation can be best defined as a level of sleep that causes impairment of daily tasks. If you are finding decision making harder than usual and your judgment is uncharacteristically off, you may want to check how many hours of sleep you are getting per night.
While some people can manage on as few as five hours, most of us need between seven and nine to function optimally, as mentioned earlier. And it is not ideal to sacrifice sleep for two nights (on the weekend perhaps?), then try to make up for lost time over the following five days.
We do accumulate what is called sleep debt. If you consistently miss a night of sleep here and there (maybe every fifth night) then this will compound. It is best to be consistent in your sleeping habits. The occasional, very infrequent missed night of optimal sleep may not cause too much damage but it is best to err on the side of caution if you are serious about your health and fitness.
For bodybuilding and general health purposes adequate sleep is imperative, and a lack of it can halt progress in these areas. Insomnia can seriously derail one's efforts. In recent years I have spoken to many bodybuilders who have experienced erratic sleep patterns and some who have endured insomnia.
My friend Tony Catanzaro regularly battles insomnia and was happy to share his experiences with me and offer his advice to those wanting to achieve a better night of sleep. If anyone has, through necessity, tried every available sleep strategy it is Tony.
[ Q ] Hi Tony. How important is sleep for bodybuilding purposes?
[ A ] Well David, sleep is incredibly important to a bodybuilder or anyone for that matter. Without sleep your mind, body and well being will suffer and over a period of time this will cause many health problems as well as mental anguish. Also, as we all know the body releases
growth hormone when we sleep, so missing sleep will mean a lack of
Getting enough sleep depends on the person and the demands that he or she endures in their daily lives. This is why older people over 65 years of age don't need as much sleep as they are usually retired and aren't that active throughout the day.
Older people often take an afternoon nap, which will also create a need for less sleep at night. So depending upon your daily life, we all may need as much as nine hours or as little as five hours to be our best.
[ Q ] As we know, missed sleep can affect athletic and mental performance. What are some ways to ensure a good night of sleep?
[ A ] Getting to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning is crucial - this consistency keeps our "body clock" functioning correctly. The body becomes used to this pattern and stands by it to achieve balance. Just like the sun rises in the morning and then sets at night so do we. We have to have a balance in order to live in harmony.
When we travel across a time zone, our body clock doesn't understand what's happening and becomes very confused. For instance, when I visited South Africa twice this year (in 2007), I was sleeping two hours a night for the first three nights. It was so frustrating because I wouldn't fall asleep until 5:00-5:30am South Africa time, but for me it was 10:00-10:30pm New York time. So developing and sticking to a set time for going to sleep and waking up is most important.
[ Q ] I understand there are times in your life when you suffer from insomnia. How do you deal with this?
[ A ] Unfortunately I suffer from insomnia very often, which could last a night or up to a few weeks. I'm actually having problems sleeping around the time of answering these questions. My problem is that I worry about not being able to sleep, and then I cause my own insomnia! It is a very frustrating and horrible cycle. I'll worry about it and then if I don't sleep well the next night I begin to worry some more.
This all stems from my childhood. I believe I was born with a low serotonin level and I believe millions of people have the same problem and don't even know it. Serotonin is the "brain's oil": when it is low we become easily depressed and worry about things that you shouldn't worry about.
This is why your doctor will prescribe some anti-depressants (the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRI's). They work to build up the amount of serotonin in the brain so we're able to feel a sense of well being again. I personally don't believe in them, although yes they do work, but just like any other drug they are toxic to the body.
There are so many ways to naturally increase the brain's need for serotonin. For one, there's a great supplement on the market called
5-Hydroxytryptophan. This stuff is great and should definitely be taken for those of us who have problems with sleeping, anxiety and depression.
[ Q ] What can cause insomnia?
[ A ] There are many causes for developing insomnia but the most common cause is mental
stress. In my case it's worry about getting good sleep, in others it's worry about the next day's tasks, money,
relationships, marriage, and work - anything and everything a person could worry about could cause insomnia.
It's very hard to just shut it off but it's not impossible. The first step is forming an understanding that its okay and it is very common - so you are not alone.
[ Q ] What can we do to overcome insomnia?
[ A ] Well the first thing is to identify what is causing the insomnia in the first place. Then, we can begin to work on correcting what is causing it. Although there is no guarantee we will have a great night of sleep every night for the rest of our lives, we need to understand that sleep recharges our body, mind and soul.
Just like we charge our cell phone battery at night, we need to sleep in order to recharge ourselves! There are many herbs on the market today that help with anxiety and stress. My advice would be to try different things and see what works best for you. At all costs avoid alcohol before bed although yes it will help you fall asleep, you can be rest assured you will be up the second half of the night.
[ Q ] How does insomnia impact your life?
[ A ] Sleeping is a natural part of life, everything and everyone sleeps! Even sharks sleep not the same way you and I do, they kind of go into a resting period where they let the flow of water go through their gills in a very slow motion. They are moving, but its like they are in a trance.
So if you're not sleeping or not getting enough sleep you will definitely become unbalanced. When I have difficultly sleeping, it usually takes a few nights of good sleep to forget I ever had a problem. This is very normal for me because I worry about it. That's the part that does the damage. It's not the insomnia that will hurt you; it's the worrying about insomnia that does the damage.
[ Q ] How long does it usually take you to overcome the negative effects of insomnia?
[ A ] If I have a few consecutive nights of good sleep, I begin to forget about it and the insomnia goes away. You'll be amazed at how many people have difficulty sleeping. For the drug companies it's a billion dollar business. They develop medicine to get you to sleep only to cause the insomnia to return full force once you stop taking the prescribed drug. Like I always say drugs are never the solution to any problem and in my opinion, they are the cause of most problems. I have always said they are nothing but poison.
[ Q ] How many hours of sleep do you try to average each night?
[ A ] I actually need eight to nine hours a night to be at my best. I need more than the average person because I am probably 100 times more energetic and this is how I have been my whole life - I never sit down, I'm always doing something.
I hate to sit down actually, but when I have problems sleeping my energy is low and I have to sit more often and even feel the need to lie down and this makes me depressed because I know I'm not myself. But that's me, everyone is different and how much we do in our daily lives will be the deciding factor as of how much sleep we need each night.
[ Q ] It is thought that daytime napping is counterproductive to getting a good night of sleep. What are your thoughts on this?
[ A ] Well, that all depends on how long you are napping and if, during this time, you are actually sleeping or not. I find that if one is having difficulty sleeping they should definitely try to keep themselves up all day because taking a nap during the day would only be habit forming.
Under normal circumstances I think it's good to nap for an hour during the day. Remember babies need their nap during the day. This helps with growth and well being. So yes, definitely take no longer than a one-hour nap during the day if it's possible but only if you have no difficulty sleeping at night.
[ Q ] You say give yourself time to relax and to not push as hard prior to bed. What are some ways to achieve a relaxed state in the hours prior to sleeping?
[ A ] They say laughter is the best medicine. Well who ever said that had to be one of the smartest people in the world because nothing, and I mean nothing, is more beneficial to the mind body and soul than laughter. I try watching funny shows or think of funny moments to try to get my mind off worrying. Remember, it's impossible to worry if you're laughing!
[ Q ] There is also a belief that exercising within four hours of bed is also counterproductive as it may increase adrenaline and keep you stimulated when you are seeking a restful state. What are your thoughts on exercise in the hours before sleep? Does this belief apply to you personally?
[ A ] This doesn't apply to me because I always train in the early part of the day usually between the hours of 12:00pm and 2:00pm. The few times that I trained late in the evening, I never experienced a problem going to bed. This may not hold true for everyone - I believe that a person normally will feel sleepy 15 to 18 hours after they wake up; this is a normal part of the sleep/wake cycle and for the people that normally fall asleep at 4am are most likely getting up around noon each day. So it's not really an issue as to what time you train, it's more so what time you are waking up.
[ Q ] Is there one specific type of exercise that promotes sleep better than any other form? It is thought aerobic exercise during the day will help one fall asleep faster than will intense weight training.
[ A ] This is true although weight training is crucial; it's not as exhausting as
cardiovascular training. This is only because it takes more energy and oxygen to do cardio/aerobic training.
The body is designed to run, climb, jump, hunt, pull, push, etc. It wasn't designed to just sit at a desk for 10 hours a day or longer. I found that cardio is a great way to promote better sleep. The bottom line is if your body is exhausted you're going to sleep and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
[ Q ] How important is nutrition before sleeping? What do you eat before retiring for the night?
[ A ] This is funny because so many people ask me all the time: "Tony, do you eat before going to bed?" I shock them by saying, "Yes," I'll eat right up to actually going to sleep. What people don't realize is food has drug-like effects.
Without food our bodies and minds would shut down. So yes, eating plays an important role in calming the mind. I always try to eat foods high in tryptophan before bed, this help produce serotonin which produces melatonin. That's why we feel like taking a nap after a Thanksgiving meal.
Turkey has a ton of tryptophan so does milk and carbs. I'll usually eat a turkey sandwich on whole wheat with lettuce and tomato and a glass of milk before bed. Believe or not, dark chocolate is a good snack as well to help battle depression.
[ Q ] What is the best time to go to sleep each night?
[ A ] This may be hard to believe but I once heard from a very positive spiritual man that every hour of sleep you get before 2am is like two hours. This may explain why you feel like you slept well when you get to bed early regardless of what time you wake up. I believe this is very true.
I feel the body gets its best rest the first three hours of initially falling asleep although you get more REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep at the end of the night and before you wake up. I feel your best sleep comes before 3am. So get to bed early and make a difference in your health as well as your life!
[ Q ] Does sleep deprivation build up over time to cause what is commonly referred to as "sleep debt?" If one constantly fails to achieve an optimal degree of sleep each night, what problems could this cause ultimately?
[ A ] Well like I said before it's not the insomnia that hurts the body, it's the worry about insomnia that hurts. I'll explain: you're up every night for a week because you're on vacation and you just don't feel like going to bed. You only want to grab a few hours of sleep each night, you're having a ton of fun and you're not even tired because you're having a blast and you're pumped from all the excitement. This will not lead to sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation is not due to the lack of sleep. It's due to the higher amount of stress that is induced. For instance, there are people that sleep for seven to eight hours a night and wake up not feeling refreshed at all. This means their body and their minds are not recovering from what is most likely STRESS!
Dr. David Ryan
[ Q ] If we miss one night of sleep, but manage to sleep well on the other six nights of the week is this okay in your view? Can we compensate for one night of bad sleep by sleeping well on subsequent nights?
[ A ] You can never make up for lost sleep. It's not like if you sleep three hours one night you need to sleep 13 hours the next. If you are sleep deprived, a few nights or a week of good sleep will put you back on track! Don't stress over it. Remember, it's all about balance. Eating right, exercising and sleeping are all natural ways to stay in balance.
[ Q ] If someone is struggling to sleep each night, are sleeping pills a good option?
[ A ] Not really, although I myself have had no choice in the matter sometimes. I am totally against them and I'll explain why... they are drugs!
And just like any drug there are negative side effects. They are also very addictive and I myself have felt that I have needed them in order to sleep. This is not good, and it could simply be avoided if you refuse to take them in the first place.
The funny thing about me is I have taken a very popular one and felt totally fine the next morning. As a matter of fact, they really don't keep me asleep more than a few hours. I know I'm a big guy but it's like they have no effect on me really. Avoid them at all costs. Drugs are never the solution to any problem. Remember, they are only a temporary fix but never a solution.
[ Q ] What are some natural alternatives to sleeping pills?
[ A ] I've tried some homeopathic products and they were very inexpensive. When I first took it, I slept so well that night that it was unbelievable and even the next day I was so relaxed I couldn't get that mellow look off my face, as it felt so good. I still take it but I realize it doesn't work as well when your level of anxiety is high. In that case give yourself time to relax and don't push it.
[ Q ] If a person simply cannot sleep, is it best if they just get up and make the most of that time or do you recommend they lie in bed and try to rest as best they can?
[ A ] This is a great question and your about to hear a very interesting answer you may have never heard, but those of you who have read my articles before know that I am very in tune to how the mind, body and spirit all work together as one. Here we go:
I'm sure most of you who can't fall asleep will usually get out of bed and watch some TV, read or make a snack in order to feel sleepy. This is only useful if there is no anxiety involved.
Most people can't sleep because their mind is racing and in order to sleep they have to get their mind on something else. But getting out of bed is the worst thing you can do because the bottom line is this: if you get out of bed, you're telling yourself you shouldn't be sleeping. In time, it will become habit forming - every time you can't sleep you will leave your bed then your mind will feel that your bed is the problem.
When I can't sleep, I find the best solution is to stay in bed and let your anxiety run its course. You have to get over the anxiety in order to sleep. So getting out of bed is only running away from the problem. Stay in bed and try to relax, focus on something that makes you happy or something you find interest in. Before you know it, you will doze off.
Remember, there is no cure for insomnia. It comes from your mind and the only way to cure your insomnia is to not give it energy. Everything we do, say or believe has energy.
Stay in a positive attitude and do not give in to negative thinking or people. Like I have said over and over again, "you become what you believe". Always keep the faith and remember a good night's sleep starts by believing you already sleep like a baby and sleeping is never a problem for you!
- Smith, Carlyle. "Sleep States and Memory Process," Behavioral Brain Research, vol 69, no 1-2, p.137.