We discussed sleep, its benefits and effects on the body, and the rhythms that get disrupted as we change sleep patterns due to non-traditional hours. This article delves deeper into the biochemistry of sleep and how we can fine-tune our bodies and activities in an attempt to optimize growth and recovery while changing the hours we sleep. At the end, I provide my thoughts that tie it all together.
What Happens To When We Sleep...
The body carries out many biochemical reactions while we sleep to induce repair and growth. Several chemicals are required for this repair work. A bodybuilder's concern is supplying adequate nutrients for muscle repair and growth. Additionally, for overall health we need to re-energize all of our body parts, revitalize our gray matter and refresh the immune system.
As discussed in the first part of this series, working non-traditional hours takes it toll on the amount of sleep that an individual gets. One of the greatest concerns with sleep loss is that it increases the secretion of cortisol. This is a precarious proposition for a bodybuilder.
Cortisol is a stress hormone, secreted by the adrenal gland. Cortisol metabolizes muscle and bone tissue, increases the appetite, decreases sensitivity to insulin and causes more fat to be stored. It is the increase in cortisol that makes you feel hungry even after eating adequately when sleep deprived.
Cortisol induces cravings are the hunger pangs felt after a marathon workout when cortisol levels increase because of the perceived stress. Is it any wonder there was a bodybuilding film called "Stay Hungry"?
Normally, cortisol levels have diurnal rhythms with the highest levels experienced in the early morning at around 6-8 am (preparing the body for the stresses of the day) and are lowest around midnight. Additionally, highly trained athletes tend to have higher cortisol levels. Changing sleeping hours has an impact on cortisol levels; however, the literature was remiss in any supporting trials and documentation.
It should seem logical that cortisol levels follow sleeping rhythms; however, non-traditional hours may not lower cortisol levels as effectively and can lead to diminished growth. Bottom line, you need adequate sleep to ensure cortisol levels remain as low as possible and supplementation may be needed if sleep deficient or under great stress.
As discussed in Part I, growth hormone (HGH) is released by the pituitary gland to the greatest extent during NREM sleep. HGH is a complex molecule composed of 191 amino acids. The hormone is released in pulses, and has a relatively short life (30 minutes) before conversion to IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1).
IGF-1 stays in the blood stream longer than HGH and is measured on some blood tests. HGH is a regulator of insulin and glucose metabolism, protein synthesis and transportation of amino acids across cell membranes, growth factors and metabolism, bone mass and fat metabolism. HGH also has profound effects on the immune system, energy levels, and sleep.
Unfortunately, as we get older we release less HGH. Coincidentally, as we age we also spend less time in NREM sleep. When sleep deprivation is added to this scenario, there is a further reduction in HGH release. This is an ugly scenario for prolonged growth and recovery. My advice is to minimize what you can control, being sleep deprived. Additionally, promote what you can influence, NREM sleep, through supplementation like ZMA, GABA or HGH (discussed later).
Testosterone is another hormone of concern. In a study of older men (over age 60), researchers found that elevated testosterone levels reduced the amount of time spent asleep. Although not directly related to athletes, this may have some impact for bodybuilders, and shift workers to an even greater extent, when following anabolic diets or taking hormones, prohormones or steroids. Sleep may not come as easy under such regimes and may lead to sleep deficits and increased cortisol levels, thus negating the positive effects of increased testosterone levels.
Digestion is another issue for discussion. Our digestive system follows circadian rhythms with a reduction in digestive enzymes during the early morning hours, 0200-0500. Bottom line - our bodies were not designed to consume meals overnight. The consequence of this reduced digestive activity is that eating patterns need to change when working the back shift.
The recommendation is that small, high protein meals be consumed during overnight shifts. Fortunately, this should be easy to follow if you are already consuming 5-6 high protein content meals a day. This will ensure adequate macro- and micro-nutrients are consumed and absorbed throughout the day for immediate use, growth and recovery.
Fat burning and weight loss should not be significantly affected by working back shifts. The calories in/calories out equation appears to stays true in shift workers and the body can adjust to changes in caloric timing and make adjustments. What must be watched is the tendency to indulge in workplace food (machine cuisine and office doughnuts) and the popular after work bar stop.
In a study on young, untrained men, researchers found that extended, moderate intensity exercise did increase sleeping heart and metabolic rates with enhanced lipid oxidation. The implications are that after training, or a hard days work, you can expect your metabolism to remain at a higher level and increased fat burning to occur. Since most shift workers opt to sleep after work, it appears that one's metabolism would stay at a higher level during the initial stages of sleep. This can be both beneficial and harmful. The benefit is greater calorie expenditure during sleep. The drawback is possible longer sleep latency and restless sleep.
Listed below are hormonal/nutritional factors that should be considered by individuals working back shifts. I broke them into three categories - Promoting Growth, Sleeping Aids and Others.
Growth Hormone - The master hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that keys cell growth, repair and maintenance. There are options to increase your levels of HGH levels through supplementation and are discussed in Bodybuilding.com - HGH Information and Product Listing! HGH FAQ!. I have not tried any HGH supplementation at this point in time, but it should be considered as you advance in age due to the natural decline in HGH levels.
Protein - Obviously, amino acid availability is key for protein synthesis and muscle growth. You will either breakdown muscle tissue from other areas of your body to repair more recently damaged muscle tissue or you can use recently ingested, circulating amino acids. Your diet should include adequate protein levels. Additionally, I prepare a protein drink before bedtime that provides both fast and slow absorbed protein. The drink is a blend of whey and casein mixes. This mix provides a release of amino acids throughout my sleep, hopefully maximizing the recovery and growth process.
Carbohydrates, Fats & Other Nutrients - These should all be included in the normal diet. The difference is that an individual working back shifts often has his meals rotated and can often miss a normal breakfast type meal due to awakening in the afternoon. What I have been trying more often is having a protein shake upon waking, regardless of the time of day.
ZMA - A relatively new supplement made of Zinc, Monomethionine Aspartate plus Magnesium Aspartate and vitamin B-6, appropriately abbreviated ZMA. The reported benefits of ZMA include falling asleep easier, sleeping more deeply, increasing testosterone production and increasing IGF-1 levels. I use and recommend ZMA use for every back shift worker since sleep deprivation is common.
Several product/supplements are available to promote sleeping. When I'm tired, I generally fall asleep rather easily. However, there are many individuals that have sleeping difficulties and the products listed below should be considered.
GABA or Gamma-aminobutyric Acid - GABA is made in the brain from glutamate and serves as a neurotransmitter inhibitor. In other words, GABA is responsible for relaxing the body after a hard day of stress. Increased GABA levels have been linked to increased IGF-1 and growth hormone production, so GABA is also considered as a promoting growth supplement. I only recently started using GABA and cannot determine benefits at this point in time.
Melatonin - Melatonin is a hormone-like compound produced in the pineal gland that helps maintain the biological clock and may have a role in controlling osteoporosis, birth control, premenstrual syndrome and the body's ability to counter stress . Melatonin affects the central nervous system by stabilizing and synchronizing brain function and chemical production. It has been effectively used to correct circadian rhythms in shift workers and other sleep disorders. Additionally, use of melatonin appears not to disrupt secretion of other pituitary/gonadal hormones during sleep . The health effects from long-term use of melatonin have not been adequately researched at this time.
Kava Kava - This is another herb (Piper Methysticum) used for anxiety, stress relief, insomnia and muscle relaxation. The American Botanical Council advises against consuming kava kava for more than four straight weeks and that individuals with liver problems, taking drugs that affect the liver or who drink alcohol regularly should not use the herb. Additionally, Health Canada issued a stop-sale order on kava after noting liver toxicity and side effects that include an itchy scaly skin condition, muscle weakness and coordination problems .
Valerian - This herbal sleep remedy has been studied and used for mild to moderate insomnia and mild anxiety. It is a relaxant and has been shown to reduce sleep latency. The literature indicates that its use appears better suited for continuous use rather than an acute sleep aid and that long-term safety studies are lacking .
The items below didn't fall into either of the previous categories but need discussion.
Modafinil - Provigil is the commercial name for this, relatively new, drug that is used to treat narcolepsy. Modafinil provides users with increased alertness by working with the sleep/wake center of the brain, although the exact pharmacological pathway of action is unknown. Additionally, other trials are underway or have concluded that examine applications by the military and shift workers (to increase use/revenue streams for the manufacturer).
Modafinil is considered a mild- to non-stimulant; however, it is on the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned substances list and several Olympic athletes have been censured for using modafinil. If the Food and Drug Administration gives their okay for use by shift workers, it will be interesting to see the fallout in the sports world.
Cortisol Blockers - There are several products on the market to block the effects of cortisol. Most utilize a fatlike substance called phosphatidylserine (PS) that is found naturally in the body. PS has been found to suppress cortisol, thus enabling greater recovery while reducing catabolic activity. The thought for the back shift worker is that it can be used in times when sleep deficiencies are expected or ongoing, thus minimizing the catabolic activity.
Stimulants and Thermogenics - A discussion of back shift work wouldn't be complete without dealing with legal stimulants and thermogenics. We live in a stimulated world nowadays and most every workplace has a coffee pot and coke machine. It is estimated that 90% of all Americans consume caffeine daily, either through coffee, chocolates, tea, etc. The trend today is to bring your Starbucks coffee to the gym with you for the little energy boost provided by caffeine.
There are many products in this category and if you are comfortable using them to boost energy/alertness, by all means do so. Personally, I don't drink coffee or tea, consume very little caffeine and never used an ECA stack. My advice is to be cognizant of the addictive nature of many of these products and use them wisely in conjunction with your diet, exercise and sleep regimes.
Putting It All Together for the Back Shift Bodybuilder
A lot of issues were covered in these two articles highlighting some of the problems and differences for bodybuilders that work back shifts. To me, sleep is the foremost issue. As discussed, this is when your body recovers and grows. However, working back shifts tends to rob you of sleep compared to dayshift workers. If you deprive yourself of sleep, your bodybuilding results go downhill rapidly because of insufficient recovery time, increased cortisol levels and lower HGH release.
My recommendation is to always strive to get adequate daily sleep. You will know when you are getting adequate sleep - an alarm clock will not be needed to awaken. When I work afternoon or midnight shifts, I generally allow myself to awaken whenever it's natural. There will always be those days when there are appointments to attend to, but hopefully they can be minimized to allow natural awakening.
I feel that napping is essential for the back shift worker. I begin to feel sleep deficit effects when I get less than 6 hours of continuos sleep. I'll try to schedule a 60-90 deep nap when this happens. This is usually difficult to accomplish when working a 12-hour shift, but an effort must be made. Also, if I know or feel like I'm sleep deprived, I'll usually spend my first off day sleeping 8-10 hours. The best advice is to stay vigilante of the sleep deprivation signs discussed in Part 1 and take action to recover.
Restoring rhythms is a vital aspect of working back shifts. If you have spent any time working back shifts, you know how important it is to get back to normal on days off. Equally important is preparing and easing into a new shift, usually accomplished by lengthening the day leading up to the new shift.
Probably the most difficult transition is the start and stop of midnight or overnight 12-hour shifts. I've have found that my energy levels are usually lower following my first overnight shift. Thus, I normally do not train the next day to allow my body to adjust to a new rhythm. The other practice I follow is to take a deep nap (roughly two hours) after my last overnight shift, get a mid-day workout, and get back to normal hours with the rest of my family that evening.
After sleep, you need to look at your training schedule. What are you most comfortable with? Since I'm over 40, I have a harder time exercising upon awakening. My body needs more time to get going, and stretching is what I'm most comfortable with upon waking up. I lost the enthusiasm for pre-dawn physical training when I left the military. My preferred workout time is after I've been awake for a while or before going to work on afternoon or midnight shift.
I generally hit the gym after work when on dayshift. That said, I think the only time I haven't been in the gym is between 3 and 4 in the morning. And, as discussed in Part I, consider the effect work will have on your workout and vice versa. I've known both cases, folks that didn't train hard because of work concerns as well as folks who say they do as little as possible at work to save themselves for the gym.
I have an Army of One mentality formed by many years in uniform, so I'm not overly concerned with not having a training partner. Being without a training partner these past 2 years has not slowed my growth. However, I've had partners in the past and would use one today to increase my safety and workout intensity if I found the right person. I wish you luck in finding a partner with the same training regime, goals and hours if you work back shifts.
As far as training regimes and splits, it really doesn't matter that significantly. However, there are some things I've learned that work well. As mentioned earlier, I like to have a no training day following my first overnight shift. Additionally, there are days when working afternoon, and occasionally midnight shift, when I'll train both before and after work.
Intensity level is usually the same and recovery is fine as long as I get a good post-workout nutrition and sleep. One training area where I lack is cardiovascular conditioning. Cardio work becomes a time-crunch issue, but I'm trying to get more cardio in as I consider competing in the near future.
An aspect of shift work that has little to do with bodybuilding and is often neglected is the social aspect of shift work. It is healthy to have a well-rounded social life, but unfortunately, both shift work and bodybuilding tend to limit social contact due to time demands and dedication. My only advise is to remember that bodybuilding is not your profession, so enjoy life and remember what your priorities are.
I mentioned several items that should be considered for supplementation. Experiment and see what works best for you when combined with a good diet.
Finally, be careful driving home after a long day at work. Worker fatigue is a growing problem and often effects shift workers. If you feel drowsy on the way home, pull over and take a catnap. Microsleep on the highway can be deadly.
I hope this short series provided some new insight into a neglected topic. As needed, I'll provide an update down the road. Thanks for reading.
Note: This is part two, click here for part one!
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- Health Canada, August 21, 2002, Advisory - Health Canada issues a stop-sales order for all products containing kava.
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