Updated: Aug 23
Elite and professional athletes know habits off the court (road/track/rink/field/etc…) are just as important as the actual training. This is because secondary lifestyle habits such as stretching, diet, stress and sleep can heavily influence performance outcomes.
Sleep is one habit elite athletes take very seriously; many go to sleep clinics, track sleep, have naps integrated into training schedules, and aim for 10–12 hours a day of shut eye. This attention is paid to sleep quality and quantity due to the known health, performance and body composition benefits good sleep provides and the harmful effects of poor sleep.
Being in a chronically fatigued state is known to impair skill-based tasks as well as hinder endurance activities and increase risk of illness and injury. Acute fatigue can ramp up the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol, responsible for abdominal fat storage, hinders fuel utilization and impairs appetite control. This type of tiredness is also responsible for increasing the urge to grab sugar-loaded snacks to act as a temporary energy boost.
Simple advice: Sleep more!
There are many vitamins and minerals that play a role in the quality of sleep. Tryptophan, selenium, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium and vitamin D all have been linked to promoting sleep through a variety of mechanisms including regulating hormones, increasing serotonin and melatonin production, decreasing inflammation and promoting natural circadian rhythms. The best way to improve your sleep naturally is to have a well-balanced diet with plenty of variety.
A diet that is balanced in macronutrients, includes a variety of colorful plants and isn’t overly restrictive is your best shot at eating well for sleep. Beyond that, you can up your sleep-diet game by eating a smaller dinner rich in complex carbohydrates roughly four hours prior to getting to bed.
Also try to avoid heavy food, alcohol and caffeine late in the day. Of course there are a number of factors other than diet that can have profound effects on sleep quality such as stress, comfort, temperature and light that should be addressed as part of a good sleep routine.
If you’re struggling to get the scale moving in the right direction, the solution could be spending more time between the sheets. Here is some research I found helpful: “You have to prioritize sleep,” says Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep.
Insufficient sleep is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and poor athletic performance. It can also contribute to weight gain.
Research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed 68,183 women for 16 years and found that women who slept fewer than six hours per night had a 32% higher risk of gaining significant amounts of weight — 33 pounds (or more) — than those who slept seven hours per night.
There are three main connections between sleep and weight:
1. SLEEP REGULATES HORMONES
Lack of sleep interferes with levels of the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin. Research shows that the less you sleep, the hungrier you’ll feel. One study found that those who slept 4–6 hours per night had higher body mass indexes (BMI) than those who spent 7–9 hours sleeping per night.
Your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, are also higher when you’re exhausted. Sleep deprivation is a stressed state, your body feels like it needs to hold on to more calories to survive.
While one or two sleepless nights won’t throw your hormones out of whack, regularly spending fewer than six hours per night in dreamland triggers hormonal changes that lead to weight gain.
2. SLEEP AFFECTS WILLPOWER
Exhaustion tanks your willpower.
One study found that sleeplessness impaired activity in the frontal lobe, the region responsible for decision making; the reward centers of the brain were activated following one sleepless night and participants showed strong preferences for unhealthy foods like pizza and doughnuts over fruits and vegetables.
Your judgment is impacted when you’re sleep deprived. It’s much harder to resist cravings for calorie-rich foods.
In fact, a 2016 meta-analysis noted that a lack of sleep led study participants to consume an extra 385 calories per day, which could lead to more than one pound of weight gain per week.
3. SLEEP IS A FORM OF FASTING
Research about hormones and willpower aside, there is a very practical aspect to sleep. You cannot sleep and eat at the same time. For every hour you’re sleeping, you’re not eating or snacking.
Despite the strong connections between sleeplessness and weight gain, more than 35% of adults sleep for fewer than seven hours per night and the National Sleep Foundation reports that 45% of Americans blamed poor or insufficient sleep for interfering with their daily activities.
To get a better night’s rest, I suggest shutting down electronics an hour before bed; maintaining a bedtime routine that could include a warm bath or stretching and putting on a favorite pair of pajamas; and establishing a regular sleep/wake time.
If you’re sleeping fewer than six hours per night — that’s the magic number — more than a couple of times a week, there are reasons to be concerned. Tonight is as good a night as any to prioritize getting your rest and start reversing the impact of not getting enough sleep. Your body, and your workout will thank you!