Sleep: the Ultimate Recovery Tool
Good sleep is a crucial part of health, we can all agree: quality sleep contributes to health, and poor sleep can negatively impact it. Yet it's still one of the more undervalued lifestyle behaviors, with many of us preferring to spend time and effort perfecting our diet or workout routines rather than address sleep issues. Sleep can feel like a passive health tool compared to the seemingly more “active” behaviors of eating or exercise — but like the adage, “you can't out-exercise a bad diet,” for many of us, you can't out-eat or out-exercise poor sleep. So, taking a more active approach to optimizing our sleep routine can serve us in many ways, by improving mental and physical function and performance, assisting with things like training and injury recovery and fat loss, optimizing hormonal health, and basically improving every factor of wellness across the board.
While the amount of sleep one needs will vary, the average person requires about 7-8 hours of sleep per night to function their best, and research has proven that a consistent schedule of sleeping and wake times when possible is ideal. But how do we accomplish that? First, let's talk about what happens when you sleep and the negative impacts when you don't, and then we'll dive into the ways you can support a restful, restorative sleep every night.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep is a time of rebuilding. While it seems like a lot of our bodies' systems shut down during sleep, some systems remain active, and hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone get to work with repairs. Sleep is required to stimulate regeneration and growth, both physical and hormonal. The most significant growth hormone secretion happens during the first few hours of sleep, as cortisol drops and melatonin secretion spikes.
There are four stages of sleep that we all cycle through repeatedly each night: awake time, light, deep, and REM (rapid eye movement). It is during the deep sleep period that muscle growth and repair occurs, blood flow increases to muscles, growth hormone is released, and tissue and cellular repair takes place.
Here's what happens when we lack restorative sleep: recovery takes longer, we have a higher risk of injury, energy is lower, and mood and cognition both take a dive (as anyone who's gone a few nights with little sleep can attest). Lack of sleep also down-regulates the satiety hormone leptin, up-regulates the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and increases hunger. Studies show you're more likely to overeat and to make poor food choices after a bad night's sleep.
In our modern culture that prizes working more and resting less, it can be hard to prioritize sleep over things like exercise. But if you are getting up early (against your body's natural inclination) or staying up late to work out, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your progress, as a lack of sleep can hinder the very things you're looking to improve through exercise, like muscle growth, better energy, and fat loss.
So how do we improve our sleep? Try working on your sleep hygiene: this refers to the behaviors and environment you create to support an optimal sleep. Many of us, in our increasingly digital and tuned-in culture that seems set up specifically to keep us awake, could do lots to improve our sleep environment.
Sleep hygiene includes your night time routine, so consider trying these tips:
- Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Studies show that a cooler room (between 60-67°F) makes for better sleep.
- You may want to experiment with sleep aids like ear plugs, eye masks, or calming essential oils to help create a sleep-promoting environment.
- Remove electronic devices or screens from your sleeping area and bedtime ritual, as the blue light from these screens mimics sunlight, which tricks your circadian rhythm into thinking it's day time.
- Consider putting together a calming night time ritual that works for you, involving things like reading or journaling, prepping clothes for the following day, candle light, or a warm bath. The idea is to create a peaceful environment and consistent nightly behaviors that contribute to better sleep.
Your day time habits are part of your sleep hygiene, too, so to encourage better rest try the following:
- Get outdoor sun exposure to support your natural circadian rhythm.
- Enjoy daily physical activity.
- Stick to routine wake-up and sleep times.
- Avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon.
- Avoid strenuous exercise, alcohol, or heavy meals within a few hours before bed.
Rather than looking at this like yet another task to add to your endless to-do list, we can think about our sleep routine as a treat, a self-care practice that we get to create and enjoy every night. Depending on our work schedules, childcare, or other responsibilities, we may have more or less time and control over our sleep hygiene, but there are always choices we can make that can either contribute to — or take away from — a good night's sleep.
We hope we've convinced you that in addition to a great strength training practice and nutrient dense foods, prioritizing sleep can dramatically improve your health and life. Are there any sleep hygiene tips we missed? Let us know!
Role of sleep duration in the regulation of glucose metabolism and appetite
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker