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Sleep: The Key to Gainz

By Courtney Smith posted July 27, 2016

Chattanooga Personal Training

Sleep is the third most important nutrient for human health, and a greatly under-appreciated process. You can only survive 11 days without sleep, making sleep vastly more important than food! I know 8 hours of good quality sleep is low on many peoples priority list, but it is the key to all “GAINZ” whether the goal be a flat tummy, gaining 30lbs of muscle, or hitting a 500lb deadlift. There is simply no substitute for great sleep. Your progress will be a reflection of your recovery ability, and your recovery depends on sleep.

Sleep occurs in 5 stages, each with its own level of brain activity. Stages 1 and 2 consist of light sleep. During stages 3 and 4, the brain has lowered to delta waves and this is where deep sleep happens. Stage 5 sleep is Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which is characterized by dreaming and muscular paralysis. We cycle through each of these stages in 90-minute increments, experiencing 4-6 complete cycles each night.

Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep to feel fully rested. Children, teens, athletes, and bodybuilders find they need more sleep, sometimes up to 12 hours, simply because they are dealing with more growth and recovery. Adults in the US sleep an average of 7 hours, but 33% of the population gets less than 6.5 hours per night.

Sleep deprivation negatively affects the regenerative ability of the entire body and leads to a diminished capacity to function. There are a myriad of negative health issues correlated with poor sleep, depending on the length of the sleep debt. Most of us are aware of the effects of short-term sleep deprivation, such as the emotional and cognitive impacts. A single night of poor sleep will affect memory recall, increase pain perception, cause visual impairment, and lead to poor decision-making. Someone who hasn't slept well is more likely to experience random emotional outbursts, anxiety, and irritability.

After a few nights of bad sleep, the body begins to develop more serious health issues. Coordination and strength are impaired, your oxygen intake suffers, heart rate increases, and your immune system becomes hyperactive. Chronic sleep deprivation negatively affects sugar metabolism and increases fat storage, correlating strongly with the development of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Other health disruptions include a rise in systemic inflammation, increased risk of heart disease and GI issues, reduced bone density, depression, cancer, and premature death. Missing out on deep sleep will also lead to a lowered libido due to suppression of sex hormone production.

The amount of sleep you get is important. Seven hours should be your baseline, but it's not only the amount of sleep that matters, it's the quality. If you wake up and typically feel unrested and sluggish throughout the day, you are not getting quality sleep. There are many environmental factors sabotaging your ability to get a deep, restorative sleep and feel great the following day. By implementing a few adjustments to your daily and nightly routine, you can greatly improve the ease with which you fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling refreshed.

Develop the Rhythm

Many important health functions such as detoxification, hormone production, fat loss, muscle building, and memory storage depend on a consistent sleep routine because these processes are cyclical. Your body's sleep/wake cycle is governed by the circadian rhythm. Human cells are entrained to this 24-hour cycle that allows for an 8-hour sleep period and a 16-hour wake period. This rhythm is how your body was designed to function in sync with the rising and setting of the sun. In order to develop this rhythm, you must expose your body to the correct light signals at the correct times of day.

As the sun cycle changes, our sleep needs change as well. We all find we could use an extra hour or two during winter, while many of us find it easier to skimp an hour of sleep during the bright summer. That is natural since the light signals change seasonally. Providing your body with the proper light signals is how you develop a strong circadian rhythm.

In modern society, we do not experience the natural environmental signals that keep us in sync with the rhythm of the earth. Most of us spend the majority of our time in an indoor environment that is relatively dark. And in the evenings we surround ourselves with artificial lights, stimulating technology, and work stress, all of which are counterproductive to getting good nights sleep.


To program for optimal, deep sleep, you must be aware that how you begin your day affects how you sleep that night! Start your day with a dose of sun, 15 minutes minimum. Once you've exposed yourself to the morning sun, your body begins a 16-hour countdown for bedtime. This strong light exposure resets your circadian rhythm each morning with a large amount of blue light frequencies that provide a signal to make cortisol. Cortisol is a stress-related hormone that needs to be high in the mornings to aid in wakefulness. Some people have trouble getting the ball rolling in the mornings because they are not receiving a large amount of AM cortisol. Many people turn to coffee or tea for that boost, but sun exposure is the most effective method.


Ideally, sunset is the cutoff time for all food consumption. This would maximize the functions of the master hormone, leptin, which is responsible for keeping you lean. Leptin should be released from fat cells after sunset to shut down your appetite and shift the body into fat-burning mode. Sunset time changes seasonally, but in order to maximize leptin production, the body needs at least 3 hours between the last meal and bedtime. Weight gain happens so easily when you eat late at night because it alters the timing of leptin entering the brain.

As the sun sets, the light frequency shifts towards the red end of the spectrum and contains almost no blue light frequencies before it completely sets. This is the time to make your environment dark. Light and dark exposure is the most powerful tool in your arsenal when it comes to improving your sleep. The only light that is beneficial at this time of day is natural light from a fire source which gives off mostly red light, like the setting sun. Red light stops the production of adrenaline, so the light from fires has a calming effect and has been shown to naturally lower blood pressure.

Screens on electronic devices are lit with very bright blue light that signals to your brain to wake up and make cortisol. If you are using devices with screens at night, this exposure completely scrambles your circadian rhythm, telling your brain that it is morning. So instead of having a brain that is preparing for bed, your brain is in GO MODE preparing for the rigors of the upcoming day.

Spend your evenings in an environment designed to be free from high levels of artificial light. Television, tablets, and cell phones should be avoided for at least two hours prior to bed time. Minimize your indoor lighting after sunset, as modern CFL and LED lights are high-energy, blue spectrum lights that severely limit melatonin production. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible. Cover your windows, alarm clock and remove any night-lights. Wear a sleeping mask if the room is still bright.

Melatonin is a hormone responsible for regulating many aspects of the circadian process. This hormone is produced in the pineal gland, the blood, and the eye when the sun begins to set and the environment becomes darker. The amount released is dependent on the amount of strong sunlight you were exposed to that morning. Melatonin reminds the body what time of day it is, so it can turn on the processes that will send you to sleep. If you spend your day in darkness, your body will have no way to gauge the time of day, and no reason to produce adequate melatonin.

I wouldn't suggest supplementing with oral melatonin, because melatonin is a hormone. The dose doesn't matter. Your body is meant to make it, not take it. In the short term, you may experience effects such as next day grogginess, headaches, and nausea. If you take oral melatonin regularly, you will eventually decrease your natural ability to produce it, which will destroy your body's ability to tell time. Taking melatonin alters sex hormone levels, which can lead to infertility. It has also been shown to raise cholesterol, interfere with glucose metabolism, and even cause damage to the retinal cone of the eye.

Develop a Before-Bed Ritual

Implement a routine to wind down between sunset and bedtime each night with the goal being that your head is free of stress and your body cool and supple. Spend time playing and laughing with loved ones. Make time for mindfulness, meditation, light stretching or easy yoga. Writing in a journal before bed is a great ritual to relieve your brain of stressful feelings and information that keeps your brain buzzing.

Hot baths or showers are great before bed to help lower your core body temperature, which is key to lowering cortisol and getting into the deep stages of sleep. If you opt for a bath, throw in some Epsom salts or lavender essential oil to aid in relaxation.

Sleeping Environment

While sleeping, it is imperative that the body's core temperature drops to repair the nervous and immune systems. Making sure you are cool at night will also allow your body to produce adequate melatonin, lower cortisol levels, and produce growth hormone, which helps with tissue repair, and keeps you lean and muscular. Keeping your room cool or sleeping in the nude will maximize hormone production and fat burning.

If you want the best sleep, keep electronics out of your room. Cell phones, radio, power lines, Wi-Fi, and most electronics produce a type of pollution referred to as EMFs (electromagnetic fields). Wireless devices are much more powerful and they also emit microwave radiation which oscillates at a much higher frequency. These fields destroy sleep quality by interfering with our brain wave patterns. During sleep, the brain's frequency should drop to 2 Hz or lower. The electrical current in your home may be between 50-60 Hz, and your brain will naturally entrain its frequency to the higher frequency of the environmental EMF, pulling you out of REM sleep and decreasing sleep efficiency. EMFs also disrupt melatonin production and sensitivity to melatonin, which makes recovery during sleep impossible because of an altered circadian rhythm. Put your cell phone on airplane mode if it stays in your room while you sleep.

Other considerations

To maximize melatonin production, try to accumulate at least 30 minutes of sun exposure during the day, even if it's broken up. This light exposure is key to regulating your circadian rhythm and more sunlight seems to be required as you age.

Because of its effects on cortisol and other stress hormones, it's best to avoid caffeine after 2pm. This should give your body enough time to clear the caffeine from your system so that you can properly relax before bed and reach deep levels of sleep.

Exercise improves the propensity to fall asleep, but stimulating exercise should not be performed within 3-4 hours of bedtime.

Drinking alcohol does seem to allow people to fall asleep more quickly, but it has been shown to reduce the amount of time spent in REM sleep and lengthen time spent in light sleep. Deprivation of REM sleep can cause psychological distress and aggressive behaviors and isn't any healthier than sleep-deprivation in general.

If you have trouble with racing thoughts while trying to sleep, try this breathing technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, to clear your mind and slow your heart rate:

            "Inhale through your nose for four seconds. Hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale from your mouth for eight seconds."

This is a great practice when you absolutely need to sleep, but in the long-term, it is best to identify the feelings and thoughts that are blocking you from relaxation.

Sleep is the process that fuels an energetic, alert, and happy state of wakefulness. It is a necessary part of achieving good health and reaching your physical goals. There are no short cuts to improving this process. The only way to step up your sleep game is to provide the body with the appropriate signals throughout the day, and to allow sufficient time to sleep at night.

If you want to improve your sleep, start by figuring out where you're deficient. Are you getting 7-9 hours each night? If not, why? Are you having trouble shutting off your brain? Are you breathing well? Find out what is holding you back, and address the problem.

Sleep well and prosper.