I soon developed a sleep disorder in the weeks following my father’s death. The doctor told me a stressful event can do that. I was getting medical help because all else had failed. A typical day went like this: woke up exhausted after 3-5 hours’ sleep. Cold shower to wake me up. Coffee. Travel to work, exhausted by lunch time. Starting feeling anxious mid-afternoon about whether I would sleep. Coffee in the afternoon as a pick-me-up. Gym late afternoon (to get me more tired, right?) Watching the clock after dinner the anxiousness was crippling – wondering when I’d get tired. TV, snack, bed. Eyes open, eyes open, eyes open until the whole charade started over. This went on for about a week and let’s just say my wife was ready to leave me. I’d become an angry, anxious arsehole. The Doc gave me pills – the same as Vietnam war fighter pilots used after returning to base dropping bombs thoughout the night. The only thing they did was to shrapnel my brain into tiny pieces – I felt worse: bloated, bedraggled and bone tired.
It was no wonder I was feeling this way when you look at the physiological factors at play:
I was bloated because my body was holding onto fat cells. If you’re going to be awake all night it makes sense your body will burn all its sugar (glucose) reserves first and save its best energy (fat) for the long haul.
I was wide awake because of Cortisol and Adrenaline. These hormones are released (by the Adrenal Gland on top of your kidneys) in response to stress and I was fueling them both with a constant elixir of anxiety and exercise (yes, exercise produces a stress response in the body). High cortisol and adrenoline means the journey from relaxation to sleep is nigh impossible.
I was weak due to a lack of Human Growth Hormone secretion. This quasi-magical substance released from the pituitary gland aids in the production and restoration of muscle cells. My HGH had tempered to a trickle. No wonder I felt as weak as water.
I was hungry all the time because of Leptin. Leptin is your ‘feeling full’ hormone which when secreted from our fat cells and stomach signal the brain we’re done with eating. Leptin increases during sleep, shutting off the hunger response. But if we don’t sleep the opposite happens. It’s another reason why lack of sleep makes us gain weight by wanting to eat more.
I was aging before my very eyes. This was due to my Telomeres getting shorter. Telomerers are the ‘end caps’ of your chromosomes which protect your cells and genes. They are like the plastic ends of your shoe laces – and we all know what happens when they peel off! The shorter and more damaged the telomerers, the faster your aging becomes. In fact studies show children who don’t get enough sleep age quicker than those who do.
I’m sure you can relate to my lack-of-sleep experience especially if you’ve raised children. But how do we change our mind-set about sleep so that we give it the respect it deserves:
Here’s are my observations:
1. Sleep is King. Nutrition research, even to this day, still confirmes many findings and variances in outcomes (meat is good/bad; carbs are good/bad etc). Yet even though sleep research is still in its infancy (researches only started studying sleep 50 years ago) the results are conclusive 100% of the time – and that is: you perform worse with poor sleep because of a breakdown in brain chemistry. When considering this finding it’s no wonder that sleep deprevation is a very effective interrogation technique as it breaks down people’s will (as I found out). Those who think they’re doing well on little sleep are deceiving themselves. Period. Don’t be fooled by those bragging about their sleep defience – Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is notorious for his 4 hour sojourns. Just think how better they could perform with more sleep!
2. Athletes – Forget Steroids. Sleep is the most underutilized performance tool on the planet yet it’s the first thing we compromise and the last thing we consider if we’re feeling less than optimal. Board report to finish? No problem, I’ll bang it out by 2am. Studying for that final MBA exam? Snap! I’ll get up 2 hours early to revise. Most people try to manage their sluggishness with changes to diet (the 3pm chocolate bar), stress (I need a holiday) or exercise (I’ll do extra to ‘break-through’ my plateau). However, ask people whether they’re getting enough sleep and you’ll get the same response: “I’m far too busy for that”! Either from a sports perfomance perspective or just trying to get through the day, it’s simply revolutionary how better we feel when our sleep quota is reached.
3. Sleep over forks. Without sleep your nutrient absorption and exercise benefits are almost null and void. If you think your low-fat, high carb, microbiome, green smoothie diet is getting you through the day on 5 hours sleep, think again. No super diet will work without a solid sleep platform. The same goes for exercise. No activity protocol to get stronger, faster, lighter or higher will eventuate without enough sleep. And whilst rising early to get that workout in is noble, a 4.30am crossfit workout is crazy. Without enough sleep, exercise is counterproductive. Your mantra should be: sleep over forks, and forks over feet. In other words get in your sleep and ensure your nutrition is on point before you even consider exercising for the day.
A good tip is to measure you’re resting heart rate as soon as you wake to better determine your workout readiness. I know that if mine is 10 beats above normal (68bpm) I’m better off try to get another hour under the covers.
So, how did it work out for me in the end? Ear plugs. Yep, ear plugs. Turns out I was hyper sensitive to noise and as soon as I dampened the world around me I was able to sleep thru the night without disruption.