Sleep - The Overlooked Factor


Sleep - The Overlooked Factor

One of the biggest causes of change to western lifestyles was the advent of electricity. A great liberating force that meant mankind was no longer restricted by daylight; electricity enables us to have light at the flick of a switch any time of the day. This has meant that far from rising with the dawn and retiring to our beds when the sun sets, we now have much greater control over what and when we go out, eat, train, relax and work. It is instructive that if you ever go to a developing country that most of the population outside of cities tends to go to bed around 9 or 10pm at the latest and rises early, a time when some people in the west are probably enjoying a post dinner coffee and planning to stay awake for a good couple of hours still.

In the work environment you will find stories of people at the top sleeping for a lot less than the traditional eight hours a night, with it seeming that the greater the pressure and workload the more sleep is sacrificed. Margaret Thatcher was famous for claiming to sleep only four hours a night and this type of behaviour is relatively common I find in the corporate world also. Whenever I ask a friend of mine who works in a top job at Microsoft he always tells me he feels fine or 5 or 6 hours a night, that his performance is unaffected and that sleeping more is for wimps. Within our field I remember being told by the famous strength writer, scientist and all round guru, Mel Siff that he used to sleep for just a few hours a night and this guy is arguably the most intelligent person I have spoken to in the field of training and nutrition. In bodybuilding, I see people train and plan diets meticulously, yet being extremists when they are not training many bodybuilders love to enjoy their nights out and I know of many who think nothing of staying up until the early hours of the morning or later when they hit the clubs. They always say that they eat properly and take meal replacements and protein bars with them and they progress just fine in the gym. The unfortunate truth is that a huge number of bodybuilders fail to realise to important relationship between sleep and bodybuilding. In light of all this, is there any truth to the famous dictum to sleep eight hours a night or will your body, like it does with so much else, adapt to whatever sleep plan you impose on it? As most people are aware sleep is associated with an increase in growth hormone, which is instrumental in the process of fat loss and muscle building. However, growth hormone is by far the only hormones which sleep impacts upon. Lack of sleep is associated with rises in the stress hormone cortisol [1] which is particularly significant for dieters wanting a lean midsection as high cortisol levels are associated with greater storage of abdominal fat [2]. As if that wasn't bad enough, not sleeping enough is also linked to greater appetite, in particular for high carbohydrate foods.[3] This may explain why not sleeping enough can be a contributing factor in causing insulin resistance which is a condition where the body does not efficiently dispose of glucose in the blood leading to a need for more insulin to be produced by the pancreas. Over time, this makes your body less efficient at handling glucose dispersal which can, over the long term, lead to type 2 diabetes. Furthermore the body's key hormone, leptin is reduced in the presence of reduced sleep. As leptin is a key signaling hormone that also influences other hormones including, but not limited to, testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1, it is obvious that lowered leptin levels is something we wish to avoid. The same study showed elevated Ghrelin which is a hormone that drives hunger. If you ever notice you eat more when you sleep less, this is likely to be playing a role.[4] An interesting recent study [5] conducted at Stanford University looked at the effects of sleep on competitive basketball players which makes for fascinating reading as this group are used to training of all types as well as engage in a sport where there is a large degree of skill involved. This study measured sleep during a baseline period of two weeks to give the researchers something to compare against. They then asked eleven members of the basketball team to extend their sleep duration to ten hours a night for a five to seven week period, which is at least two hours more than most sleep experts would say is needed. Their performance on sprints and shooting accuracy were then measured. Sprint times increased by five percent in the group sleeping for ten hours per night while shooting accuracy increased by over nine percent. This study is the only one we have on measuring the effects of extending our sleep and the transferability to weight training is a theoretical assumption at this point but a similar improvement in the gym would represent a significant boost in strength. Those benching 100kg could assume to add 5kg based on the improvement in sprint times while those who engage in regular sports would stand to gain even greater benefit.


With so much time and attention spent on training, nutrition, and supplements it is important we maximise our recovery and aim to adopt lifestyle changes that enables us to improve in the gym faster than ever. Research shows that lack of sleep can cause an increase in body fat, appetite, reduced insulin sensitivity and elevated levels of stress hormones. With such a clear relationship existing between bodybuilding and sleep, by ensuring we sleep at least eight hours a night of uninterrupted sleep we can enhance our training goals and body composition whilst also improving our mood. The potential for further improvements with up to ten hours of sleep a night makes it important that we switch off in the evening and aim to reduce our usage of stimulants at night time. By incorporating good sleep habits, based around regular sleep times we can condition ourselves to sleep longer and hope to optimise our performance and wellbeing.  

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1. Leproult, Rachel; Copinschi, Georges; Buxton, Orfeu; Van Cauter, Eve; Sleep Loss Results In An Elevation Of Cortisol Levels The Next Evening. Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine, Vol 20(10), Oct 1997, 865-870.

2. Kazuo Chin, MD, PhD; Kouichi Shimizu, MD; Takaya Nakamura, MD; Noboru Narai, RT; Hiroaki Masuzaki, MD, PhD; Yoshihiro Ogawa, MD, PhD; Michiaki Mishima, MD, PhD; Takashi Nakamura, MD, PhD; Kazuwa Nakao, MD, PhD; Motoharu Ohi, MD, PhD; Effects of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome on serum aminotransferase levels in obese patients. The American Journal of Medicine, Volume 114, Issue 5 , Pages 370-376, 1 April 2003

3. Bhanot JL, Chhina GS, Singh B, Sachdeva U, Kumar VM; REM Sleep Deprivation and Food Intake. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1989 Jul-Sep;33(3):139-45. - Department of Human Biology, Punjabi University, Patiala.

4. K Spiegel, E Tasali, P Panev, E Van Cauter; Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine, December 7, 2004 vol. 141 no. 11 846-850

5. Cheri D. Mah, MS; Kenneth E. Mah, MD, MS; Eric J. Kezirian, MD, MPH; William C. Dement, MD, PhD (2011): The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players  

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