In the previous article we discussed the mechanisms and the impact that stress can have on your sleep. In the next couple of articles we will discuss what the key stressors in your life are and how they impacting your sleep.
- Mental & Emotional:
Mental and emotional stress is the most common stressor, so it makes sense to start here. This is a common issue when trying to get to sleep, especially if you are a ‘Worrier’ or you are a A-Type personality who is always on the go and unable to sit still. I like to call this group “tired and wired”. When they lie down at night their minds are wired with endless thoughts with an inability to shut these down (this used to be me…) making it extremely difficult to get to sleep.
But did you know, this is more than just the cognitive load keeping you awake, there is an associated hormonal response. Towards the end of our previous post we discussed the stress related increase in cortisol and how it is preventing the secretion of your sleep hormone melatonin (the inverse relationship discussed in stressed out about sleep)
Strategies to overcome emotional and mental stress:
Implement a 1 hour cut off of all technology before sleep. Instead replace the time on your mobile device with a down regulation technique. Some examples include:
- Mindfulness Practice: I use Headspace a guided practice
- Breathing Practice: My favorite downregulation technique: Breath in for 4 sec – Hold 7 sec – Exhale for 8 sec and repeat as many cycles as needed
- Mediation Practice: Find a technique that works for you
- Light exercise: Yoga / Mobility / Walking
- Exposure to Nature & Grounding: Get outside away from light where possible
- Read a book: Leasure reading, Non cognitive or stimulating
- Cold Shower the effect on decreasing body temperature increases the parasympathetic nervous system encouraging you to relax.
Sleep is the best performance hack for physical performance, so don’t compromise your sleep for training. However the timing of this training does matter.
Exercise can cause a potent circadian shift, almost to an equivalent level of bright lights.
Strategies to use exercise to encourage sleep:
Including some form of light exercise (eg. 10-45 min) prior to breakfast to really help to kick start your day. A tip is to keep it relatively short and not too intense as you may wish to avoid amplifying the natural elevation in cortisol that occurs in the morning. Something like yoga, mobility, walk, recovery session are perfect options, for an added benefit try linking this session with exposure to natural light (sun) to improve awakeness. Simply put get outside early and move. Where possible try leave your longers volume based sessions for the early afternoon. Sessions (up to 2.5 hours long) between 2:00-6:00 pm at 50-80% VO2max can drastically improve sleep. The most positive
effects have been seen within a 4-8hr window prior to bedtime. If you have a short 30 min high intensity session (85–90% of max HR to exhaustion) save this for 3-4 hrs before bed as it can actually result in better sleep, increased sleep efficiency and lower sleep latency.
Obviously lifestyle demands and work schedules don’t allow us to truly match up our training to ideal times, instead most people will squeeze in their training wherever possible. However, hopefully by arming you with this knowledge, it can help guide your training schedule to optimise your sleep quality.
- Fueling your Sleep (Nutrition & Snacking):
Increased body mass index (BMI) has been linked to short sleep duration. In one study, the researchers sought to identify why this effect of BMI and sleep occurred. The results indicated that shorter sleep duration decreased Leptin (the appetite suppressing hormone secreted by adipose/fat tissue) and increased Ghrelin (appetite stimulating hormone secreted from the stomach). These results provide evidence that sleep quality has a part to play with increased BMI. So lack of sleep can be increasing your hunger and be increasing your BMI, so your change in body weight may not be fully due to a lack of willpower but triggered by a hormonal responses.
Let’s get to know our hormonal responses:
Note: This is a little more technical for the science geeks like me, who want to understand the physiological mechanisms at play.
In the evening, leptin is released from your fat stores, well that is if your circadian rhythm is not dysregulated. This hormone is important as it controls any late night food cravings you may experience. Anything that throws your circadian rhythm off eg. exposure to blue light or an excessively big meal (spiking that insulin response) can limit your bodies ability to produce leptin. Another key hormone; adiponectin also tends to rise during this time and assists with fatty-acid metabolism and breakdown.
High levels of insulin have been shown to dampen adiponectin production. Constantly high circulating levels of insulin from a high calorie evening meal or lack of activity in the late afternoon or early evening, can suppress your night time fatty acid utilisation. Then around 10 pm a protein called agouti peaks, it appears to act in similar fashion to ghrelin and can stimulate your appetite. That is unless leptin is there to mitigate the effects and keep hunger at bay. Constant snacking from sunset to bedtime promotes an elevated blood glucose response and inturn high insulin levels which causes a subsequent suppression in leptin and inability to counteract the effects of agouti protein.
Normally at midnight, your melatonin peaks and that’s when leptin is able to enter an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, or the ‘god-father’ of the endocrine system. The hypothalamus is a key regulator of all metabolic processes and therefore has a role in weight-control or fat-loss. Leptin can interact with the hypothalamus, as a result of this interaction signals are sent from the hypothalamus to the thyroid and an increase in thyroid hormones is observed. The increase in thyroid hormone activity induces a change in your mitochondria (intracellular powerhouses) to produce heat, this is important as our body’s core temperature drops throughout the night. In a healthy individual this would mobilise and burn fat stores to maintain a set point of warmth.
Why are we fat?
You are probably starting to see the vicious cycle of poor sleep; there is fat gain and night time cravings. It all seemingly stems from hormonal responses, and once you understand these physiological mechanisms it becomes a lot easier to combat and overcome.
In this discussion gut health can not be forgotten, as obviously poor gut health can be a key contributor to stress. An, interesting fact we now know is that 90% of your feel good neurotransmitter, serotonin is produced in the gut. This is just another reason to prioritise your gut health. The Pineal Gland is located near center of the brain and is also known as the ‘third eye’ due to the organs ability to sense light. It was named due to the shape and size of the gland as it resemble a Pine Nut and secretes melatonin. However, it has now been discovered that 400 x more melatonin is produced in the gut. Even if your pineal gland is removed, your body is still able to maintain the same levels of melatonin. So it is key to ensure you have optimal gut bacterial balance and should avoid damaging your gut in any way to ensure optimal sleep.
Strategies based on the timing of eating to improve sleep quality:
When looking at the evidence, further research is required but my interpretation and what I practice personally is to ditch the carbohydrates, or at least minimise them especially your highly processed carbohydrates (i.e. your high sugar high GI foods). Shift your diet towards higher fat which will nourish and stabilise your hormones resulting in less spikes and crashes in insulin and energy which will inturn improve circadian rhythm and your sleep and help keep your cravings at bay. (for more information around high fat diet all last month was focused around this area with 8 blog posts to help you gain a greater understanding)
I need to snack options!
As mentioned we want to limit snacks especially on carbohydrates in the evening. Incidentally, if you need something there are many great options, such as coconut oil, MCT oil, nut butters, seeds and nuts. Even fructose from a source such as raw honey in moderation will not actually spike insulin significantly and would be an acceptable evening calorie source.
Hopefully loaded with new information about lifestyle stressors will allow you to become more aware of the factors in your life that will be impacting your sleep. Being able to identify what is a key stressor in your life is critical to improving sleep and will allow you to select and implement the right strategy. There will always be an individual approach and may require some trial and error until you find the strategy that works best for you.
- Develop Evening Routine that removes technology 1hr before bed that involves a downegulation technique in replacement
- Develop Morning Routine light movement 10-45min (Yoga, Mobility, walk) with sun exposure
- Schedule Longer Training Sessions (up to 2.5 hours long) between 2:00-6:00 pm at 50-80% VO2max
- No Snacking Before Bed to maintain hormone balance but if required select High Fat sources eg coconut oil, MCT oil, nut butters, raw honey, seeds and nuts
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