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The Forgotten Key To Optimal Human Performance

Do you constantly feel exhausted? And paradoxically, do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night? Do you have 10-20 extra pesky pounds that don’t seem to leave despite your best efforts? Do you frequently experience trouble concentrating or trouble remembering? Do you feel like you lack will power because you have strong cravings for unhealthy foods that you frequently give in to? Do you have mood swings that make you feel sad, down, or easily angered? Has your strength or athletic performance started to diminish? Are you suffering from chronic pain?

These symptoms above may sound completely unrelated, but believe it or not they all are impacted by your SLEEP! Sleep deprivation can make you feel “tired and wired”. You walk around exhausted all day long, and then when night comes you can’t fall asleep. This is because your circadian rhythm is out of whack. Ideally when you wake up in the morning your body should be flooded with wakeful hormones that make you alert and energized throughout the day. As the nighttime approaches, these hormones should decrease in order to make room for an increase in the restful hormones that make you tired and sleep soundly. When you’re in a “tired and wired” state these hormone cycles are reversed, so your restful hormones are released during the day and your wakeful hormones are released at night.

Sleep deprivation is perceived by your brain as a major stressor, causing your body to be in a chronic state of stress. This sleep deprived, stressed out state makes you look, feel, and perform ~30% older than you actually are. Your body stores fat more readily and gets rid of muscle in order to conserve some of the energy it’s lacking. This contributes to excessive weight gain, a decrease in strength, and a decrease in speed, all of which can hinder your athletic performance. Also, your hormonal balance is thrown off in a way that causes you to crave unhealthy foods and constantly feel hungry. This makes poor food choices and overeating hard to resist. Furthermore, sleep deprivation increases inflammation in your body, causing you to be more sensitive to pain and more likely to develop chronic diseases down the road.

Sleep is an active process. You are not just “passed out” while you’re sleeping. You cycle through different phases of sleep, each of which serves an important purpose. When you shorten the amount of sleep you get, you typically shorten the REM and Deep Sleep cycles. These cycles are where recovery from stress and activity occurs, muscle is built, long term memory is created, new skills are saved, and the good-mood neurotransmitters are produced. It’s not surprising that sleep deprivation leaves us with a worse memory, slower mental processing, trouble focusing, a bad mood, and irritability. We have not allowed sleep to do its job of optimizing our mental and physical performance.

Sleep is one of the most under-appreciated healthy behaviors around. In a culture that values achievement and busy-ness above all else, it is not uncommon to hear phrases like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “Sleep is for the weak”. I couldn’t disagree more. Not to be too harsh, but SLEEP DEPRIVATION will make you weak and will expatiate that impending death. Prioritizing quality sleep may in fact be the most important healthy behavior you can participate in. You can have a perfect workout program and a perfect nutrition plan, but inadequate sleep will seriously hinder your progress, making your best efforts feel obsolete.

Here are some tips for routinely getting better sleep:

  • Sleep AT LEAST 7 hours a night

  • 8-9 hours is even better

  • Have a relaxing sleep ritual every night

  • This signals to your body that it’s time to go to sleep

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time daily

  • This helps normalize your circadian rhythm so your body knows when it is time to be awake and when it is time to go to sleep

  • Shut down electronics 1 hour before bed

  • The blue light from your screens is the same light frequency that comes from the sun and causes your body to release the wakeful daytime hormones

  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible

  • Cover lights in room, turn off TV, get curtains that block streetlights outside. The darkness of night signals your body to release the restful nighttime hormones

  • Stop consuming stimulants (caffeine) 8 hours before bed

  • Caffeine has the half-life of 8 hours in the average person. This means if you have 100mg of caffeine at noon, 50mg are still in your system at 8pm. When caffeine is in your system, it interferes with the work of the restful hormones and neurotransmitters and inhibits you from getting a fully restful night of sleep.

  • Get sunlight and movement during the earlier part of the day

  • In the same way a relaxing nighttime routine signals to your body that its time to go to sleep, sunlight and movement in the morning signal to your body that its time to wake up. This doesn’t have to be an intense workout or hours in the sun. 15 minutes of sunlight and some light movement / mobility work are a great day to start the day. A 15-minute walk can kill two birds with one stone!

I challenge you to change your health paradigm! If you’re trying to lose weight, get out of chronic pain, or optimize your performance, your FIRST priority should be optimizing your sleep. Nutrition and exercise are absolutely important. But it’s a lot easier to eat the right foods and exercise the right amount when you have the energy and mental clarity to do so!

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