For something we all engage in every day, sleep is an over-discussed and misunderstood topic. Every mammal, including humans, needs sleep. Sleep seems to be a critical period for a number of different biological processes, and as activity increases, so does the body’s need for sleep. Sleep is one of the pillars of any good training regimen, so understanding sleep better will benefit any athlete.
Driven by circadian rhythms in the brain, human sleep is broken up into different phases, divided into REM and non-REM sleep. The first two phases, stage 1 nREM and stage 2 nREM, are known as light sleep, when you are still easy to rouse. The third phase, stage 3 nREM, is known as deep sleep. Just as it sounds, this is when your body is deeply relaxed and you are difficult to awaken. Stage 3 nREM sleep is responsible for that refreshing feeling after a good night’s rest. Finally, your sleep enters periods of REM (rapid eye movement). In REM sleep, your brain waves imitate those of wakeful states, and perhaps consequentially, most of your dreaming occurs here. REM sleep seems to be pivotal for consolidating memories and learned skills(1).
The benefits of sleep are numerous, particularly for athletic training. Additionally, the cognitive benefits are clear. After a good rest, mental clarity and perceived energy increase. Further, good sleep improves the ability to develop and retain memories, and retain new skills. During sleep cycles, the hippocampus utilizes second-messenger pathways within its cells to promote neuronal memory retention.
Sleep quality is nearly as important as sleep duration. Research has shown that disruptions to REM sleep without a loss of overall sleep time still decreases plasticity in the hippocampus and, subsequently, memory consolidation(2). Sleep loss impacts much more than memory. Sleep-deprived research participants see decreases in reaction time, logical reasoning, and alertness(3). Studies have shown that short term sleep deprivation can reduce muscle protein synthesis, and impact the relationship between insulin and glucose metabolism. A recent study even began to see a relationship between sleep deprivation and decreasing testosterone levels, although that didn’t prove to be statistically significant(4). All of these factors are key to recovering from bouts of exercise and preparing for the next training session.
Thankfully, harnessing the power of restorative sleep isn’t too difficult. The cellular and hormonal circadian rhythms in the body prepare the body for sleep, and there are steps that can be taken to help that process lead to good sleep. This is known as “sleep hygiene.” Many people think of “unwinding” before bedtime, and this is an important step. It’s difficult to fall asleep while the brain and body are still primed from the stress of a normal day. Any relaxing activities can help, like reading or light stretching. Studies have also found improvements in a range of sleep parameters as a result of a meditation practice prior to sleeping(5). Taking 10-20 minutes to calm your mind and body can drastically ease your transition to sleep.
While you are taking your time to relax before bed, there are a number of supplements that can give your sleep a boost as well. Earth Fed Muscle Forty Winkz ZMA is a zinc and magnesium formula for regulating sleep. Magnesium has been shown to manage intracellular circadian rhythms, as well as improving insomnia symptoms in older adults(6). Similarly, zinc has been implicated in improving parameters like time to sleep onset and sleep efficiency, and may play a role in the hippocampus’ ability to encode new memories during sleep(7). Recent research also points to the amino acid L-Theanine for easing stress and anxiety. Studies have found L-theanine can lower subjective measures of stress as well as decrease the release of cortisol following a stressor task(8). Zen Remedy is EFM’s single ingredient L-Theanine supplement.
A long-term study of sleep quality assessed CBD actions using a common self-report instrument found a modest improvement in sleep, and more patients with improved sleep compared to poorer sleep(10). Earth Fed Balance is the place to go for organic, full spectrum CBD oil.
The new Sleep adaptogen blend from Respect des Fonds combines zinc, magnesium, and L-theanine with relaxing plant-based ingredients like chamomile and ashwagandha extract. Chamomile is a popular soothing herb, frequently consumed in tea. Ashwagandha is a primary medicinal plant in Ayurvedic tradition, which has been shown to positively impact stress and sleep. A 2019 study in healthy adults found ashwagandha supplementation significantly improved scores on a self-reported stress assessment, as well as improving sleep quality measures(9).
Get enough sleep and get better sleep. Your brain and body need sleep to help you operate at maximum capacity every day, and recover from the previous day’s work. Despite all of the focus put on lifting weights and sport-specific training, none of the skills or strength can be properly imprinted without good sleep. There are a number of strategies that can be used to ensure better sleep. Avoiding arousing activities before sleep, which allows your body and mind to settle down and prepare to rest. Consistently utilizing non-habit forming supplements to boost your body’s ability to promote sleep. You can tailor these recommendations to your specific needs, as long as the fundamentals are correct.
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