Sweet, sweet, restful sleep.
I’m talking about the kind that’s hinted at in commercials for mattresses where a person wakes up with a huge smile of pure satisfaction.
They’re usually stretching while bathed in the gentle glow of the morning sun. Not a care in the world can possibly touch them because they just had many hours of refreshing rest and they’re ready to face anything!
For those of us who are having trouble sleeping for the requisite 7 hours (which according to statistics means that around 30% of you just raised your hand), the mere mention of the word “sleep” can arouse feelings of anxiety and yes, sleeplessness.
Insomnia didn’t miss me
Among my considerable list of issues past and present this has been and continues to be the most challenging one.
I’ve been through long periods of insomnia where I wasn’t able to fall asleep at all. Then there were those times where I fell asleep no problem but would wake up a few hours later as if 8 hours had flown by.
But they didn’t. It was barely 4 hours.
Although I felt ok, waves of tiredness would hit me through the course of the day until I finally made it back to bed only to have this repeat day after day.
Things got so bad that I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication to help with sleep. That did help, but the potential side effects for those things are scary to be sure.
Chiefly among those side effects is the one where the sleeping aid affects your central nervous system and suppresses it to the point where you stop breathing.
It happened to me several times. I woke up gasping for air, but I woke up. Sadly, others haven’t been so lucky.
Terrifying stuff. After taking medications for sleep for 6 years I stopped cold turkey. To this day I don’t know exactly what the processes were behind that, but I targeted a time when I knew there wasn’t a specific wake up time. I was on vacation.
It was the perfect opportunity because the mental pressure of having to wake up and face yet another day in a very stressful life was removed. If I didn’t sleep one night, oh well. I can get a snooze in at the pool later that day.
This worked better than I expected. I slept just fine throughout the vacation and to my surprise, continued to sleep just fine when I got back home and the usual life routines set back in.
For a while anyway.
If you read between the lines there, you may have noticed that things weren’t going particularly well in my life during this time. Anxiety is a huge driver of sleep problems. Unfortunately, sleep issues can persist after anxiety is addressed.
My sleep troubles continued intermittently.
When I got myself a personal trainer, one of the first things he asked me during our orientation session was about my sleeping patterns.
This took me by surprise initially, but there are some very solid reasons why that question came up.
We can survive on short sleep durations, but to thrive and to be at your best possible level of health, that often talked about 7-hour magic mark is really necessary.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that lack of sleep can cause a long list of health problems, study after study shows that there is also a direct correlation between sleep quality and body fat levels.
Some experts will even go as far as saying that sleep is almost as important as a good diet (if not even more important).
Many fitness enthusiasts who believe they play their cards right with laser focus on their exercise regimens are shocked to find out that the reason they’re still holding on to too much fat is poor sleep.
One recent sleep study found that just by sleeping one hour less than the 7-hour nightly average, you could put on 13 pounds of body fat in a year!
Just. One. Hour.
Add to this the fact that over time we have been collectively sleeping less and less, and the seed for health problems on a population scale have been planted.
To someone like me who truly tries to do the right thing when it comes to fitness and nutrition, those are some pretty frightening facts.
Can a lifestyle that includes exercise and proper nutrition help?
For one thing, sleep and exercise have a very close relationship. It’s easier to sleep when you’ve exercised, and it’s easier to work out after a good night’s sleep.
The physical activity part is really a no-brainer. Even as children, we are made to burn off energy so that we get tired and sleepy and finally out of the adults’ hair.
It’s the nutrition portion that’s rather surprisingly crucial. As part of what I do for a living, I have written many medical articles with a special focus on sleep. Time and again in my research, I come across a very interesting pattern when it comes to nutrition: Carbohydrates hold they key.
A diet high in refined carbohydrates raises the likelihood of developing insomnia.
Highly refined carbs (think white bread, cookies, cakes, sugary soft drinks, so on) cause rapid and dramatic spikes in insulin. This up and down motion repeated throughout the day puts you solidly into a place where you go from energized to sluggish and back often enough to disrupt your body’s natural pattern and desire for rest when it’s time to do so.
On the other hand, carbs with a low glycemic index (GI) value raise blood sugar levels more slowly than their high-GI counterparts. Vegetables, certain types of fruits, nuts, beans, and other foods that don’t include processed grains or added sugars are on this list. These won’t impact your sleep negatively and should really be the bulk of your daily carb intake for many health reasons besides sleep.
Exercise and nutrition are very much a part of managing sleep. However, they’re certainly not the only solutions.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, here are some basic suggestions that you may want to try:
- Keep a regular sleep schedule
- No electronics in your bedroom
- Get a mattress that is comfortable for you
- If you’re sleeping with someone else in the bed, make sure there is enough space on the bed for both of you to be comfortable
- Make sure the room is cool
- Make sure the room is dark and quiet
- Avoid eating before bed
- Avoid caffeine and sugar before bed
- Give yourself adequate time to relax and ease into sleep mode before going to bed
- Taking supplemental Melatonin may help some people
If you have tried these and are still not getting enough sleep or your sleep quality is poor, consider speaking to a health care professional. There are cognitive therapies out there that don’t involve medication that can help.
An excellent resource for addressing sleep issues in general is a website called Scofa.com. There are many articles and educational videos covering the vast landscape that is sleep and I highly recommend a visit to check them out.
Getting a good night’s sleep is far more important than most of us recognize, and it may also turn out to be the missing puzzle piece when it comes to reaching your fitness goals.
As for myself, I make it to almost 7 hours every night. Sometimes a bit less, and rarely a bit more.
It’s a continuing challenge, but one that’s worth the persistence.
Until next time,