I used to have a very poor sleeping habit in my teenage and early adult years. For years I slept only four to six hours a day, telling myself that I would recover that lost sleep over the weekend – which almost never happened. It was only later in life that I decided to give sleeping its correct importance, and the results were immediate.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that sleeping is an incredible waste of time and I still hate its biological necessity, but I finally learned to enjoy being asleep and, most of all, the nice feeling of being rested when I wake up.
In this article, we will explore some of the most important aspects of sleeping and bodybuilding, and perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the sport for the newbies, that you only grow when you rest.
In bodybuilding, like all forms of athletic training, there are three key elements that account for your success: training, nutrition and recovery. Like a three legged stool, the intensity of your training and the quality of your nutrition are completely meaningless without a proper recovery period, and your body will NOT compensate for insufficient rest (believe me, I tried).
Sleep will always be the best recovery for your body. During sleep, a plethora of essential hormones are produced, such as the growth hormone. Its while we are sleeping that body regeneration, brain cell restoration and protein synthesis occurs (provided enough protein is consumed during the day). Quality sleep is essential, not only for bodybuilding, but for life itself.
The need… for sleep
Sleep for repairing of muscle and other tissues, and replacement of aging or dead cells
Autophagy is the body’s natural process of cleansing itself of its faulty and dead cells, when there’s no longer enough energy to sustain them. It is a regulated, orderly process to degrade and recycle cellular components. Autophagy happens all the time in a healthy human body when the insulin levels lower, which happens normally by not eating, an activity rarely done while sleeping. Intermittent fasting is the best way to extend the period in which autophagy happens, which will help promoting fat loss and improving a myriad of health markers.
Sleep to promote Human Growth Hormone synthesis
As the very name implies, the Human Growth Hormone (HGR) is responsible for growth. It is a naturally occurring hormone and it is essential both to growth and the development of bodily structures. The HGR is a small protein that is made by the pituitary gland and is associated with reduced fat mass, increased lean muscle tissue and increased bone density.
The major release of HGR in the body happens during sleep. In men, 60% to 70% of daily HGR secretion occurs during early sleep, which is typically when the deepest sleep cycles occur. There are several studies proving that poor quality sleep can negatively impact human growth hormone levels (1).
The HGR is not a magic bullet that creates muscles overnight. There are even several serious studies that even deny any significative muscle growth caused by “supplementing” the hormone (2). Yet, the HGR is directly related to slowing the effects of aging and the maintenance of lean muscle (3), increasing protein synthesis and, in that capacity, enhancing anabolism (1).
HGR helps keep and, somehow controversially, increase muscle mass. A poor quality sleep depletes the body’s reserves of the hormone, making any gains much harder to come by.
Sleep to recharge the brain
Adenosine (one of the four building blocks for RNA) is used as a signal to tell the brain that it needs to rest. Adenosine rises throughout waking periods and decline during sleep. Blocking adenosine receptors in the brain (which unsurprisingly can be done by drinking coffee), has been shown to increase alertness, so this suggests that during sleep the brain is recharging (4). Adenosine is also proven to diminish motor coordination (5), which is a very undesirable side-effect of being tired.
Resting the brain has obvious implications for bodybuilders, given that mental alertness is desired during the day, especially during training. Also, motivation levels are highest when mental alertness is highest.
Rest and recuperation are very important because, although you stimulate growth by training, it is during the subsequent period of recuperation that actual growth and adaptation take place.Arnold Schwarzenegger
Eating before bed and protein synthesis – the great controversy
There is a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to bodybuilding nutrition, and most of this misinformation is created by the oh-so-common bro-science that we see every single day in the gym.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s it would be unthinkable for a bodybuilder to go to sleep on an empty stomach, as it would catabolize the muscles away. Hell, in the 90’s there were more than a few “experts” that declared that doing any kind of cardio would completely ruin your gains… That was bro-science at its worst, with “work-out gurus” spewing opinions without a single shred of evidence.
The truth is that the human body builds new proteins and breaks down old ones 24 hours a day in a process known as protein turnover. Studies proof that, as long as you had enough protein during the day, the time of your ingestion matters very little (6, 7). This means that there is no such thing as an “anabolic window” and you will not loose your gains for not drinking that protein shake ten minutes after the workout.
As everything in science, there are studies claiming that eating before sleeping actually improve protein synthesis and anabolism (8). However, it is important bear in mind that eating just before sleeping might alter the sleep cycle, diminishing its quality and its regenerative properties.
Personally, I tried eating just before bed for a time and, for me, it did disrupt my sleep. That does not mean it would do the same for you though. I also found that I gained more lean mass with a better sleep and by not eating before bed.
Understanding the stages of sleep and the sleep/wake cycle
There are two basic types of sleep: non-REM sleep (which has three different stages), and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each is linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity (9).
Stage 1: non-REM sleep is the changeover from wakefulness to sleep. During this short period (lasting several minutes) of relatively light sleep, your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax with occasional twitches. Your brain waves begin to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns.
Stage 2: non-REM sleep is a period of light sleep before you enter deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow, and muscles relax even further. Your body temperature drops and eye movements stop. Brain wave activity slows but is marked by brief bursts of electrical activity. You spend more of your repeated sleep cycles in stage 2 sleep than in other sleep stages.
Stage 3: non-REM sleep is the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during sleep. Your muscles are relaxed and it may be difficult to awaken you. Brain waves become even slower.
Stage 4: REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Mixed frequency brain wave activity becomes closer to that seen in wakefulness. Your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep. Your limbs become temporarily paralyzed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams. This stage becomes longer towards morning.
Most people experience around five of these cycles per night.
Knowing about sleeps stages are important for bodybuilders as the stages typically follow a set pattern and going through them all is important to adequately recover. A lack of REM and stage three and four sleep is particularly problematic because it is during these periods that the body and brain are in complete rest and memory consolidation occurs.
The science of napping
Personally, it is almost impossible for me to nap, but for those who actually do it regularly, it can be a very good recovery mechanism, allowing the body to undergo actual physical recovery. A shorter nap can give a temporary feeling of recovery even if it doesn’t allow that deep sleep phase to take place.
Napping is actually highly recommended for anyone with sleep deprivation, and has several benefits (10):
Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. A study at NASA (11) on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100%.
Naps can increase alertness in the period directly following the nap and may extend alertness a few hours later in the day.
Scheduled napping has also been prescribed for those who are affected by narcolepsy.
Napping has psychological benefits. A nap can be a pleasant luxury, a mini-vacation. It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation.
Sleep supplements that work
The amount of supplements in the market today says a great deal about our diet as a species. When exactly did humanity become so badly fed and so stressed? Despite the dark connotations of this question, we can safely say that we have the technology, and we can make it better!
This powerful substance is the key to sleep in the body. It regulates the body’s sleep and wake cycles. Melatonin production is stimulated by a dark sleeping environment. In this age of constant screen time, sometimes it is difficult for the body to produce enough melatonin to regulate itself, and that is when supplementation may help.
Melatonin is extremely effective even in very low doses, presenting a very low toxicity (12).
A relatively new product, the 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP is unique in that it is a form of the amino acid tryptophan. This amino acid aids sleep in the body and it is actually the same substance that makes turkey meat give you that tired feeling (13). I personally take this one from time to time. It does not increase the amount of sleep that I have, but it does increase its quality as well as the duration of my REM cycles, meaning that I always dream a lot when I take it.
Zinc Monomethionine Aspartate is slightly controversial as a supplement. While the industry claims that ZMA is correlated with increases in quality of sleep and muscle growth, studies proved that ZMA does NOT affect muscle hypertrophy (14). The quality of sleep did, however, show improvement (15).
Chamomile is an herb that has been popular for a very long time. Your great-grandparents probably drank it, and its popularity is still going strong: More than one million cups of chamomile tea are consumed every day (18).
Chamomile ingestion produces calming effects, and the plant is widely used to treat insomnia and as a mild tranquilizer. The sedative effects of chamomile may be explained by the presence of the flavonoid apigenin, that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. Chamomile is also known to help improving cardiovascular conditions, stimulate the immune system and even provide some level of protection against cancer (18).
If you, like me, are not particularly excited about the taste of chamomile tea, there are other preparations of chamomile that might work for you. Chamomile essential oil is used for relaxing massages and calming aromatherapy. And chamomile capsules will help you ingest the teas in a concentrated form, to efficiently gather all of its benefits. Chamomile extract capsules totaling 1,500 mg/daily have successfully treated patients with moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder (19), so they will surely help you relax.
Valerian is one of the oldest natural sleep supplements out there, and it has been around for over 1000 years. Different species of Valeriana have been used in traditional medicine in many different cultures throughout the world, as mild sedatives and tranquilizers (17), and to aid sleep latency, or sleep onset latency. In other words, the time it takes to fall asleep.
It has been shown that components of valerian inhibit the breakdown of gamma-aminobutyric acid – GABA – in the brain, inducing sedation and a decrease in central nervous system activity in mice (16). This is a plausible mechanism of action that could explain the feeling of relaxation that consuming valerian provides.
Quick tips for falling asleep
The greatest problem related to sleep, is actually falling asleep. If you sometimes feel like a steak in a frying pan, flipping over every few minutes, here are some tips that might help you:
- Don’t oversleep: Oversleeping may upset your body clock.
- Take a warm bath: A warm bath will make you feel soothed and relaxed.
- Exercise: A tired body sleeps faster.
- Avoid caffeine at night: Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in the brain, making your brain “believe” that is not tired yet. Ideally, stop drinking coffee and caffeinated beverages by early afternoon.
- Avoid sleeping pills: These may work temporarily but in the long term will cause disturbed sleep patterns and may have several undesired side-effects.
- Create a pleasant sleeping environment: It is very hard to sleep on an uncomfortable room. A cool room helps you sleep faster. Some relaxing background music or even rain noise may help to relax and encourage sleep.
- Make evenings relaxed, not stressful affairs.
- Do not use electronics in bed: Blue light can suppress the natural production of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep.
Sleep to gain
Sleep is one of the main aspects of bodybuilding and health. Anyone who cares about their sleep should definitely make an effort to get quality sleep every night.
Sleeping promotes body regeneration and protein synthesis. It is during sleep that the vast majority of Human Growth Hormone is released. As its name implies, the human body does not grow without it.
Besides healing the body from the previous gym session, sleeping also prepares you for the next one, restoring alertness and motor function, which are essential for any kind of training. So, if you want to see gains, go to bed!
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2 Saugy M, Robinson N, Saudan C, Baume N, Avois L, Mangin P. Human growth hormone doping in sport.
3 Bartke A. Growth Hormone and Aging: Updated Review
4 Jacobson KA, Gao ZG. Adenosine receptors as therapeutic targets
5 Heffner, T.G., Wiley, J.N., Williams, A.E. et al. Comparison of the behavioral effects of adenosine agonists and dopamine antagonists in mice.
6 Rodriguez, Nancy R; Vislocky, Lisa M; Gaine, P Courtney Dietary protein, endurance exercise, and human skeletal-muscle protein turnover.
7 The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 50A, Special Issue, November 1995, Pages 107–112
8 Groen, B., Pennings, B. A. R. T., Beelen, M., Wallis, G. A., Gijsen, A. P., Senden, J. M., & Van Loon, L. J. (2012). Protein ingestion before sleep improves post exercise overnight recovery.
9 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke – Understanding Sleep
10 Sleep Foundation – Napping Health Benefits
11 Rosekind, M. R., Smith, R. M., Miller, D. L., Co, E. L., Gregory, K. B., Webbon, L. L., Gander, P. H., Lebacqz, J.V. (1995). Alertness Management: Strategic Naps in Operational Settings.
12 Tordjman S, Chokron S, Delorme R, et al. Melatonin: Pharmacology, Functions and Therapeutic Benefits.
13 Hinz M, Stein A, Uncini T. 5-HTP efficacy and contraindications.
14 Wilborn CD, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. Effects of Zinc Magnesium Aspartate (ZMA) Supplementation on Training Adaptations and Markers of Anabolism and Catabolism.
15 Cherasse Y, Urade Y. Dietary Zinc Acts as a Sleep Modulator.
16 Houghton PJ. The scientific basis for the reputed activity of Valerian.
17 Bent S, Padula A, Moore D, Patterson M, Mehling W. Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
18 Srivastava JK, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future.
19 Keefe JR, Guo W, Li QS, Amsterdam JD, Mao JJ. An exploratory study of salivary cortisol changes during chamomile extract therapy of moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder.