You’ve heard this before: Sleep at least 8 hours a night or you’ll have a hard time focusing. You’ll struggle making decisions. Your reaction time will be slower.
The conversation is almost always about how the lack of sleep affects your brain. But what about the rest of your body?
If you aren’t getting enough sleep - or if the quality of your sleep is poor - your body will lose a prime opportunity to power down and allow your brain cells, muscle fibers, bones, eyes, heart, lungs and other internal organs to find homeostasis - in other words, find balance. For example, if your muscles are ripped and swollen from lifting weights earlier in the day, the cells in the fibers of those muscles will constantly try to regain normality (i.e. heal themselves). Likewise if you’re rehabbing from a joint or muscle injury - your body is trying to heal by rebuilding what is damaged.
Sleep is crucial to the recovery phase of exercise or rehab - and you must learn how to harness it in order to achieve your best outcomes.
First, let’s take a look at what it means to get quality sleep. Then we can examine how quality sleep can help you achieve homeostasis to ultimately benefit your muscles, your bones, your internal organs, and of course, your brain.
Defining Quality Sleep
Even though your brain never sleeps, it does rest. And the time you spend nocturnally supine will determine not only the amount of rest your brain gets, but the quality of that rest. In order to understand how your body benefits, we should begin with the stages of sleep.
Stages of Sleep
Stage I: Drowsiness
This is the part when your body begins to enter the sleep cycle.
Stage II: Light Sleep
You’re getting deeper, but you can still wake up fairly easily.
Stages III and IV: Deep Sleep
Also called “Slow-Wave Sleep,” these are the stages when you are difficult to wake up. Your brain electroencephalogram indicates the least amount of brain activity during this stage. Also, the American Sleep Association notes that “When sleep deprivation has occurred there’s generally a sharp rebound of slow-wave sleep, which suggests that there’s a need for slow-wave sleep.” More on this later.
Stage V: REM Sleep
This stage is commonly associated with vivid dreams, although dreaming does occur during non-REM sleep stages. Still, this stage is fascinating because if you were to receive an electroencephalogram as you slept, it would be very similar to the reading of your brain while you were awake. Our muscles remain atonic, however, and this may help prevent injury while allowing our brain to remain active.
Achieving Quality Sleep
What you consider quality sleep might not be the same for someone else. Our sleep patterns change with age; generally, younger people need more sleep than older people, and older folks need to wake up and find the privy more often than teenagers. But there are choices we can make to improve the sleep we get, regardless of how old we are.
1) Environment - If you choose to sleep in a dark room free of lights and distractions, you will allow your mind to rest and enter Stage I of the sleep cycle more quickly (fans of sleeping with the TV on might disagree with this notion).
2) Diet - The jury is still out on whether eating before bedtime is wholly good or bad for you, but it’s no myth that consuming alcohol before bed will interrupt your natural sleep patterns and leave you feeling less rested the next morning. Stick to a small snack before bed if you really need something, otherwise you could be at risk for passive weight gain.
3) Fatigue - You know the feeling when you’re lying in bed after an intense workout? Aside from the feeling of accomplishment, you also probably feel exhausted. Well, assuming you’ve met the first two points in this list, your body is likely to descend into the deep stages of sleep for longer periods of time, which will help your muscles, tendons and blood pressure relax so your cells can find homeostasis. That’s the point the American Sleep Association makes about spending more time in slow-wave sleep. Your body automatically gets what it needs.
Sleep Aids Physiological Recovery
When we are asleep, we cycle through these stages a couple of times each night. Although trillions of people spend roughly a third of their lives sleeping, we have yet to figure out why we cycle through these sleep stages.
Currently, the science supporting the concept of sleeping being an important phase of muscle recovery is nascent; but there is some - albeit limited - evidence that growth hormone is released during slow-wave sleep, and that “optimum conditions for anabolism prevail during sleep.”
But more reliable studies have proven that sleep allows a prime opportunity for our bodies to return to homeostasis, which is the tendency of your body and its individual parts to find a natural balance. When your body is unable to achieve homeostasis, you are at a greater risk for a litany of issues from inflammation to weight gain to diabetes.
So let’s say you sleep only four hours a night. Maybe you have a newborn baby, or maybe you can’t put down your phone because there’s always another Instagram to scroll through. If you are only getting half of the amount of sleep that your body is craving, you can do damage to your cognitive and physiological processes by removing this opportunity for your body to achieve homeostasis.
Additionally, sleep is a natural process in which our bodies rest and recover. More sleep won’t help you recover more quickly; instead, think of it like this: if you put in a solid hour of exercise in the evening after work, eat a healthy protein-rich meal, and get to bed early in a calm and peaceful environment, you are maximizing your opportunity to recover more completely from the damage you did to your muscles during your workout. In this same scenario, if you aren’t able to get a full 7-8 hours of sleep, it’s like only letting your body heal to a fraction of its potential. Why restrict your body’s time to recover?
It’s also important to note that you may be less likely to get injured if you get enough sleep. That alone should be enough incentive to get your zzz’s.
With the rise in popularity of formerly-unconventional means of exercise (like yoga, for example) there are many more ways to give your body rest without going to bed at 8pm every night. Let’s say you start your bedtime routine immediately after the football game that ends at 11:30pm. That’s probably not an ideal time to try to force yourself into bed - especially if you ate all those hot wings and sipped on a few alcoholic beverages.
Instead, some gentle relaxation exercises or even 10 minutes of meditation can help your brain and body reach a calmness that will help you enter the sleep cycle more successfully. So what if we spend a third of our lives sleeping? Without it, the two-thirds we spend awake would be a painful nightmare.