Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke

The nation’s population is “intoxicated” due to sleep loss. Sadly, poor sleep is more the rule than the exception. According to the Institute of Medicine, 50-70 million adults in the United States have sleep or wakefulness disorders. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider poor sleep a “public health problem.” Ultimately, this means more Americans are at an increased risk for developing other health concerns if they are getting insufficient sleep.

March is National Sleep Month, which is an ideal time to learn more about how sleep impacts the pursuit and achievement of health and fitness goals.

Health Consequences of Poor Sleep

Science already tells us that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. When the body is well rested, the body performs optimally. On the flip side, when the body is poorly rested, performance plummets. Individuals who suffer from chronic lack or poor quality of sleep are likely to experience decreased brain function, hormonal imbalances, increased risk of heart disease, abnormal growth and development (seen in children and teens), decreased productivity and performance, fertility issues, poor immune and insulin responses, and an increased risk of getting in a motor vehicle accident.

In short, sleep plays a crucial role in the repair and maintenance of all systems (physical and psychological) of the human body. Unfortunately, a significant number of Americans do not get the amount of sleep necessary to support a healthy body and mind.

What Happens During Sleep

A state of sleep may seem, on the surface, to be a quiet and tranquil experience. But your body is working hard to repair, recover, build, strengthen, grow and defend. It’s during sleep that the “real” work of progress begins and ends. Sleep is a productive process even if you aren’t moving or interacting.

While you rest, the body begins its work. Like a factory, several processes occur all at once and involve multiple systems. For example:

  • The brain “cleans house.” Cerebral spinal fluid flushes through the brain, cleaning out waste products from cells.
  • Breathing and heart rates slow and blood pressure decreases.
  • Hormones are released that aid in repairing tissues

It makes sense that if the body is chronically under-rested, these valuable and necessary processes are disrupted. The body then cannot adequately repair tissues and blood vessels, produce and release hormones efficiently, or remove waste. If sleep suffers, there are systemic effects. 

Downward Spiral to Poor Health

When the body is sleep deprived, the brain craves food (and usually not the healthiest varieties). The hormones responsible for regulating hunger and satiety become unbalanced. Ghrelin (the hunger “gremlin” hormone) increases, while leptin (the satiety hormone) decreases. Consequently, caloric intake increases and caloric expenditure decreases due to lack of motivation from mental and physical fatigue. This eventually leads to weight gain.

Further, poor sleep results in higher-than-normal blood-sugar levels because a tired body is unable to effectively respond to insulin. If poor sleep is chronic, the development of metabolic disorders is inevitable.

We have to commit to be “sleep fit” in order to reverse the downward spiral and improve the body’s functional capacity.

How to Improve Sleep Fitness

Everyone requires a slightly different environment to sleep well. However, there are some key ingredients to improving the “sleepability” of your space. When it comes to your environment consider taking the following actions:

  • Remove (or turn off) all electronics and cover the alarm clock an hour before bed. The circadian rhythm is most sensitive to blue light (the type emitted from electronics).
  • Make the room as dark as possible.
  • Make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature.
  • Evaluate the noise level or add a white noise machine or fan.

There are also several behavioral tricks you can employ to improve sleep:

  • Develop a routine: If you don’t have a bedtime routine, establish one for you and your family. Incorporate relaxing activities (meditate, read a book, listen to calming music, etc.).
  • Activity naturally promotes better sleep. Try to avoid working out too late in the evening as it can make it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Reduce caffeine intake. Try waiting to enjoy that first jolt of java until 9 a.m. Having caffeine before that time frame can disrupt the body’s normal cortisol rhythm and disrupt sleep later on. Further, caffeine also antagonizes adenosine (another ingredient to promote restful sleep).
  • Limit alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that has sedative-like effects; however, it also causes an individual to wake frequently during the night. Limit your intake of alcoholic beverages before bed or late in the evening.

Finally, communicate openly with your doctor if you feel sleep deprivation is chronic and interfering with your life (personally and professionally).

It's critical that sleep and recovery match training effort. Learn more about thoughtful exercise recovery in our best-selling LiveClass: The 3 R's of Exercise Recovery.