A couple of years ago I had the bad luck to catch a virus that my two year old daughter picked up at her daycare. Thankfully she only got a mild cold. I got viral myocarditis – basically the virus went into my heart and caused loads of very painful inflammation.
Until that point I was doing reasonably well with sticking to an exercise routine. But after the illness I could barely walk up a flight of stairs. And if I did make it up the stairs I'd have to rest for a few minutes to recover. Suddenly I was in the worst shape of my life.
So as an exercise physiologist I decided to use myself as a test subject and experiment. I went back to my research and explored what was needed to get back into good physical condition as fast as I could, and to lose as much body fat as possible. I wanted to get fit and get lean.
The few weeks I was laid up in bed recovering from the virus I checked out as many research papers as I could. What I discovered was not what I expected. Apparently, the first thing I needed to do was sleep more. Believe it or not to build the foundation for a better, healthier life we need to be better rested.
I hear what you're thinking. It's easy to talk about getting more rest while you're lying in a hospital bed for weeks. In the real world there just isn't enough time to get everything done and sleep well. Work, family and exercise is sometimes more than many people can handle at once. But the research clearly shows that if we take a bit more time to sleep, so many things that people want to achieve in life become possible. Let's take losing body fat as an example.
We are in the midst of a worldwide obesity epidemic. We are also sleeping less than we ever have in history. Amazingly, those two problems are connected. Sleep helps regulate the amount of leptin and ghrelin in your body. Those are hormones that help to control and manage your appetite and satiety. So if you sleep better, you're better able to avoid cravings for sugar and high fat foods.
What if you want to exercise more? Have you ever tried having a great workout when you're tired? It's really tough. Once again it comes down to hormones. When you sleep, your body releases Human Growth Hormone, which promotes fat breakdown and increases in muscle mass. That's right, sleep means more muscle and less fat!
Somehow it has become almost a badge of honour to sleep less or to try to get by on as little sleep as possible. But sleeping less causes so many problems I don't think that the payoff is worth it.
According to the Centre for Disease Control in the United States sleep is critical to health. Insufficient sleep is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters and medical errors. Not to mention that after a sleepless night we all have problems concentrating, remembering things and we can get more irritable. We can become more stressed more easily. And that's the last thing we need in this crazy world where volatility is the new normal.
So how much sleep do we need? We're all different. I need eight hours. You might need 10. The generally accepted research suggests that children need at least 10 hours, teenagers need about 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours. There is a small percentage of the population that has a gene that allows them to sleep for 3-4 hours a night and to be rested. I wish I had that gene, but sadly I don't.
When I was trying to recover from my heart infection, my wife and I made sleeping a priority and got between 8-10 hours a night for about three months. We got healthier, and my fitness improved dramatically. And I was much better at work, even though I took more time out of the day to sleep.
So what can you do to make sure you sleep better? It's really important to create an environment in your bedroom that helps you to sleep well. Stay away from electronic screens for 45 minutes before you sleep and keep your room as dark as possible. Melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate sleep) is produced by your pineal gland, which is located deep inside your brain and is very sensitive to light. Because the pineal gland responds to light via neurons that project from your eyes, you have to ensure that you are in a dark space while you sleep so that the pineal gland can release the right amount of melatonin at the right time to help you sleep better.
So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips, and pick up a good book instead.
Dr. Greg Wells is an assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children. He is a health and high performance expert who inspires better living through better nutrition and better fitness. You can follow him on Twitter at @drgregwells.