Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sleep...The New Sex

Sleep is the new sex. Think about it. Don't you hear people constantly talking about how they wish they had more of it? It used to be better, but now...not so much. Couples complain about their kids getting in the way of it. Most people agree it's better with someone you love, not quite as satisfying if you do it alone, and often awkward if you do it with a stranger!

I haven't posted in almost a week. During that time both my wife and my daughter got pretty sick with fevers and coughs. The same symptoms wiped out about half of my office and my wife's office. Everyone's feeling better now, thank goodness. The strange thing...I didn't get it. My theory on why...more sleep.

I've been thinking a lot about sleep lately. As I studied my results from all the exercising and dieting I've been doing. I could see small areas where improved effort could yield improved results (less ice cream, more intense cardio, etc.), but I felt like I should look outside the box to see if there were other factors affecting my results. That's when I stumbled onto a bunch of blogs, websites and books about sleep's effects on weight loss.

Cortisol & HGH: The Gatekeepers to Your Fat Storage Cells
You see, your body has this balance between two important hormones: cortisol and human growth hormone (HGH). Cortisol is called "the stress hormone." It tells your body to store sugars in your bloodstream as fat in preparation for a rough road ahead (think famine or a long journey for our caveman ancestors). HGH, on the other hand, tells your body to burn fat to repair muscle and organ tissue. These two hormones function on a sliding scale...when one is up, the other is down.

One way to fine tune your weight loss is to look at the things within your control that will shift your body away from cortisol production and toward HGH production. You shouldn't be surprised to see that these activities are things your good doctor (and your mother) has been telling you to do since you were a kid. Here are a few: relax, reduce your stress, eat your vegetables, reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates you eat, exercise, get a good night's sleep, take a nap.

I looked at a list like that and realized I was doing pretty well on most of them, but I was really shorting myself on sleep in order to keep up all the other practices. Making healthy meals at home often means late nights of shopping and cooking. The only time I can get the gym consistently is at 5 a.m. I realized that I could try to get to bed a little earlier, but the only way I was going to squeeze any more sleep into my schedule (and HGH into my bloodstream) was to nap!

Naps, They're Not Just for Babies
My trip down the rabbit hole of sleep research led me to a great book called Take a Nap! Change Your Life. by Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D. I'm still reading it, but here's what I've learned so far. Our bodies drift through a programmed set of sleep stages while we snooze: Stage 1 (drifting off), Stage 2 (increases alertness & motor skills), Stage 3 & 4 (called "slow-wave sleep" these improve your memory by shuttling short-term memories to long-term memory), and the most famous of all...REM or "Rapid Eye Movement" (the dream state that inspires creativity and heightens perception).

Now, I won't bore you with all the science surrounding how the body cycles through these stages, but suffice it to say that Dr. Mednick offers some very targeted advice on how to time your naps (both when and how long) for the maximum benefits depending on what type of sleep you need most. Personally, I'm aiming for short, 20-minute naps at mid-day that give me a quick dose of Stage 2 for alertness and the occasional 20 to 45 minute nap at the end of the workday that will provide a wash of slow-wave sleep for repairing muscle cells that I've torn down during my workouts. The nice thing is that both types of naps will help to lower cortisol and raise HGH, speeding up weight loss and muscle growth.

If your interested in learning more, check out Dr. Mednick's book or her website: www.saramednick.com.

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