Sleep like a baby (but not in a cot)
How to improve the quality and quantity of your sleepBy Adam Sinicki
If you're anything like me then you won't need to hear all the positive benefits of sleep - for some of us sleep is an end in itself. I'm never happier than when I'm unconscious (except that time in the swimming pool). As well as being a great way to spend an evening however, sleep also helps us fight illness and recover from a strenuous day and is completely essential if we want to be mentally and physically at the top of our game. This is especially true of Bodybuilders, who not only exert more energy during the day, but can really use the extra growth hormones that are released during sleep. Growth hormone not only burns fat, but also helps create muscle and heal wounds. Just improving the quality and quantity of your sleep can be as beneficial to your gains as starting a new training programme (wakefullness and... sleepfullness... have even been described respectively as catabolic and anabolic states). If you put in the work without an equal amount of rest then you're seriously shooting yourself in the foot. Trust me, I'm a psychologist.
What happens when we sleep?
Our sleep is goverened by our 'circadian clock', which is more commonly known as the body clock. This in turn is affected by both internal factors (internal pacemakers) and external factors (external zeitgeibers). The 'Suprachiasmatic Nucleus in our brains is sensitive to light and helps to coordinate our sleep patterns with the world around us. When your body finally deems it beddy-bys it will begin releasing melatonin, the 'sleep hormone' and you will... begin... to feel... drowsy...
During sleep we go through 5 stages as indicated by the activity on an electroencephlograph (EEG - a machine for monitoring activity in the brain). There stages are: stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4 and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Stages 1 & 2 are 'light sleep' while 3 & 4 are deep 'slow wave' sleep (named after the long waves produced by the EEG (importantly for bodybuilders this is the sleep needed for growth hormone)). These four collectively are known as NREM sleep. REM sleep is the final stage and the point during which we experience dreams (although some evidence now suggests we can also dream during other stages), seemingly caused by the rapid firing of 'pons', and is characterised by twitching of the eyes and a spike in brain activity. These stages go through cycles so that you should experience each stage several times during the night.
All you really need to know is that sleep is well good. Seven to eight hours is the recommended dosage for adults.
How can we improve it then?
One important thing to consider when going to bed is your immediate environment, in particular you should endeavour to make sure it's as silent and as dark as possible. Obviously any noise or light could prevent you from getting to sleep initially, but they will also affect the quality of your sleep once your finally conk out, and the quality of your sleep is just as important, if not more important, than the quantity. Make sure to turn off any CD players or DVD players and if you have real difficulty it might even be worth turning them round or covering them up with tape.
Your state of mind is also important when going to sleep with stress presenting a major obstacle. Again this can prevent you from getting to sleep as well as disturbing you during the night. In worst case scenarios it can cause anxiety dreams (like that one where there's an aligator in your room and all you have to defend yourself is a paint-ball gun... no?). Although stress can't always be avoided, you can minimise it by making your room tidy. Often the clutter in your room reflects your state of mind and vise versa - and clearing up can help clear the cobwebs from your brain (brain cobwebs). Some psychologists go as far as to suggest keeping your room entirely for sleeping in to help your brain to associate the place with rest. All other activities should be performed elsewhere and you should only retire to your room once your actually ready to pack it in for the night. That's kind of hard when you're living in a bed-sit, but you can achieve a similar yet more practical effect with a curtain to draw across your bed.
I myself had difficulty getting to sleep when I was younger, not so much because I was stressed but because I was a mentalist and my mind would be racing with ideas while I was meant to be winding down. What was advised to me was to keep a journal so that I could write all my ideas down to work with in the morning. This worked pretty well.
A common cause of stress is lack of sleep itself. A vicious cycle some would say. Many will find themselves lying in bed, with an early start the next day, worrying that they can't get to sleep growing frustrated and angry. Obviously at this point they're not going to be getting to sleep anytime soon. In essence, the harder you try to get to sleep, the less likely you are to succeed. That's why it's so easy to fall asleep in meetings or lectures - you're trying to stay awake! To ease your mind you need to remember that even just resting is good for your body. If you can't get to sleep then at least lying with your eyes closed will have some benefit. Try to enjoy the moment and revel in the fact that you're not doing anything. You'll be asleep in no time.
Just say no
In extreme cases there are several drugs that promise to help you doze off but in general these are best avoided. One problem with sleeping pills is that our body can become dependent on them and you might eventually be unable to sleep without them. Pills also create an 'unnatural' sleep, sometimes suppressing certain stages thus failing to fulfill our physiological needs. They're also expensive and can lead to continued grogginess the next day. If you must take something however, then make it GABA (technically banned in the UK) as this will at least have benefits on strength (it increases the body's natural production of growth hormone).
Better than supplements though is simply a warm glass of milk, a mug of horlics, or a long hot bath or showever (which actually encourages the body to produce growth hormone itself). If you really think you need medication then obviously talk to a doctor, but it's far healthier if you can overcome the problem without resorting to drugs.
If you've survived through all that without falling asleep at the computer I recommend you seek help from an expert - there's nothing more I can do for you.