We all look forward to getting into bed after a long day, but how does our sleeping pattern affect performance and fitness? Research suggests that a good night’s sleep can influence nearly every area of our waking life. 

In May 2014, scientists and academics from Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Surrey published a report warning of the dangers incurred from long-term lack of sleep. They cautioned that neglecting to recognise the importance of regular, good quality sleep is ‘supremely arrogant’ and can lead to ‘serious health problems’ such as cancers, heart related illnesses and obesity. Research has also found that those who frequently get fewer than six hours a night are at significantly increased risk of stroke and heart disease, and not sleeping enough may ramp up the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure.

Sleep aids exercise

Lisa Artis, from the UK Sleep Council, says: “If you’re permanently sleep-deprived your ability to adapt is lessened, due to alterations in the processes required for muscle tissue and growth hormone. A study by Stanford University, California found that athletes who slept for up to ten hours a night showed significant improvements in sprint times, shooting percentages, and energy levels after a few weeks compared with when they managed only 6-8 hours. Furthermore, medical evidence suggests that a good night’s sleep is essential if you want to melt away excess fat. This is because your hormones are affected by sleep patterns which, in turn, affect appetite and wellbeing.”

Attack of the snack

To compound the problem, when we’re tired we’re more likely to crave sugar and stodgy carbohydrates to keep us going and because our energy levels are low, we’re less motivated to work out and burn off those calories. Researchers believe that activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, which governs impulse control and complex decision-making, is diminished after a poor night’s sleep, making us much more susceptible to poor food choices.

Ms Artis says: “A bad night’s sleep causes leptin (a hormone produced by fat cells) to drop, which signals insufficient metabolic reserves and the need to eat more calories. It also increases the hormone ghrelin (produced in the stomach) that triggers appetite. This imbalance in hormone levels leads to over-eating and steady weight gain.”

Problem solved

Not only are there increased health risks; lack of sleep diminishes levels of concentration and makes you liable to mood swings and depression. Sleep affects learning and problem solving capabilities. The more REM sleep we have, the easier it is to retain things learned the day before. Problems that appear insolvable can become clear in the morning.

Rework your routine

If you are suffering from lack of sleep, why not conduct an audit of your life and see if there are any underlying issues? We all know that babies need routine, and as adults we’re no different. Erratic working, a chaotic lifestyle and irregular consumption patterns can disrupt our mental equilibrium, especially if we’re not consciously aware of them. It’s essential to adopt healthy lifestyle habits and to eliminate the factors that are causing your sleep to be disturbed. Make sure that your bedroom is the right environment and that your bed is up to scratch. Look at the lighting in your home and switch off your electronic devices two hours before you go to bed, as research has shown that ‘blue light’ can have a detrimental impact on our sleep. Try to exercise earlier rather than later and avoid sugar and caffeine late at night, as they can stimulate rather than relax you. Establishing a routine in all areas of your life including sleeping, exercising, socialising and eating will certainly bring improved results in the short term, as well as having a long term positive impact on your health.

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