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Sleep - The Foundation of Health And Performance

Roughly 1/3 of our life should be spent sleeping yet there is an epidemic of sleep loss and deprivation. If we fully appreciated the benefits of sleep when it comes to health, mental performance, and physical ability, it would reshape the way we view the importance of sleep.

1 out of 2 Americans get less than 8 hours of sleep per night and 1 out of 3 Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep per night. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night results in objective declines in health markers as well as mental and physical performance.

Let's talk health and sleep. The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. It's a sad truth but it's a reality that less sleep is correlated with a shorter life span. Getting 6 hours of sleep per night or less is associated with increase in risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, and cancer as the immune system is suppressed on a genetic level.

Let's talk sleep and performance. Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug available to us. Sleep deprivation of 6 hours or less will decrease physical performance in strength, power, peak running speed, cardiovascular function, and time to exhaustion by around 30%. It is also harder to loss body fat when sleep deprived - so if you are trying to loss weight, you need 7-9 hours of sleep per night as diet and exercise alone won't be enough. Sleep is the foundation for diet and exercise progress.

Getting 7-9 hours a sleep per night is critical in motor skill acquisition and learning. Meaning if you practice and get adequate sleep, you will perform 20-30% better in those same skills the following day. Sleep smooths out motor learning and is critical in skills becoming automatic.

Sleep isn't all about quantity as you want to focus on getting quality sleep as well. To maximize the quality of your sleep it's ideal to sleep in a cooler environment. Try putting down your phone, turning off the TV, and dimming the lights an hour before bed. Avoid alcohol or other sedatives as they block the ability of the body to get into the deep stages of sleep critical to rejuvenating the body. It's advised to avoid stimulants such as caffeine and even exercise in the hours before you plan to go to bed. Start a sleep routine and stick with it.

Sleep - Get some!

Source: Dr. Matthew Walker

For more related reading:

Cold Season: Are You Winning the Battle for Your Immune System?

“It’s cold season."

How many times have we heard that saying? Yes, we are approaching the time of year when most of us are more susceptible to coming down with a cold or the flu. But, I’ll let you in on a little secret – there is no “cold season”.

Rather than figuring out a strategy to keep our immune system working at it's peak potential, it's as if some of us just throw in the towel and accept that we will be sick, as if there is nothing we can do to prevent it.

Reality is we are constantly under attack by pathogens, viruses or bacteria that want to infect us. We are constantly exposed to pathogens and we are either winning or losing the battle. What is likely to blame for the “cold season” has more to do with what our body’s internal environment lacks than what is attacking us.

There's the saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I'm not saying cold season is completely preventable, but what I am trying to communicate is that we all can take steps to reduce our likelihood of getting sick and possibly prevent it.

Aside from proper exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle choices, what are some simple prevention steps you can take (any time of the year) to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders and help it win the battle against the "cold season"?

1) Sleep. The most powerful tool that you have to keep your immune system running high is sleep. Research demonstrates that lack of sleep compromises the immune system, thus predisposing you to sickness. There’s a reason why you sleep a lot when you are sick. Don't underestimate what proper sleep habits can do for your health. Are you getting enough sleep? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do my eyelids feel heavy in the afternoon?
  • Do I use caffeine as a “pick me up”?
  • Do I sleep extra hours on the weekend?
  • Do I fall asleep the minute my head hits the pillow?
To promote deep, restful sleep try to keep your room as dark and cool as possible. Ideal room temperature appears to be 65-68 degrees. Calming agents like magnesium, valerian root, chamomile tea, or a warm bath used before bed can also promote more restful sleep. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and exercise before bed as these can interfere with our normal sleep rhythms or make it more difficult to settle.

Shoot for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Athletes may need as much as 9-10 hours per night.

2) Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is a global issue, which is disturbing as poor vitamin D status is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, and many other chronic conditions. Not only does Vitamin D have a critical role in immune system support, it also has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-viral effects.

According to James Cannell, MD, of the vitamin D council, most of us will need to take in 5000 IU per day to obtain healthy vitamin D blood levels and avid exercisers should shoot for as high as 10,000 IU per day. In comparison, the current RDA is set at 600 IU for individuals 1-70 years of age and 800 IU for those 71 years of age and older. Clearly there is a large gap between what is considered adequate and what is considered necessary for optimal health.

In determining appropriate vitamin D intake, it's important to know your vitamin D levels first. A simple test can be run by your doctor with blood work. Be sure to consult your healthcare provider.

3) Vitamin C. Vitamin C's role in immune system support is well established and less of a discussion is needed here. To maximize vitamin C's immune system boosting effects, It's best to consume a vitamin C supplement or vitamin C rich foods every 2-3 hours when sick as blood levels take 2-3 hours to peak, thus you will ensure blood levels remain high.

4) Zinc. For as much evidence as there is to back vitamin C’s ability to support the immune system, there is stronger evidence for zinc. However, zinc's role in immune system support is not as widely known. Zinc plays a central role in the immune response and zinc-deficient individuals are more susceptible to a variety of pathogens. While consuming whole foods rich in zinc should be standard dietary practice, directed use of products like Zicam, zinc lozenges, or highly bio-available zinc supplements at the early signs or symptoms of a cold has proven to be beneficial.

5) Glutamine. Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in skeletal muscle, making it critical to the health and function of our muscular system. However, glutamine is also integral to the function of our digestive and immune systems. The health of our digestive system is critical to the health of our immune system as the GI tract uses a tremendous amount of glutamine to feed the mucosal cells. When needed, glutamine supplementation is a great way to support the immune system. Aim for 5-15g grams, three times a day. Make sure a dose is taken upon rising, mid day, and before bed. The dose before bed is important as the immune system is highly active during sleep.

6) Probiotics. Probiotics are healthy bacteria for our gut and they also have the ability to support the immune system. Simply stated, a healthy digestive system feeds a healthy immune system. Research has supported the ability of probiotics to reduce the occurrence of colds and gastrointestinal infections. Be sure to consume more probiotic foods or take a quality probiotic supplement. Foods such as yogurt, raw cheese, raw apple cider vinegar, and kombucha tea are just a few examples of foods rich in probiotics.

Wrap Up
Prevention is the key when it comes to staying healthy. We either make time for prevention or we make time for illness. Take the steps to support your immune system and win the fight during cold season.

More related reading:

Why Poor Recovery Will Make You Sick, Sad and Weak

For those of you familiar with GP, you know we take the balance between training and recovery very seriously. It's a subject we feel we cannot educate our clients on enough. Recovery is too often a poorly understood or ignore aspect of training and the organization of sport (i.e. practice, competition). Many coaches and trainers push their athletes to the brink, attempting to build physical stamina and mental resilience. This is a part of sport and a necessary component to improving physical attributes such as strength, speed, and power. However, if you miss the boat on recovery, you could be sabotaging your efforts.

Why is recovery so important?
How much time do you spend training on a weekly basis, working towards physical or athletic goals? Probably not much, at least when compared to the amount of time spent between those sessions.

Training, regardless if you run, lift, swim, or skate, is a stimulus to the body. It's a stimulus for change and that stimulus will only generate results if you recover adequately between training sessions.

When recovery is poor, health and performance begin to suffer. This is the point at which many people describe themselves as "feeling flat" or “hitting a wall.” What they are communicating is low energy levels and an overall sensation of not feeling right. Fatigue has built-up because recovery has not been adequate. This state of fatigue can be referred to as “over-reaching" and in more serious cases it is known as "over-training."

Over-training can involve signs/symptoms such as:

  • significant decreases in power or capacity of physical attributes such as strength, speed, or power
  • significant and chronic joint and muscle pain
  • significant changes in mood, such as depression
  • significant sleep disruption
  • major immune problems — frequent illness (i.e. bacterial/viral infections)
  • hormonal suppression (i.e. low thyroid, low sex hormones, amenorrhea or irregular periods in women)
Over-reaching is a much milder version of overtraining, but is a far more common and can involve:
  • low energy
  • lack of motivation to train
  • feeling "run-down"
  • persistent sore and achey joints or muscles
  • mild mood changes such as feeling more irritable, moody, or anxious
Understanding Recovery
Lack of recovery is a complex phenomenon with wide-ranging effects, with the heart of the issue being fatigue. The underlying causes of fatigue fall into two main categories:
  1. Central (CNS) - The central nervous system (CNS) serves the purpose of monitoring the body, similar to the function of a car engine regulator. If you "redline" the engine of your car too long, the engine shuts down. Your brain attempts to protect your body in the same fashion by reducing the ability of your body to "fire muscles" through nerve impulses.
  2. Peripheral (muscular) - The other form of fatigue, peripheral, is related to energy system depletion and/or metabolic byproduct accumulation. Sticking with the car analogy, this is similar to running out of gas.
There are plenty of activities and responsibilities that will consume our days and the time between workouts, or in other words, our recovery time. The activities that we choose to be involved in will have a profound impact on our ability to recoup and recover. To understand the influence our activities can have on our recovery, we must first place them into two distinct categories:
  • Sympathetic activities – often referred to as “fight or flight”
  • Parasympathetic activities – often referred to as “rest and digest”
Sympathetic activities dominate our lives. Whether it's the pursuit of educational, athletic, or career goals, trying to establish financial stability, or building relationships, these activities bring on varying degrees of stress. Your body reacts to stress by elevating levels of cortisol and adrenaline.

Stress, or over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, can become chronic. If that happens, production of stress hormones begins to slow and the development of ongoing, chronic fatigue may occur. This is central fatigue. The body has been "redlining" for too long and is beginning to shut down. See the problem?

Now, I'd think we'd all be fans of simply removing all stressors from life. Doesn't that sound appealing? However, that is not a realistic option. Instead of eliminating stress, the key is to establish a balance with relaxing and invigorating activities.

Relaxing and invigorating activities stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is vital to restoring balance to the body and improving recovery. Such activities include:
  • Low-intensity, aerobic-based exercise (cycling, walking, hiking)
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Hot tub or sauna
  • Relaxing hobbies such as reading or listening to music
  • Meaningful relationships
  • Drinking tea
Depending on your tastes and what you find to be relaxing, any of the above activities can have the ability to lower stress, improve oxygenation of tissues, facilitate lymph circulation, and promote a hormonal environment that is vital to recovery.

Keep in mind, one activity is not necessarily better than another. All that matters is that you pick a specific activity that you find enjoyable. The many systems of the body are working overtime between training sessions to bring the body back to balance, the least you could do is give your body a boost.

Immunity and Recovery
Training is a stressor to the human body. The stress which training places upon the body is truly under-appreciated. Training stresses the entire body and all it's systems, such as the cardiopulmonary system, detoxification system, hormonal system, metabolic system, central nervous system, neuromuscular system, and the immune system. They are all affected by training and all these systems do not recover at the same time.

When it comes to immunity, the relationship between exercise and immunity is what researchers call a “J-shaped curve”.
  • Sedentary individuals are at moderate risk for infection. Their immune system isn’t running as well as it could be.
  • Individuals who are regularly active, using moderate intensity and variety in their training, demonstrate the most resistant immune systems.
  • Individuals who are active, but consistently pushing the limits in workout frequency, duration, intensity, or loading without proper recovery put themselves at increased risk for becoming sick.
Take home: High levels of exercise intensity with inadequate recovery can result in immunosuppression. Don't allow your lack of recovery to leave you at an increased risk of coming down with a cold, virus, or infection.

Nutrition and Recovery
When it comes to nutrition and recovery, eating real food in its unprocessed form will give your body the nutrients it needs. Make consuming whole foods, along with herbs and spices, such as turmeric and garlic, a priority in keeping inflammation to moderate levels and assisting in recovery. It's also important to consume adequate amounts of water and fluids to assist with lymphatic function.

Supplements used before, during, or after training, known as peri-workout nutrition, can enhance the recovery process. These include the use of carbohydrates, protein and BCAAs. Glutamine and creatine have also been shown to be effective in promoting recovery. It's important to understand that if recovery supplements or a nutrient dense meal aren’t consumed in a timely fashion after workouts, the regeneration process can be delayed.

Recovery Recommendations
To sum up, here is a general list of recommendations to help you improve your recovery:
  • Make a point of including 20-30 minutes of parasympathetic activity each day (i.e. meditation, massage, warm bath, good conversation, laughing, etc.)
  • Consume nutrient dense foods at regular intervals, use herbs and spices, and drink adequate amounts of water and tea
  • Consider using a carbohydrate, protein, BCAA, and/or creatine supplement as part of your peri-workout nutrition
  • Incorporate variety into your training program
  • Utilize low-intensity exercise on days between high-intensity training sessions to promote recovery (i.e. walking, cycling, swimming, flexibility work)
  • Avoid the regular use of anti-inflammatory medications
  • Make rest a priority and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night
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