With 40% of Britons scraping by on just 6 hours of sleep or less a night, it's not surprising that a national survey revealed only a quarter of us sleep very well most nights.
Alas no amount of caffeine or preworkout can change the reality that getting enough rest plays an essential role in keeping you in shape.
A number of hormones which form a cornerstone of your body's recovery and muscle building are mainly produced when you sleep, so a good night's sleep is essential to get the most of them. Read on for 12 action points to help you get there.
SLEEP IS FOR THE STRONG
Your body's daily growth hormone and testosterone production mostly happens when you're in the deepest phase of your sleep. One study found that in men, 60-70% of daily growth hormone production happens during sleep. So poor sleep leads to a sharp decline in your body's production of these hormones.
This matters because whether you're male or female, these two hormones are key for staying in shape. They promote the growth and repair of your muscles while also helping burn fat.
Prolactin is a hormone which is important in joint recovery, and is also released during sleep. As well as helping your body recover from a workout, getting enough sleep is key so you have the energy to give your next gym session your all.
Not getting enough sleep has effects way beyond the gym though. Sleep deprivation has a marked impact on concentration, alertness, memory and mood. Getting just 5 hours sleep several nights in a row takes a similar toll on your cognitive abilities as having a few drinks. It can also weaken your immune system.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
As with most hotly debated issues in the health area, the reality is that different people have different needs. One landmark study which took into account 320 pieces of research found that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
They found that a few people can function on 6 hours sleep without a loss in cognitive abilities. If you're assuming you're part of this privileged few, keep in mind that people who function worse after 6 hours sleep are not aware of it, and rate their own mental abilities just as highly.
As a rule of thumb you should aim for 7 hours as a minimum, and more if you feel you need it. Getting less than 7 hours sleep on a regular basis has been linked to a wide range of health issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and more.
If your need for 7+ hours sleep bothers you, just count yourself lucky you're not a koala - they sleep for 18-22 hours per day.
1) Put on the blue light (filter)
Many studies have shown that exposing yourself to the blue light emitted by electronic devices like phones and laptops shortly before bed disrupts the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a natural sleep-inducing hormone and messing with it can disrupt your body's sleeping patterns.
If you're insistent on being glued to your screen till bedtime, just turn on the blue light filter from your smartphone's display settings. For computers you can download f.lux.
2) Don't booze right before bed
Whoa, put down your pitchfork. Nobody's saying you can't enjoy a few sharpeners after work. On second thoughts, someone probably is - but I'll keep this realistic.
The reality is that alcohol shortly before bed interferes with the deepest part of your sleep (REM sleep). One or two drinks will have a minimal effect, but more than that and you're effectively cutting short your rest time. So keep in mind the toll that regular late night sessions will take on your sleep.
3) Enjoy coffee and energy drinks earlier
You should avoid consuming caffeine for at least the last 6 hours leading up to your bedtime. Research shows that enjoying it later than that gives you a shorter and poorer quality night's sleep.
4) Hit the lights
Darkness is an important cue to let your body know it's time to rest. Even small sources of light in your room (e.g. charging lights or streetlights seeping in) can be an obstacle. Cover any electronic lights and invest in some heavy curtains or blackout shades.
Exercise plays a well-documented role in improving sleep quality. Interestingly, one workout won't make much difference - it's regular exercise that has been shown to provide the benefits. Yup, that's yet another reason not to skip leg day.
6) Don't force it
Knowing you need to sleep but not being able to drift off, then getting increasingly worked up is a vicious cycle. If you're not feeling sleepy the best idea is to get up and do something else for 20 minutes (e.g. reading or listening to soft music) then try again.
7) Keep your bed for sleeping
Netflix and reading in bed are two of life's great pleasures, so it pains me to advise that them in bed should be the exception and not the norm.
Instead, sleep expert Dr. Ronald Chervin says you should keep your bed for sleeping so your brain associates it with sleep. Mercifully, Dr. Chervin did confirm that we are still allowed to use our beds for sex.
8) Try relaxation techniques
Meditation has been shown in many studies to improve sleep. It's easy to try out for a few minutes before bed. If that's not your bag, there are many other ways to let yourself drift into a more relaxed mind state.
9) Avoid big pre bed meals
I'm not knocking a pre-bed snack. But you should eat any big meal at least 3 hours before bedtime to give it time to digest. If you get horizontal sooner than that you leave yourself open to heartburn, where stomach acids leak out into your foodpipe (to use the technical term).
10) Don't nap in the afternoon
This one is common sense - if you nap in the afternoon / evening there's a good chance you'll make it harder to get back to sleep later on. If you must nap, keep it short and do it earlier.
11) Get some light
Making sure you get enough exposure to the daylight is important for your melatonin balance which regulates your body clock, and in turn promotes a healthy sleeping pattern.
12) Be consistent
We are creatures of habit, so aim to hit the sack at roughly the same time each night. This consistency is an easy way to regulate your body clock. Even better, get a pre-bed routine going with one or a few relaxing activities each night, 30-60 minutes before bed.
Giving your brain a little consistency around bedtimes is an easy way to prepare it to shut down for the day. This helps avoid being kept awake by nagging thoughts when you finally lie down to sleep.
Myth 1 - Don't exercise shortly before bed
The idea that you should not workout at least 3 hours before your bedtime gets thrown around a lot but does not have any scientific support. It is true that some people have trouble getting to sleep after vigorous exercise.
If you turn out to be one of those people, then by all means limit your workouts to earlier in the day. Everyone else can feel free to exercise as close to bedtime as works for them.
Myth 2 - Cheese gives you nightmares
This myth captures the imagination but has zero scientific backing. The British Cheese Board (yes, that is a thing) put this one to bed with a study and found no link. I've never been one for gorging on cheese just before bed, but it's nice to have the option.
Myth 3 - Your bedroom should be warm and cosy
Your body's core temperature actually needs to drop to help initiate sleep. So it's good to be warm, but you definitely don't want to be too hot at bedtime. Research has shown that having your room a little cooler (ideally 16°C-20°C) around bedtime helps you fall asleep and sleep better.