Sleep Posture

As a very pregnant human, I think a lot about sleep and sleep posture... but this is a topic y'all should be considering!

You will hear us say posture is an important skill - you have to actively work to improve it. Posture influences how you move, think, and recover. But did you know it's a skill you can work on while you sleep? Sleep posture plays a big role in your overall posture and physical well being.  Think about it.  You spend a lot of hours on that mattress.  That position you habitually sleep is a big contributor to your mobility issues you have to deal with during your waking hours. Do you sleep on your stomach? This often creates a very asymmetrical cervical spine range of motion that influences the rest of the spine all the way down to the lumbar spine and the sacrum (low back pain anyone?).  Pile those pillows high?  Look for a forward head posture issues. Do you curl your wrists in and hug an imaginary teddy bear while on your side?  Watch for neck pain, diminished bad wrist mobility, and a whole lot of shoulder of issues.  Tuck your feet tight into your sheets so they point down like a ballerina?  Check your ankle mobility... you see where I am going here.  Don't take your sleep posture for granted.

How should you sleep then?  The answers vary. The two most ideal positions are either on your back or on your side.

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Side Sleeping

If you choose to sleep on your side, you’ll need enough support under your neck to keep your spine neutral and be able to maintain stacked hips. Some find using a body pillow is great support. If a big body pillow doesn't suit you, you can get away with a regular pillow or a bolster pillow for the knees, and a pillow under the neck. When you are in a neutral position, you should not feel the need or desire to curl your wrists to tuck under your head or neck, bring one leg down in front of the other, or sleep with your head on top of your arm or shoulder.

Back Sleeping

If you prefer to sleep on your back, make sure your neck is properly supported (too high can be just as bad as too low). Make sure your neck is not pushed too far forward by too many pillows.  If someone were to look at you from the side, your neck should be in line with your body and not in front of it.  You can lie with your head flat on the mattress if you’d like. A pillow under your knees can provide extra comfort (some people even prefer two pillows or a bolster to elevate their legs a bit more). Make sure the sheets aren't pulling your feet down, untuck them if you need to necessary. This position will maintain a neutral, supported spine while promoting optimal blood flow.

Do these positions sound crazy?  Are you willing to give them a try?  Changing your sleep habits takes time, but happy, healthy slumbers are well worth the effort and the postural benefits will pay you back in dividends!

Sleep and Your Tired Eyes

You don't want to be good - you want to be great.  That's why you train hard and eat right.  You work hard and you play hard.  And because you are such a rock star, you get it all done, despite having to burn the candle at both ends.  But you'll be fine - you catch up on sleep on Sundays and start the week fresh.

As good as this may sound, depriving yourself from getting adequate sleep is detrimental to your goals.  If you aren't getting enough sleep, your rockstardom is completely null - no amount of supplements or healthy eating can replace the recovery your body goes through while in sleep mode.

Sleep is more than just resting your eyes.   Sleep regulates your hormones, your secretion of cortisol, melatonin, serotonin, testosterone, growth hormone and dopamine - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Start depriving yourself of proper amounts and quality sleep and you will lose your aerobic endurance, your secretion of growth hormone (say goodby to active tissue repair and strength gains and hello to soreness), depleted mood, elevated stress... all bad things.  Stay in a deprived state and your symptoms will become more drastic and acute.  Not only will your quality of training diminish, but your psychosocial and physical state during your waking hours will as well.

Additionally, you need to stop lulling yourself to sleep with things like television and web-surfing.  Just like your diet, you should think of your sleep in terms of the caveman -- if it's dark outside, biologically, you should be sleeping.  Now, I am not telling you to become an eccentric who hermits themselves by sunset, but be aware "[a]rtificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour—making it more difficult to fall asleep." (Quoted from Charles Czeisler, PhD, MD, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital).

To read more about it, I highly recommend the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival by T.S. Wiley.  Considering all the research you have done on perfecting your diet, you should know a bit more about the most important part of your recovery process.  Don't be just another person who takes sleep for granted. Respect your recovery process.  Get your 8 hours.

Food for Thought: Alcohol as a Sleep Aid

If you are part of the reported 45% of people who don't get enough sleep at night, you might be willing to try almost anything to achieve the holy grail of recovery.  However, a recent Science Friday story on NPR says "Researchers Find that Using Alcohol to Sleep may have Long-Term Complications."

Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that using alcohol to fall asleep may actually be keeping people awake.

Dr. Mahesh Thakkar is a professor and neurology researcher at the MU School of Medicine. He’s been studying alcohol’s affect on human sleep for many years. He says that 20 percent of US adults have used alcohol- at some point- to help them fall asleep.

But, he said, “it is a pseudo-sleeping drug.  It will produce sleep for a very short time, but then it will keep you awake all night.”

Thakkar added that this is because alcohol affects sleep homeostasis – essentially the body’s internal sleep timer.

“When you drink alcohol, what it is does is it shifts your homeostasis,” Thakkar said. “You rapidly go to sleep, but the amount of sleep that you require is the same – so you wake up in the middle of the night.”

He said this may not be an issue if drinking is done socially and sporadically, but if used as a sleep aid - alcohol can lead to serious complications down the line.

“They develop tolerance,” Thakkar said. “So the second day or third day or fourth day they will need more alcohol to go to sleep. And then the fifth day, more and more – so you increase the risk of becoming alcohol dependent.”

Or in simpler terms, it increases one’s risk of developing alcoholism.

Thakkar said he hopes that by understanding how alcohol affects sleep, medications can be developed that mimic the effects of alcohol – falling asleep quickly and sleeping without dreams – but without the risk of alcoholism.

He added this could be especially useful for patients struggling with PTSD.

Food for Thought: Improve Your Mental Health with Sleep – Part 1

A Whole9 guest post by Emily Deans M.D., a board certified psychiatrist with a practice in Massachusetts and she teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Sleep is incredibly important for good mental health. In my view it comes ahead of exercise and a good diet…if you aren’t sleeping reasonably well, no matter how great your workout habits and how clean your diet, you are shoveling sand against the tide. It’s no coincidence that pretty much every major mental health condition you can tick off on your fingers can have derangements of sleep as a major symptom: major depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and ADHD all make the list.

The problem is that insomnia is often either a chicken and egg issue or a lifestyle issue. Stress leads to poor sleep which leads to poor functioning which leads to more stress which leads to more poor sleep. Or perhaps you are a night shift worker or busy working mother of three taking evening college classes who simply does not have enough hours in the day. In any event, regulating and prioritizing good sleep as much as possible is vital for a healthy brain. Sleep is the time when the metabolic toxins that build up in the brain from all the energy-hungry thinking we do gets washed away. Complete lack of sleep will eventually lead to inflammation, neuron damage, dementia, possibly psychosis, and death. Sleep deprivation, even a few hours a night, leads to decreased cognitive function, increased irritability, and increased susceptibility to mental health problems.

So if your sleep is a problem, then how do you make it better? As a practical matter, there are folks who have trouble getting to sleep, then others who have trouble staying asleep, some who have trouble with both, and some who have a wacky sleep schedule that doesn’t match the normal day/night cycle. There are acute or temporary cases of insomnia caused by a sudden stress (death in the family, for example) that can become chronic, and then there are folks who sleep horribly for years. We’ll start with some tips about good sleep hygiene to get you started, and in part II of this article we’ll go on to some more complex strategies for tougher cases of insomnia.

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Tips for Good Sleep Hygiene

1) Routine, routine, routine.

Circadian rhythms in the body are a dance of hormones, clock proteins, and neurotransmitters. Temperature, particular wavelengths of light, darkness, cortisol, stimulants, hypnotic agents, and a host of other factors all play a role in getting the brain from wakefulness to sleep. All these disparate systems can come together to play a nice lullaby, or you can get one out of rhythm leading to a cacophony.

Routine will help all the systems stay in sync with one another. Get up and go to sleep at about the same time, even on the weekends. Doing the same thing before bed every night, whether it is a meditative evening yoga or reading will help. However, watching TV right before bed can be problematic (too stimulating and the wavelengths of light from screens can interfere with sleep). Keep the bedroom cool and the pajamas loose. Tight clothing can interfere with sleep.

2) Use the sun/light in the morning to help establish a good sleep pattern.

If your schedule allows, get up with the sun and preferably get some real outside bright morning sunlight each day. Sleeping late is associated with depression. If you live in a permanently cloudy region, a dark hole in the ground, or the extreme north or south, using a 10,000 lux lamp in the dark winter morning can help entrain normal circadian rhythms, improving insomnia and consolidating sleep better.  Night shift workers can also use the lamp at the beginning of the evening to entrain “daytime” in the brain and then use dark or blue-blocking glasses in the early morning along with black-out curtains to help improve sleep.

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3) Don’t sleep late.

I know I’m repeating myself, but I really can’t stress this point enough. Sleeping late wrecks body rhythms. If you have a late night, you are much better off getting up with the sun then catching an afternoon nap if possible than sleeping past about eight in the morning. Ever wake up early, fall back to sleep, wake up at 11am and feel like death warmed over? A morning nap tends to result in non-restorative sleep, whereas an afternoon nap can be energizing and feel great.

4) Manage evening light.

We obviously didn’t evolve with electric lights, and the newest generation of brilliant, cheap LED lights and the LED screens on the iPads and Kindles and phones are precisely designed to wreck sleep. Why is that? We have special cells in our eyes called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, and they have a direct line of communication to the master clock of our bodies in the brain. Beautiful glorious 480nm blue light which makes our iPads look so awesome streaming Game of Thrones is a precision-tuned GOOD MORNING signal to the brain.

In the lullaby of hormones, clock proteins, and environmental signals that help us to sleep, bright lights at night is like someone nearby crashing cymbals. The best strategy is to either avoid electronics after sunset or, if you must indulge, wear blue-blocking glasses. They are cheap, have no side effects other than making you look super cool (ahem), and are effective if you wear them.

5) Watch those bad habits.

Alcohol and short-acting sleeping medicines tend to make you sleep hard at first, then wake up in the middle of the night in a bit of withdrawal and wide awake. Longer acting sleeping medicines are still in the system when you wake up, leading to a dangerous drive into work or school. All of them can be habit forming, which means you won’t be able to get to sleep without them. Caffeine has a half-life of approximately 6 hours or much longer if you are a slow metabolizer. If you have insomnia, avoid it after noon, or get rid of it altogether.

Trouble sleeping? Try the strategies above first, then read part 2 if these basic tips aren’t enough.

Mini Series: Everything You Need to Know About Recovering - Sleep

The following is such an important topic that I am breaking it up for you in digestible bites.  Welcome back to a mini series created from the article published in Juggernaut Training Systems.  Click here to see last week's intro installment.

Fatigue Reduction Methods that Work Well:

The fatigue reduction modalities presented in this section are the ones that almost certainly work and work well. They were chosen because they have three distinct advantages in their favor:

– They have strong support in the peer-reviewed literature.

– They logically align with our greater understanding of sport science and physiology.

– They have been used and sworn by in the real world for a long time and by a diverse group of athletes and gym rats alike.

When you’ve got all three, you know you’re on to something that really works. And our first – and easily most powerful – fatigue reducer:

1) Sleep

Sleep is such a powerful fatigue fighter that it’s likely more effective than all of the other items on this list combined. In fact, if insufficient sleep is a chronic occurrence, it comes close to making even the best efforts on all other fatigue fighting lines null and void. Curiously, a likely major function of sleep in animals (including humans) is precisely to reduce fatigue. Yeah, you might be OK without that massage post-workout, but sleep is not optional.

Going chronically without needed sleep leads to all sorts of fun effects, including performance losses, technique execution difficulties, and profound elevations of cortisol and decreases in testosterone. Going without sleep has also been shown to do two things that are especially interesting: cause fat gain and later, weight loss (if depravation gets bad enough). Fat gain combined with weight loss is literally the fastest way to lose muscle. It’s a REALLY bad deal.

OK fine, sleep is good, no sleep is bad. Got it. What about some practical recommendations? How much is enough? Well, the average trainee seems to need about eight hours of quality sleep per night. But that doesn’t mean much, because you might not be the average trainee. We ALL know that guy who sleeps five hours a night and recovers just fine! Ronnie Coleman was supposedly in this unique group of athletes. So what’s the deal?

It seems that the best recommendation for sleep is: Get enough FOR YOU. Your training partner might need six hours of sleep, and your coach might need 10, but the only thing you need is enough sleep for your own physiological needs. How do you know you’re getting enough? The truth is: Unless you’re a little kid, you know.

If you wake up tired and get sleepy during the day all the time, you’re not getting enough quality sleep. If you feel A-OK without massive doses of stimulants, you’re likely fine. It’s always good to experiment with a bit more sleep if you’re OK to see if there is a benefit, but generally, it’s that simple. And the thing is, almost everyone KNOWS when they are sleep deprived. They know, but they say “my job is demanding” or “the stress keeps me from sleeping,” or they just love late-night TV and can’t quit the habit. And it’s OK to be sleep deprived now and again, but if it’s a chronic thing, it will have a large impact on your training results. That’s for sure.

Is it all right to party super late a couple of weekends a month? Of course! But if you’re under-sleeping five days per week, you might benefit from making sure you get the sleep you need … on a REGULAR basis.

How are you at lights out?  Tune in next week to follow up with another underestimated fatigue reducer: Sleep.  Got questions?  Talk to your coach about your recovery routine.