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I have been a member of the “Type A,” high stress club for most of my adult life. This behavior started in college as I went to class and studied during the day, waited tables at night, and spent any spare moments doing what college kids do: party! This behavior continued as I embarked on my career as a programmer/analyst–in the office early, work late then hit town for a few drinks and relaxation. Then I got married and eventually the kids came along while juggling a high-stress sales job. Does any of this sound familiar?
I can say with great certainty the above lifestyle did not promote healthy sleep habits. In fact, like many of you, I was often proud of my ability to function on very little amounts of sleep, not knowing or really caring how it affected my health. Yep, I was the proverbial, “I can sleep when I’m dead” guy.
The scientific journals are full of articles detailing the importance of getting enough sleep and the bad consequences if we don’t. I’m not going to fill this post up with links to those articles–just type “importance of sleep” into Google and you can read to your heart’s content. I will say this about the the articles that try to specify the precise amount of sleep an human should get in order to be health, it’s my belief each of us are unique and, like most anything, each individual has different sleep requirements. Heck, we all know people that need eight or more hours a night as well as super high functioning folks that claim to be able to exist on a mere four or five hours.
With that said, I can only relate the importance of sleep for me as your mileage will most certainly vary. For me, sleep is one of my “Big 4” factors for optimizing health and ranks right up there with diet, exercise and controlling stress. By the way, no big secret, the “Big 4” are all related and greatly affect each other in one way or another. For example, when I eat poorly, especially drinking to much alcohol, my quality of sleep is greatly affected which leads to increased stress. Conversely, when I exercise hard, I feel less stress and usually am rewarded by good quality sleep.
In fact, since I have been following concentrating on heavy-weight, low-rep compound barbell workouts, my body requires high quality sleep to recover and repair from the stress. I really don’t have too much trouble falling to sleep when I am able to follow my workout plan and do my lifting three times a week.
How can I tell if I’m getting enough sleep? Simple things, really:
- I’m happy and in a great mood
- Lower stress levels
- Strong and productive workouts
- I feel efficient and productive
- My mind is sharp and creative
- I’m able to relax
- I wake up in the morning without an alarm clock
Trouble for me happens when life gets in the way, which happens more often than I like. Here’s a perfect example: I have to go out of town for work leaving on a Wednesday morning and returning on Friday. Chances are I will have to wake up very early on Wednesday morning to catch an early flight–normal sleep is cut short with an alarm and I miss my regular early morning workout. Airline travel is stressful for me anyway, but since my sleep has been cut short and I’ve skipped my workout, the stress is tripled. When on the road, my days and nights are usually packed with customer meetings and dinners which can lead to eating bad food and drinking too much alcohol which most certainly results in poor, low quality sleep. This usually means I’m too busy or not motivated to properly workout while I’m out of town which hurts my ability to deal with stress which further hurts my sleep. If I happen to be traveling out of my home timezone, then you can add jet lag into the equation as well and, by the way, it takes me several days if not weeks to recover from a week on the West coast.
You see that a simple three day business trip, especially to a different timezone, has the potential to seriously disrupt all of my “Big 4” factors especially my sleep. But this is just part of life and my job requires some amount of travel, so I try my best to plan my trips so I can mitigate the ill effects of travel but sleep disruption is the hardest to deal with. Let’s face it, I can control every bit of food and drink that goes into my body and I can make an effort to work out while on the road–I can’t, however, force the airlines to make their flights around my delicate sleeping schedule!
When I am home and a little more in control, it’s still a challenge for me to have the discipline to get my sleep in. Sometimes I have had to make it priority to forgo some things I want or need to do and just go to bed. I’ve found the benefits (see that list above) far outweigh writing that email, or catching up on Facebook, or whatever else might distract me from getting that precious sleep.
Specifically, how much sleep do I really require? I have figured out the best way to answer this question to conduct an experiment on myself (n=1 test). I’ve been tracking my sleep with my FitBit One tracker, which is probably not super accurate, but good enough for me to get a sense of how much sleep I’m getting and what what quality of that sleep is (how many times I wake up and am restless throughout the night). After monitoring for a few months two things jump out:
- Before tracking, I really had no idea how much or little sleep I was getting and, probably more importantly, in general I wasn’t getting the amount or quality of sleep my body needs.
- The most useful information I get from tracking sleep, both quantity and quality, comes from matching the recorded data with how I actually feel the next day (again, see the list above).
So much like tracking calories eaten or weights/reps lifted, monitoring my sleep most definitely has helped me understand when I’m not getting enough quality sleep and helps me to change my behavior and make sleep a priority. The results for me clearly show a direct correlation between sleep and mood, stress level, personal production, etc.
Lastly, through sleep tracking, I also noticed a correlation between lack of sleep and getting sick. Last month I caught a nasty cold and a review of my sleep data in the days prior to the illness show me getting far fewer hours of quality sleep time that normal. I’m not willing to say lack of sleep caused me to get sick, but I do believe sleep if a major factor in keeping my immune system strong.
I think most of us feel better when we get good high-quality sleep. When I’m grumpy, unmotivated, and unproductive one of the first things I concentrate on is making sleep a priority and I find things turn around quickly. However, if I ignore the signals and sacrifice sleep everything seems to spiral out of control and often times I end up getting sick! I have learned my secret weapon for optimizing my health is quality sleep.
Is sleep a priority for you? What tips do you have for getting good, quality sleep? I’d love to get your comments and, as always…
Be smart in the kitchen and a beast in the gym!