Recently I read an article that men tend to see a sharp decline in their growth hormone levels after 40 – an age bracket I am now well and truly a part of. However the article did contain some good news, those who maintain their levels of lean tissue mass keep their growth hormone levels high with barely any loss as the decades march on. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg argument though because the opposite is just as true, you also need growth hormone to keep your lean tissue mass in tact.

So a good exercise routine alone isn’t going to cut it. In fact most of our growth hormone is actually secreted whilst we sleep. I have noticed over the past couple of years that my own sleep patterns have suffered. Not only was I getting to bed later and sleeping less hours in total but worse still, the quality of my sleep was no-where near as good as it had been. I was waking up more and taking longer to drop off again. So not only was I consistently getting to bed late but was actually getting even less sleep because I was spending more “sleep” time awake!
Many of you will have heard me say time and time again – get stronger, keep your muscle mass and you will have far fewer injuries in life. If you do get injured, you get over it much faster. There is also a strong correlation between adequate lean tissue mass and good health in our later years – the very reason that some studies show that those in the “over-weight” BMI category live longer on average than those in the “normal” BMI. (However there is an important and often ignored little twist here that deserves it’s very own discussion somewhere else down the track, remind me some time).

If you think I might be overstating things a bit – here is a study that shows that a lack of sleep reduces your ability to lose weight. The study shows that over just 14 days, weight loss was reduced up to 55% and even worse still this resulted in a loss of lean tissue mass of up to 60%. Imagine going to all the trouble to exercise well and eat right only to stuff it all up by not sleeping long enough – or indeed well enough. And that’s just 14 days! Many people subject themselves to this same level of moderate sleep deprivation year in, year out.

A good night’s sleep also improves our mood and mental alertness as well as enhancing our immune system. All of us will have experienced how we can get a little foggy headed and even grumpy after a restless sleep. The thing is that I knew I was sleeping less and the sleep I was getting was of a lower quality but my mood and mental sharpness didn’t really seem to be any different. I don’t think I was getting sick any more often either. Or at least if there was some deterioration, it was slow enough that I didn’t notice at all. Any of these are very good reasons to try to improve my sleep patterns but really that’s not what motivated me to change. Instead it all came down to hormones.

A lack of sleep doesn’t just decrease growth hormone, it decreases all the “anabolic” hormones our bodies produce and that includes testosterone. “HOLY SHIT” I said to myself – no muscles AND no testosterone! Now I was in serious panic mode. In fact a couple of years ago I started eating more animal fats – mostly in the form of eggs – just to make sure my body had the building blocks it needed to make as much testosterone as possible. When you’re an “old” guy training mixed martial arts with much younger guys (they regularly remind me I am old enough to be their dad), a lack of testosterone is like sticking your chin out and saying punch away. And that’s going to hurt.

So I’ve been experimenting with a few ideas to get more total and better quality sleep over the past few months. Here are all the things that I have found work really well to get a better nights sleep.

  • Go to bed earlier. I know this sounds obvious but most of us can’t control the time we get up. So going to bed earlier is the only option to try to get more total hours of sleep. Try for 9 hours. This never happens for me but if I try for 9, I am more likely to get 7.5-8 hours instead of the 6.5 I was used to.
  • If you do intense exercise sessions at night after work, your body will stay very warm for sometime afterward. As we sleep best when temperatures are cooler at night, being too warm when you go to bed can affect sleep quality. So when I had a shower after a work out, I would really crank the cold water at the end. It doesn’t have to be an ice cold shower, just cold enough to cool you down so you are not overly hot when trying to drop off to sleep.
  • Don’t eat too much in the few hours before you go to bed. A study done at the University of South Australia shows being too full cranks up your system to digest your food rather than calming your body for deep sleep.
  • Turn off all computers, computer games and any bright lights 1 hour before bed. This includes ipads and iphones even if you are reading books. The back light shines in the eyes and confuses our pineal gland whose job is to help us regulate day/night rhythm hormones. Kindles don’t seem to be a problem due to the fact that they don’t have a back light. On the several nights I ignored this tip, my sleep was terrible. Every time, no exception. I am as addicted to the computer as everyone else, so this was the toughest of all the steps. I would honestly say that this one step alone was the most important of all to get a deeper, more restful sleep.
  • I also found it helpful to turn off the TV an hour before bed too. This didn’t make as much difference as the computer but enough that I now do this most nights. If you have a TV in your bedroom and watch it in an otherwise pitch black room, I am guessing that it might be almost as bad as the computer. Seriously, you can’t find something better to do than watch telly in the bedroom??
  • Get your face out into the sunshine. As I am stuck indoors all day, I decided to make a special effort to get out into the clinic car park for 10-15 minutes any time the sun was shining. This helps counteract the effects of being under office lights and staring at computer screens. I got out at the brightest time of the day to stimulate the pineal gland at the exact time it expects to be most active. Without a doubt I noted a deeper more refreshing sleep every time I did this on a sunny day.
  • I started using a foam roller for about 10 minutes immediately prior to jumping into bed. Now anyone who uses a foam roller will know that they are incredibly effective at loosening tissues and articulating joints. However they are kind painful to use when you really work those trigger points. Surprisingly though having this little pre-sleep ritual seems to “program” my brain to shut down and puts me out like a light.
  • I found reading a good book with low but adequate lighting the best option for winding down in that last hour before bed. Be strict with time though! If the book is good, putting it down can be hard. I have been working my way through the Jack Reacher series of late and on too many nights, stayed up way past my planned bedtime. I also liked listening to podcasts or patting the cat on the odd occasion she jumped onto my lap.
  • Ah yes, the cat. Saskia and I managed to fit in a queen sized bed just fine before Audrey came along. Now as you well know Saskia and I are kind of “long and lanky” as one of my best mates put it. And two long and lanky people just didn’t fit into a queen size bed very well at all when shared with a cat who likes to lie sideways between us. In any case our old mattress was creating more aches and pains than it solved and it was time for a change. The solution was an upgrade to a king sized bed and now all three of us are happy once more. I know what you’re thinking – if there is a cat lying right in the middle of the bed, there probably isn’t much need for the extra testosterone.

So has it worked? Do I sleep any better now? It’s definitely worked a treat.

What I really have noticed is just how much faster I am recovering after weight training, something I had noticed was falling away in the past couple of years. Recovery from exercise is completely dependent on adequate rest. Contrary to conventional thinking, you don’t get strong from the exercise, you get strong from the recovery process. The fact that I am recovering better from workouts proves beyond a doubt that getting more and better quality sleep is indeed helping with my hormone balance. Turns out my slower recovery may not be due to being “over 40” after all.

So next time you’re sleeping in and someone infers you are being lazy, send them this article. Use your most authoritative tone and let them know that you are in fact not at all lazy but rather a growth hormone producing machine!
Rod Harris