SLEEP: The Essential Vitamin You May be Missing

One year ago, I sat down with a mental checklist: 

✔️Nutritious, home-cooked, well-balanced & well-timed meals  

✔️Creative, high-intensity & well-designed workouts

❌Feeling happy and healthy

As a fitness & wellness professional, all that I deemed important was in place, but I wasn't well.  I was incurring one nagging injury after another, often emotional, crabby & irritable (mostly with my kids) and experiencing strong afternoon food cravings.  Is it possible that I was deficient in some essential vitamin?  I then went though my nutritional checklist: 

✔️Getting enough protein (this curbs simple sugar cravings for many women) 

✔️Getting a variety of vitamins & minerals from the rich plant-based portion of my diet (2/3 of my plate is made up of veggies/greens/grains)  

✔️Getting complex carbohydrates to feed my brain, help me focus and ignite power into my workouts (sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole grain bread/pasta, quinoa…).  

As a personal trainer from 6am-2pm, a capoeirista from 7-10pm and a mother 24/7, sleep had been pushed to the back burner for the past 2.5 years. Running two businesses and parenting had taken priority over sleep.  Everyone in NYC complains about being tired/exhausted/overworked--but I love what I do, in all three quadrants of my life, so being tired seemed normal and acceptable.

Though I’d been suffering from a string of minor injuries, it was only when this more serious injury kept me from my works-outs, capoeira and my work, that I had to figure out an action plan.  While teaching & participating at a Capoeira event in Montreal last June, the final straw that broke the camel’s back happened.  While performing a familiar take-down on my opponent that I’d trained for many years, I felt (and heard!) a terrible snap/pop in my hamstring and was down for the rest of the event with immense pain and inability to move.  I hate not participating, so I mustered the energy to stand in the roda(capoeira circle) on one leg and play instruments/sing for the remainder of the weekend before sitting in my car for the 7+ hour drive back to NY.  My diagnosis upon return: a partially torn hamstring. 

Beyond patience and time to rehabilitate, what was my big-picture diagnosis?  My symptoms were pointing to one thing: sleep deprivation.  Sleep loss is cumulative and the tricky part is that one doesn’t always see the direct connection in their lives.  Tell-tale signs of chronic sleep deprivation are moodiness, impulsiveness, and disengagement, to name a few (all very applicable in my case, but only from a retrospective view).  Merely feeling sleepy is not often the symptom of this deficiency.  On the contrary, there is a strange high at times, like you are running on fumes, until the daily or weekly crashes happen.  My reoccurring injuries pointed to the important role that sleep plays for athletes: muscle recovery.  If you are an athlete attempting to grow (hypertrophy) or maintain muscle, sleep is irreplaceable.  When you work out you are constantly breaking down your muscle fibers and sleep is absolutely necessary for muscle recovery as is enables protein synthesis and human growth hormone release.

Not enough motivation?  How about this: Sleep Deprivation & Weight Gain
Remember those afternoon food cravings I was having?  Multiple research teams have proven that people who get less than 8 hours sleep have a 300% higher rate of obesity than those who get a full 8-10 hours of sleep.  Why?  As we deny our bodies of sleep our production of an appetite-suppressing hormone, LEPTIN, lowers.  Normally produced by fat cells at night while we are getting our zzzz’s, the lack of leptin means feeling hungrier more often irregardless of our diet.  Sleep deprivation also increases GHRELIN, a hormone released by the stomach that stimulates hunger.  Oh!  Double-whammy.  There’s the reason for those afternoon cravings!  

Life gives us challenges and we must adapt.  What must give in our over-scheduled lives to make more time for sleep?  Here are some possible suggestions that have helped me reorganize my life/work/priorities to get more sleep without messing with the balance of exercise/food/family/work.  

  1. Create healthy boundaries at work as to what your leaving time is.  I find this is easier for my clients and friends with children/families, but very difficult for single professionals.  Creating those boundaries mean what goes on outside of work is sacred to you: your exercise time, your cooking/eating time, your sleep time.  Be clear & be firm!
  2. Make your commute a physical activity whenever possible: walk to work, bike to work.  Find a gym nearby (or at your work) where you can shower.  You’ll be surprised at how not taking the subway/train/driving coupled with extra cardiovascular stimulation will freshen your mind for the day.
  3. Get an alarm clock that is NOT your cellphone.  Turn your cell phone off and put it away at least 1/2 hour before bedtime.  Get into bed 1/2 hour before you want/need to be asleep—no technology with you!  
  4. Having a hard time calming your mind/body?  Learn to use a foam roller before sleep to give yourself self-myofacial release and bring your body/muscles to a state of length and relaxation to get the most out of your sleep time!

And remember--aim for progress, not perfection!