This SleepSomatics blog article is part four of a four part series on sleep quality, sleep disorders, sleep & weight loss, and in-lab sleep study testing.
Part Four: Restorative Sleep and Weight Loss
Sleep Your Way to Six Pack Abs
You've tried Atkins, South Beach Diet, and every low carb diet out on the market. You traded cards on Deal-a-Meal, signed up for Jenny Craig, and then invested a lot of money in NutriSystem. You got a trainer at Gold's Gym, dusted off your 24 Hour Fitness membership, looked ridiculous at Zumba, and spent a week on the P90X fitness DVD's. You got your hormones checked and started taking thyroid supplementation, injecting testosterone, or slathering on the greasy, smelly AndroGel, or Testim. Then you went Paleo, cut out dairy and gluten, popped raspberry ketones, added high intensity interval training (HIIT), and spent a lot more money to join a Crossfit gym. You even bought a FitBit and wore it all day and night. You've tried every diet and workout routine in the last three decades, and yet you're still overweight, unhappy, and considering a gastric lap band, liposuction, and cool sculpting. Did all of these programs fail? No. The programs didn't fail. All of those programs can and do work. Your inability to lose weight, get in shape, and shred those six pack Beach Body abs is because you aren't getting enough of the correct restorative sleep.
"Looking Great Naked" is a profitable industry:
- $20 billion annual revenue for the weight loss industry
- 108 million people on diets
- $500k to $3 million average salary paid to celebrity endorsers of major weight loss products
With all the money Americans spend on weight loss, why are we the fattest nation on Earth? There are many reasons. The most under-reported reason is also the most common reason for weight gain: poor sleep.
Here's what you need to know about sleep, weight loss, and muscle growth:
- If you aren't happy with how you look naked, then you must fix your sleep.
- Diet and Exercise are two points of the Weight Loss Triangle, and the third equally-critical point is Sleep.
- All of us are capable (through correct diet, exercise, and hard work) of overcoming our genetic programming and looking the way we want. What we are incapable of overcoming through hard work is a dysfunctional body that is metabolically-sabotaged by broken sleep.
- The actual repair and growth of your muscle does not occur when you're lifting the weight. The act of weight lifting is the stimulus for the body to begin the repair process. The actual repair and growth of muscle occurs when you sleep.
Weight Loss, Sleep, and Damn Dirty Lies
Forget Diet Hacks or “This One Simple Trick.” Nevermind the Low Carb, No Carb, Paleo, Gluten-free high-protein, high fat diets. Say goodbye to Crossfit, 5x5, and HIIT training. Don’t even bother with sleep aides and Melatonin, either. If you aren’t getting the correct sleep quality and continuity, getting your six pack shredded abs just won’t happen.
So every diet program functions on a basic formula that accounts for our mammalian design. Whether by food choice or food portion, all diets work by burning more calories than you consume. This is known as the "caloric deficit," and when the body burns more calories than it consumes, it is forced to begin burning stored fat for fuel.
As the excess stored fat begins to melt away, the muscles underneath are exposed. Thus, every workout program or system functions on a basic formula of tearing down muscle so the body can repair, rebuild, and reshape that muscle into a more developed, attractive form. These workout programs both improve the muscle attractiveness and also the muscle functionality, for stronger, bigger, active muscles increase calorie burning. More muscles equals more calories burned, which reduces more fat and makes more muscle visible.
Simple formula, right? So why is it that so many people faithfully follow these diets and workout programs and still don't see results? It's the damn, dirty lie of the weight loss industry. You get sold the food, pills, and gym memberships without being told that without the third required step of sleep, you won't see the results you want. Diet and Exercise are not the two exclusive pillars of weight loss. Diet and Exercise are two points of the Weight Loss Triangle, and the third equally-critical point is Sleep.
The Evolution of Humans, Sleep, and Muffin Tops
The human body is evolutionarily designed to store fat for survival. Go to any natural history museum and look for an overweight caveman. You won't find one. Now look at most Americans and compare their body composition to our ancestors. Those muffin tops we all have and spend a lot of money trying to get rid of are there for a reason. Think of your love handles as "survival handles."
Prior to the Agrarian Revolution in Egypt, humans were hunter-gatherers who were "opportunistic eaters." They hunted meat and gathered plants, eating whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was not until a few thousand years ago that humans began to build communal settlements and farm food for storage. Farming and storing food for later consumption allowed the growth of human settlements into colonies and eventually cities, and it is with the Agrarian Revolution that human population began to rise.
Around 10,000 B.C.E., the first major agricultural revolution occurred known today as the Neolithic Revolution. The most notable of these changes was seen in the area known as the Fertile Crescent, where the reliably seasonal flooding of the Nile River allowed peoples to irrigate cereal crops and raise domesticated food animals. As humans settled in harsher, colder climates north of Mesopotamia and into Western Europe, the farming of cereal crops like wheat, barley, and rye became as critical to human survival as meats and dairy. Carbohydrate-dense cereal crops could be stored for longer periods of time and maintain densely populated colonies in ways that hunting meat and foraging vegetables and seeds could not. By the 19th century, agricultural production improvements became one of the cornerstones of the Western European Industrial Revolution, which of course gave way to the development of our modern world. Our sprawling urban cities and 7.5 billion population here on Earth all derive from our humble farming beginnings.
Consequently, it has been a relatively short span of years of agricultural and technological improvements that have enabled humans to effectively eat whatever they want whenever they want. Compared to the much longer period of human evolution, the rapid change in our diets and sedentary lives has produced the effect on our waistlines we now see. The obesity rate has correspondingly skyrocketed in that time. Yes, there are hormones and GMO additives in the food. Yes, high fructose corn syrup and processed sugar exacerbate the problem, as well. But the core problem exists that humans evolved to eat radically different than they do today.
Sleep and Survival
Most articles on this subject focus either on sleep as tool for weight loss or for muscle growth. Sufficient, quality sleep is necessary for both weight loss and muscle growth. Yes, you can build muscle if all you focus on is hitting the gym two-a-days and "chasing the pump." Yes, you can use lose weight by using a food scale and your MyFitnessPal app or other calorie counter apps to record every crumb you eat (and if you're a Crossfit Paleo adept, you can post every "clean" meal to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with a dozen hashtags to annoy your friends and followers). But if you aren't seeing the muscle gains you want, or if you aren't seeing weight loss each time you step on the scale ... then something is missing.
We repeat again for the sake of simplicity and truth: If you aren't happy with how you look naked, then you must fix your sleep.
Let us again review the earlier history lesson. Mammals are evolutionarily designed to hunt and gather food for one-half to two-thirds of the day. The other third of the day is spent asleep. We spend one third of our lives sleeping. Whether by Intelligent Design or Evolutionary Design, we are nonetheless designed to sleep one third of the day. As the sun sets, our brains begin releasing hormones including melatonin to trigger sleep. Until the invention of the light bulb and artificial light was introduced to major cities, most Americans fell asleep shortly after sunset and awoke again with the sunrise. This can be traced to our nation's farming history, but it is a reflection of our evolutionary history.
If you think humans were designed to live and function at night, ask yourself why none of us have the ability to see in the dark? Next time someone tells you they were born a "night owl," kindly turn all the lights off and ask them to cook you a meal in pitch black darkness. Now imagine trying to hunt wild game in total darkness or fend off attacks from wild predators in the dead of night? Yeah, night owl...
If a human is designed to spend all day sprinting, walking long miles, and fighting beasts and famine for survival, then what is the purpose of sleep? If sleep were simply a way to "pass the time," then sleep would be a relatively short process. Again, thousands of years ago, our ancestors were competing with wild predators for food and survival. Before we had semi-assault rifles (or could call 911 for help), we humans had to survive on our own. Survival of the Fittest, as is the common term. Sleep is not helpful to survival in a world where nocturnal predators are hunting around for their next meal.
So how is sleep helpful for survival? We spend one-third of our lives asleep because we need that time to maximize our growth, repair, and recovery. Sleep is a biologically and neurologically complex state of alternating cycles of restoration that make the other two-thirds of your day possible. Without quality sleep, you get fat. Without any sleep, you die. With quality, sufficient sleep you are a lean, mean, shredded abs machine.
Sleep, Metabolism, and Weight Loss
As we discussed, weight loss occurs when you burn more calories than you consume. Alternately, weight gain occurs when you eat more calories than you burn. Many studies have proven that conflicting dietary models can and do work--you can lose weight eating low carb just as you can eating high carb, for example. Diets sell that their program is easier than competitors, and for individuals, some diets may be easier than others. But all diets function on the same premise of calories-in being less than calories-out.
If you accept this as true (which it is), then your body's response to food affects your calorie intake and weight loss. Your trainer will tell you not to blame your workout stalls and weight loss plateaus on your genetics. However, your body's biological functioning is legitimately a major factor in your weight loss. Don't blame your love handles on your genetics ... even though it's true.
Our body is genetically programmed for a certain weight, size, and composition. Yes, there are people who are genetically blessed to eat whatever they want and still look amazingly thin (and yes, it's okay to resent them for their genes). However, all of us are capable (through correct diet, exercise, and hard work) of overcoming our genetic programming and looking the way we want. What we are incapable of overcoming through hard work is a dysfunctional body that is metabolically-sabotaged by broken sleep.
The body produces four key hormones related to weight loss:
- Ghrelin tells us when to eat;
- Leptin tells us when to stop eating;
- Insulin converts the carbohydrates we eat into energy;
- Cortisol regulates energy production during times of stress.
When you sleep less, your brain produces more ghrelin, less leptin, spikes your cortisol levels, and reduces the sensitivity and effectiveness of insulin. Therefore, when you have broken, insufficient sleep, your brain is telling you to eat more and more, burn less and less of that food for fuel, and to store more and more of that excess food in fat cells. Eating more food means eating more calories than what your body naturally burns. So, when you have broken, fragmented sleep, it does not matter how much you diet and exercise, because your brain and body are working against you to eat more food than you need. Bad sleep sabotages your weight loss efforts. This is also a reason why people with poor, broken sleep are far more likely to develop type II diabetes--even when they eat correctly!
Again, the evolutionary history of our species is critical to understanding the essential nature of sleep. Two-thirds of the day was spent evading predators and hunting for our family's survival. Once the sun set, our brain's released melatonin to put us to sleep. If we awoke prematurely before sunrise, it was not because our boss tweeted us about the 8 AM meeting being moved up to 7 AM. We didn't awaken in our caves because we wanted to play on Xbox or binge Netflix until Starbucks opened. No.
When our Paleolithic ancestors prematurely awoke from sleep, it was because there was danger. The brain reacted to our very lives being under threat. That danger meant that our bodies needed every calorie stored in them for fuel for our survival. It didn't take weeks or months of insomnia for this survival reflex to activate. It only took one midnight predator attack for our caveman ancestors to die. The human body required immediate activation of its stress hormones to survive an attack in our sleep. Your body doesn't know it's not still living in a cave today and metabolically reacts the same way as it did thousands of years ago. Fast forward a few thousand years ahead to today and you'll understand why the human body is still growing those love handles each night you wake up and can't fall back asleep.
Studies consistently demonstrate that broken sleep leads to weight gain. One study found that dieters who maintained the same caloric intake but reduced their sleep over a two week period resulted in a 55% reduction in their weight loss efforts. 55%! Another study from the University of Chicago coined the phrase "metabolically groggy" when referring to the effect of bad sleep on weight loss. And other studies have found people sleeping less than 7 hours nightly were far heavier, gained weight faster, and had more difficulty losing the weight than their counterparts who slept longer, deeper, and more restfully. The metabolic ravages of poor sleep begin with one night of broken sleep and reach metabolically-critical levels with 4 nights of poor sleep.
Sleep, Hormones, and Muscle Growth
If three times a charm, then let us all shout this at the top of our voices so we never forget: If you aren't happy with how you look naked, then you must fix your sleep.
On the opposite end of the "look better naked" spectrum from weight loss is muscle growth. There are plenty of guys (and, thankfully, gals) hitting the gyms, chasing the pump, and taking selfies of their "mad GAINZZZ." The weight lifting community can be intimidating and filled with as many half-truths and twisted misinformation as the diet weight loss industry. After all, there's $20 billion reasons for keeping Americans fat and coming back for the next, best, latest weight loss and diet craze.
There are truth-tellers in the weight loss community, and in fact, the weightlifting and body building community (an admittedly smaller percentage of the overall weight loss industry) tend to be the trainers and elite athletes who trumpet the clarion call for increasing and improving your sleep. Body builders earn their living off of the aesthetic quality and look of their muscles. And though one may "cheat" their way into weight loss with poor sleep and diet, one cannot "cheat" their way to muscle growth without correct diet, training, and sleep. And if you want to look good, you have to sleep good.
One-third of your life is spent sleeping, and it is during sleep that the body is able to repair, recuperate, and rebuild muscle. Sleep is also when most of our production of growth hormone (GF) and testosterone are released. These anabolic growth hormones (yes, your body naturally produces anabolic growth hormones) are comparatively absent when you are awake and released when you sleep deeply and sufficiently.
Muscle growth is your body's way of adapting to new stress. Again, we look at our evolutionary history for proof. Humans never had access to excess quantities of nutrient-dense food. Our caveman ancestors didn't have shaker cups of microfiltered whey protein to chug down every 2 hours. We lived off of what we could hunt or forage. Even with our body's natural design for long-term food storage (aka, fat rolls and love handles), early human ancestors were still relatively lean. The body is greedy, selfish, and unwilling to expend energy unless it absolutely must. This is by design for our survival. So when the body does expend energy to grow, it is only because it is forced to adapt to new stimuli.
Enter weight lifting and the oft-used bro-science phrases, "You don't grow in the gym!" and "Eat, Sleep, and Train Hard!" Ignoring the nuance of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers for a moment, it may be broadly (and correctly) stated that muscle growth is the relatively simple process of progressive overload. We increasingly expose our muscles to more and more weight, and as we do, our bodies respond by repairing that muscle so it can successfully lift that weight. Then we increase the weight, and our bodies commensurately respond with more muscle growth. Over time, this results in stronger, larger muscles.
As with diets, it does not matter what bodybuilding program you follow. All muscle development programs operate on the same principle of progressive overload to stimulate hypertrophy, or new muscle growth. The actual repair and growth of your muscle does not occur when you're lifting the weight. The act of weight lifting is the stimulus for the body to begin the repair process. The actual repair and growth of muscle occurs when you sleep. Every elite lifter and world-class trainer will tell you the same thing: you will not grow into the Hulk unless you sleep.
Sleep itself is a biologically-lowered energy consuming state, allowing the body the energy and time it needs to repair muscles without having to expend energy on your normal daily activities and needs. When we fall asleep, our brain activates alternating cycles of light and deep sleep. These deeper stages of Restorative Sleep are where metabolic and biologically-reparative processes occur. Testosterone and growth hormone are released. In men, up to 70% of growth hormone is released during deep, Restorative Sleep. Protein synthesis occurs. Cell repair, division, and replacement occur. Muscles undergo repair and growth.
The best trainers and athletes in the power lifting and bodybuilding community all focus on sleep as a crucial aspect of their training.
Here's a sampling of weight lifting experts talking about sleep:
- Greg Glassman, Crossfit Founder
- Elliott Hulse, Strength Camp Founder
- Jason Ferruggia, Renegade Training Founder
- Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength Founder
- Mehdi Hadim, Stronglifts 5x5 Founder
The importance of sleep for muscle growth is most easily seen in children. Newborn babies will spend upwards of 50% in restorative REM sleep, and pubescent adolescents and teenagers will spend almost the same amount in restorative SWS (delta, or slow-wave sleep). These are life stages when the human body is undergoing rapid, transformative growth spurts, and this critical growth is reflected in the longer, deeper restorative sleep required.
Signs of Insufficient Restorative Sleep
If you are reading this article because you have trouble losing weight and/or gaining muscle, then you already know the first symptoms of broken, insufficient restorative sleep: trouble losing weight and/or gaining muscle.
Additional broken sleep symptoms:
- Car accidents
- Difficulty focusing (ADHD)
- Erectile dysfunction and low libido
- Mood Swings
If you don't awaken each morning with the same energy and vigor you once did, or if you have always awoken tired, sleepy, and groggy, it's time to get sleep tested and fix your sleep.
Sleep Your Way to Six Pack Abs
At the header of this SleepSomatics article, we say: "Sleep Your Way to Six Pack Abs." That may sound hyperbolic. It both is and is not. The title is intentionally outrageous to reflect the hysteric claims made by weight loss gurus and fitness models. No, sleeping longer hours won't magically shred your midsection. But following the strictest diet and performing hundreds of Ab Roller crunches daily won't necessarily have you posing for mirror selfies, either ... not without proper, restorative sleep.
Before you cut your calories further or burn-out at the gym, check your sleep. Even if you enjoy being depressed, lethargic, irritable, hypertensive, diabetic, unable to sexually perform in bed, and getting into car accidents ... even if you love all of those sleep deprivation side-effects, then get your sleep tested and fix your broken sleep for your fitness goals. Consider in-lab sleep testing at a credentialed, accredited sleep center like SleepSomatics.
Concerned you aren't getting enough sleep? If you or someone you care about snores or is tired and fatigued during the day, sleep-disordered breathing (and sleep apnea) may be a serious risk. Get your sleep tested today by SleepSomatics, a professionally credentialed and accredited sleep test center located in Austin since 1999. Call 512.323.9253.
For more information, visit this article's sources:
This blog's thumbnail image credit goes to Muscle Mag.