You seem to be doing everything right — eating nutrient-dense meals, making time for workouts, taking rest days that help your muscles recover, de-stressing when you can — and still, you may feel like something just isn’t clicking or your progress has stalled.
For many people, the answer might not be what’s on the plate or the weight rack — it could be a sleep quality issue instead.
Bad sleep does more than turn you into a caffeine junkie, it can have a ripple effect across all aspects of your health. According to Harvard Medical School, good sleep quality has been linked to cardiovascular health, lower risk of diabetes and even a longer life span. When it comes to fitness and weight, poor sleep comes with its share of drawbacks:
1. ALTERED METABOLISM
A recent study recruited metabolically healthy, normal-weight subjects and changed their schedules so they would have some degree of sleep deprivation. Participants reported difficulty controlling food impulses, and researchers discovered acute sleep loss altered their levels of appetite-regulating hormones.
Because of this, they suggested those with chronically insufficient sleep might have negative metabolic effects, causing them to gain weight.
2. HIGHER CORTISOL LEVELS
Cortisol is the hormone most related to stress — it surges when you’re feeling frazzled, but can also be helpful for getting through emergency situations or hard workouts.
When you’re not sleeping enough, your cortisol levels could remain elevated, and that’s a problem because it prevents elevation of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep.
“High cortisol levels wreak havoc over time, deplete your happy brain chemicals like serotonin, rob your sleep and make you store fat, especially in your belly,” says Sara Gottfried, MD, author of “The Hormone Cure” and “The Hormone Reset Diet.” “High cortisol is likewise linked to depression, food addiction and sugar cravings.”
3. CHALLENGED GUT BACTERIA
In a small but promising recent study from Sweden, researchers note there may be a strong connection between sleep and gut health.
Participants who didn’t have any sleep problems were awakened after 4 1/2 of shuteye on two consecutive nights, and even that small disruption affected their gut flora. They were less able to regulate blood glucose levels, suggesting that chronic sleep issues could put someone at risk for diabetes or obesity.
In terms of fitness, poor gut health can cause major problems with energy levels and muscle function. If that leads to missed workouts, the issue can be exacerbated, since exercise has been shown improve microbial diversity in the gastrointestinal tract. So, your belly’s good bugs are suffering because you’re not sleeping right or you decide to veg out instead of hit the gym, and then those bugs get even more depleted.
4. BETTER STRATEGIES
Factors like an inefficient metabolism, disrupted gut bacteria and always-on cortisol lead to fatigue, the kind where there isn’t enough coffee in the world to get you back on track.
If lack of proper shuteye is dragging you down, take heart. There are some strategies to help you fall asleep and stay asleep so you can prevent some of the hormonal, energy and digestion issues that may come up.
For example, consider what’s in your meals. Nutritionist Joy Dubost, RD, notes that there are certain foods you can eat just before bedtime to maximize sleep. Bananas provide potassium and magnesium — both natural muscle relaxants — and are high in carbs, which tend to make people drowsy, Dubost says. “It’s also a good idea to skip very spicy or sugary foods, since they can set off a chain reaction that makes it harder to fall asleep,” she says.
Other strategies include limiting blue light before bed — which means putting down the iPad and smartphone — and turning down the temperature of the room, since people tend to sleep better when it’s cooler.
No matter what tweaks you make, it’s likely that working on your sleep quality will pay off in the long run — and could even give your fitness efforts a major boost.