You Have a Sleeping Problem If…
Written by Fritz Nugent

If you (yes, you the person reading this, not some other hypothetical you, and definitely not everyone else but you) spend less than seven hours in bed each night, you must change your habits now, before it’s too late. I hope that this article 1) clearly illustrates why it is imperative that you change your habits, and 2) helps to teach you some simple steps to begin moving the needle on your sleep duration – and eventually – sleep quality, too!

As one of two nutritional specialists on staff at Invictus, I am honored to work with about half of the clients in the Invictus Nutrition Program. In the past, we have written extensively about how we utilize a four pillars approach to helping people work towards their health, performance and body composition goals. 

Four Pillars of Health

Sleep

Nutrition

Movement

Stress

Notice that sleep is my number one category! When I first meet with new clients, most of the time, the first thing they say is, “All I need to do is clean up my nutrition, and then I’ll get what I want.” 

What do they want? Almost everyone wants to live healthier lives, build muscle, lose body fat, and perform better in the gym and in their lives. They equate these goals with improving their eating habits only. The effect of their own sleep quantity and quality on their health, body composition, and performance never occurs to them. Or if it does, they assume it doesn’t matter that much. That’s why my next question often throws them off.

Next, I ask, “How much do you sleep at night?” And they sigh, and say, “About six hours.” That seems to be near the average for people entering the program. I understand that people (myself included) have families, jobs, and often choose to wake up early to complete the day’s training before our families and jobs begin to demand time and energy from us. 

Is six hours of sleep enough? 

No, it’s not. Here’s why.

When I ask people if they are aware of the potential negative effects of sleeping only six hours a night, they say, “I think so.” That’s when I tell them the effects. 

Potential Health Consequences from Insufficient Sleep

  • Increased cortisol, the stress hormone, which can lead to prediabetic blood glucose levels and poor insulin sensitivity
  • Decreased recovery from training and slow progress in the gym – since many people want improved gym performance, they are often shocked to hear that sleep may have a larger effect on their performance in the gym than nutrition!
  • Decreased cognitive performance
  • Decreased immune system function, leading to higher susceptibility of acquiring an illness
  • Sleep deprivation is highly correlated with the development of chronic diseases (type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression)

What is considered insufficient sleep?

Look at that list. Sounds awful, right? Then how can I explain to you why so many people undersleep? Maybe people misunderstand “insufficient sleep” and assume that sleep deprivation is more extreme than their habits (4-5 hours of sleep is bad so my 6 hours is good). Nope. Anything under 7 hours is insufficient sleep and is correlated to any (or many) of the conditions listed above.

You’re Not a Superhuman When it Comes To Sleep
The interesting part here is that almost every single person I talk to about the side effects of insufficient sleep is aware of the health consequences. That’s wild! I have a sneaky suspicion that people think they are special, like the rules of sleep and biology don’t apply to them. Maybe they think that they can “tough it out”. Perhaps some people seem to think that they, alone, are in the less than one percent of people who can get away with six hours of sleep a night without experiencing one or more of the above listed potential negative outcomes. The odds are not in your favor. While toughing it out at the gym may garner you some results, sleep doesn’t work that way.

Reasons for Lack of Sleep…And the survey says…
Over the years, I have heard many excuses:

“I must wake up to cook my (significant other) breakfast,” or, “I have to do X thing for X person.” No, you don’t. They can take care of themselves, and if they expect you to be healthy in the future, they should not expect you to sacrifice sleep for their benefit.

“I sacrifice my sleep for family time.” No, you don’t. You sacrifice sleep for laziness with your schedule, and you spend too much time on your phone or in front of the TV at night. For 97 people out of 100, there is plenty of time in the day to get all of the things done that need doing. It may take a reworking of your current schedule and some creative thinking, but it’s very possible. For the rare 3 out of 100 people who truly live completely packed lives, I often suggest that they cut some things out that don’t align with their highest priorities. I have seen people quit stressful jobs and exit bad relationships, all with the purpose of decreasing stress and chasing better sleep, and their lives truly transform for the better! This one doesn’t happen overnight…

“I can sleep six hours a night, no problem.” Sure you can, tough gal. And where has that gotten you? When people come to me with goals that they can’t yet attain, they acknowledge that they must change something. Sleep is often the number one opportunity that they haven’t tested. And when they do, amazing things happen!

“I’ve slept six hours a night for years.” This could be true. Sadly, what’s also true is the long list of diseases and lackluster physical and cognitive performance that currently or eventually will pertain to you.

“I run better on less sleep.” You might feel good after insufficient sleep. You might even feel more alert than when you sleep longer. This is due to the increase in the stress hormone, cortisol. Not a good thing. Continue this pattern and your insulin sensitivity could continue to decrease, and you may become pre-diabetic.

“My mind races, I can’t sleep that much.” That’s right. Not yet, you can’t. In time, with diligent work to change your habits, you can learn. Those anxious thoughts can be attenuated through self-care tactics like journaling and meditation. Just because you can’t do something now doesn’t mean that you can’t learn. It also sounds like your mindset strongly needs a shift from fixed to growth 🙂

And lastly, I arrive at those wonders of the world, new parents. The lack of sleep here is short-term, so do your best to get through. This isn’t the best time to work on your performance and health. It’s survival time. Once your child’s schedule becomes more predictable, maybe then you can dial in your sleep and other important factors. For now, I truly wish you luck.

You Have a Sleep Problem if

  • you require sleep aids like melatonin or ambien to fall asleep and stay asleep
  • you sleep less than 7 hours a night
  • you wake multiple times each night (more than twenty times)
  • you take longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep
  • you wake up more tired than when you fell asleep

How to begin addressing your sleep issues…
Morning Light – Get a few minutes of morning light in your eyes. This directly influences the receptors in your eyes which set your circadian rhythm. If you work an odd shift, the suggestion still applies. When you wake, spend a few minutes bathing in some sunlight during the first few minutes of your morning. There are some situations where this is impossible. For those situations, bright artificial lights must suffice. 

Phone – Get off your phone earlier in the evening, preferably an hour before your optimal bedtime.

Add 15 Minutes – If making time for 7+ hours of sleep is not yet in the cards for you, then progressively begin adjusting the items in your schedule to allow you more time in bed. That could mean streamlining your morning routine so you can sleep in 15 minutes later, or putting your phone down 15 minutes earlier in the evening. An extra 15 minutes of sleep each night is almost two extra hours a week. This is a worthy pursuit!

Phone – Get off your phone. Even thirty minutes before bedtime is worthwhile!

Darkness – Black out your room. Not just windows. Electronics, too. A dark room is helpful to improve sleep quality. If you can’t be phone-free 15 minutes pre-bed, you have a different problem entirely.

Cool – Make sure your room is cool. A cool room helps improve sleep quality.

Meditation & Journaling – Sometimes, anxiety keeps people from falling asleep or staying asleep. After coaching many clients with sleep issues, meditation and journaling can help. Which one do you gravitate towards? Try that one. The simple act of meditating for 2 minutes each day, or sitting down to write about your day for 2 minutes has a real, meaningful, and tangible effect on sleep and reduction of anxiety.

Follow these simple tips, and soon enough, you’ll be sleeping for more hours each week, and after a few weeks and months of giving your new habits time to grow, your sleep quality will also improve! Eventually you’ll be off of your sleep aids, falling asleep quickly and staying asleep. Your gym performance could improve, and you might even be able to shrug off that person who cut you off in traffic instead of getting irate within your own head. Your future self will thank you, along with everyone else in your life who you affect. Your best self is waiting. Start working towards more sleep tonight!

References (Links for you to explore & learn more!)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
https://www.chronobiology.com/short-sleepers-1-percent-population-need-6-hours-sleep/

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Kelly
Kelly
November 11, 2022 1:27 pm

The book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is really good. He’s a neuroscientist who LOVES sleep and the introduction says “I hope you fall asleep reading this book”. It made me excited for sleep, when most of my life I’d be kept up my too many commitments and FOMO.

Chloe
Chloe
November 6, 2022 2:02 pm

I cracked up at the first line of this article, “…definitely not everybody else but you”.

Also, thought it was important that you addressed parents. Thank you for that! We are trying☺️ A side note for other new moms/dads who may need more sleep: sleeping with babe in the bed for the earlier stages has been immensely helpful for us(we have four kids and sleep deprivation is no joke.. it is SO important to prioritize sleep for ALL.) Additional perks include better energy/workouts/digestion because BETTER SLEEP. HalleluYAH! Thanks for this well written article on such an important topic, Fritz.

Fritz
Fritz
November 8, 2022 9:40 am
Reply to  Chloe

Thank you Chloe! Good points!! I will be a new parent in a few months and will test out your advice 🙂

Chloe
Chloe
November 15, 2022 11:53 am
Reply to  Fritz

Congrats, wow!! I’m so excited for you all. Children are a gift!!

Fritz
Fritz
November 1, 2022 11:50 am

Any questions? Ask away! I’m here to help 🙂
-Fritz