Is this The Secret Anabolic Weapon You’re Missing? Just about every M&F reader can attest to having said at some stage of their daily grind “There’s simply not enough hours in the day!”

Every day there seems to be a new way to increase our performance, wakefulness and productivity without compensatory rest. But sleep, no matter how hard we try to fight it, is an intrinsic part of our living and training existence.

There is mounting evidence of the relationship between inadequate sleep and health complications such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as neurological and mental health concerns (Alzheimer’s disease, depression, stress, anxiety) (McEwan, 2006) and even a shortened lifespan (Orzel-Gryglewska, 2010).

Notwithstanding these shocking health concerns, even if your sole aim is to improve your performance in training and competition, putting your body into a deep sleep on a consistent basis could have a real impact.

Elite athletes, who you would imagine live and breathe the rest-and-recovery mantra, are now being advised that additional sleep hours are the “new frontier” in high performance sport (Samuels, C. 2009).

A deluge of evidence is proving this to be true. Depriving a trainee of even a solitary night of rest will decrease their performance and lower their motivation for the next event (Skein et al. 2011, Souissi et al. 2008, Scott et al. 2006).

However, if you reintroduce a 15 to 20 minute power nap (Waterhouse et al. 2007) or extend total sleep time (Mah et al. 2011), you get improved cognitive function, an increase in power output of a minimum of 5% and happier athletes, as assessed by their mood profile. When was the last time someone said you could get bigger, stronger and faster by lying down?


Many a dedicated trainee will affirm that their constitution is enough to pull them through the toughest of workouts despite fatigue but let’s take stock of what purpose getting enough sleep actually fulfils.

It has been said that we spend approximately a third of our lives asleep. Yet, despite fascinating man for over 10,000 years (and considering the significant number of lower life forms– fish for example–that do not seem to require a blissful forty winks), the simple question “why do we sleep?” remains completely unanswered.

What we do know is that virtually all physiological processes and hormonal secretions in the body are controlled or under the influence of a 24-hour pattern: body temperature, adrenal hormones (e.g. cortisol), pituitary-influenced hormones (e.g. testosterone), blood pressure, energy metabolism (lipolysis, gluconeogenesis, insulin sensitivity and basal metabolic rate) and gene transcription are all encapsulated within the confines of a daily or “circadian” rhythm (Laposky et al. 2008).

Blissful slumber just so happens to be one of these processes and arguably is the most important, simply because the regulation of most behaviours and physiological activities depend on whether you are asleep or awake! (Figure 1).

Animal and human studies have shown that these processes operate together in a concise cycle spontaneously (Sehgal, 2004) via a region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), sometimes referred to as our biological clock.

However, you may have noticed from Figure 1 that a hormone is secreted 
from the pineal gland in response to the light:dark cycle. Known as melatonin or the hormone of darkness, it influences the SCN via the light:dark cycle of a typical day.

This gem of a hormone feeds back onto the SCN and helps to pattern our sleep-wake cycle; it has such precedence that taking it as a supplement can literally shift the cycle to a new pattern of wakefulness and sleep (Turek & Gillette, 2004).

However, we’re unique in the animal kingdom in that we often voluntarily control our sleep-wake cycle by synthetic means (e.g. artificial light and stimulants such as: coffee) and despite many of us becoming a slave to the Java or burning the midnight oil to meet office deadlines, on whole, the SCN does a superb job of keeping us running back to the comfort of our beds—eventually. In fact, as one becomes sleep-deprived, the SCN will encourage microsleeps (nodding off to the rest of us) to enable us to get some shut-eye.


You may have heard that we need at least eight hours of sleep a night to recover fully from the effects of training.Sleep duration, however, is highly variable amongst individuals (Lee-Chiong, 2008). Typically, most individuals will sleep between six to nine hours a night and according to the latest UK national statistics, at the time of the last major census we averaged eight across the week (Office for National Statistics, 2006).

Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately it’s a little more in-depth than that.

The quality, or depth, of sleep is just as important as the duration. As humans, our sleep will oscillate between two main stages throughout the night: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, predominating 80% of our total sleep time; and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep forming the final 20%. NREM can then be subdivided into stages 1-4 (but let’s keep things simple for now!)

Table 1 breaks down the two stages, their physical traits and the impact they have on endocrine (hormone) balance throughout the night.


Cortisol is the hormone that is most affected by chronic sleep deprivation and if not managed, is the bane of any fitness enthusiast’s life, wreaking havoc on the body. High blood pressure, poor glucose management and insulin resistance, deposition of fat in muscle tissue and increased muscle protein breakdown (Gutierrez et al. 2010) are 
all common issues with elevated levels of cortisol.

With normal sleeping patterns, cortisol has a very stable daily pattern of secretion under the influence of the SCN and the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, rising in the early morning and gradually lowering throughout the day. Sleep deprivation displaces this pattern (Balbo et al. 2010) causing as much as a 37% increase above normal levels at night (Andrews & Walker, 1999).

This process, directly influenced by cortisol itself, is known as masking (So et al. 2009). By feeding back onto the SCN/HPA a new pattern of secretion is created that possibly lends weight to the rationale of why years of sleep debt can build up so easily: your body simply adapts to it. How clever, yet how perilous to your hours of effort in the gym.

In those individuals who’ve experienced jet lag or had to work the graveyard shift as part of their job, cortisol levels are highly disrupted and chronically elevated until the new sleeping pattern is established (Folkard, 2008).


You’ll have noted from Table 1 that the major anabolic hormones testosterone and growth hormone are both under the influence of circadian rhythms. Sleeping provides the necessary conditions for these hormones to peak in the bloodstream (Evans et al. 1971) and losing a night’s rest for as little as a week is enough to send those muscle-building factors straight through the floor (Leproult & Van Cauter, 2011) and set your muscles up for a more catabolic environment (Dattilo et al. 2011).


When investigating this pattern in a cohort of older men, poor sexual function and low moods were the predominant outcome of a lifetime of poor sleep (Andersen et al. 2011) as well as intensified muscle atrophy (sarcopenia of ageing) although this hasn’t been investigated fully.

Taking things a step further, such is the importance of the interplay between sleep and the anabolic hormones, testosterone release even precedes the REM stage of sleep. It’s been shown that a loss of REM sleep is not life-threatening, but the dynamic interplay of testosterone with REM may be due to its influence on neurogenesis (growth of nervous tissue) and memory consolidation. This has been exhibited in patients with depression (who often do not have a normal sleep architecture), where memory recall is often poorer and a cognitive impairment is normally apparent (Sapolsky, 2001).

Could sleeping longer and deeper improve your memory, make you smarter, stave off the winter blues and enhance your love life? According to the research, quite possibly.

Strategies & Sustenance for the most Anabolic Sleep



If your current sleep strategy has become somewhat defunct, here’s some suggestions to get your rest and recuperation back on track:

  • Make sleep a priority. Sleep may well be under the influence of endogenous factors beyond your control, but staying up late to watch that latest episode on television or partying midweek on a regular basis are well within your means to control. Set yourself a bedtime which will allow you to get close to 8 hours of sleep and stick to it.
  • Make sure your bedroom is a sleep environment. It is highly tempting to work on your projects from the comfort of bed but this often induces a stressful, work-orientated environment, not great for reducing cortisol. Try to clear your bedroom of distractions to induce calm surroundings.
  • Comfort is key. Waking up because of pain or discomfort is a sure-fire way to wreck your slumber efforts. Your bed and your mattress are the places to begin. If they’ve seen better days or the bed’s not suitable for your size, invest in your health and purchase a new one that takes this into account.
  • Turn off the lights. As mentioned previously, melatonin is highly sensitive to light levels and even a small amount coming from a mobile phone or standby light on a device  is enough to reduce levels. Invest in blackout curtains or wear an eyemask if needed to keep things dark.
  • Keep it cool. Your core body and skin temperature fall naturally  during the first phase of sleep (NREM). If it’s hotter than Nevada in your room, open the window prior to going to bed or adjust the thermostat to approximately 21ºC.


It is a fact that sleep deprivation does cause you to eat more during the day after–up to 22% more to be exact. For the average person, that’s an extra 550 calories a day! Do that enough times in the week and you’ll be wondering where that summer six-pack disappeared to (Brondel et al. 2010).

If you’re in pursuit of a pinnacle-level physique, you’ll know there’s not much scope for dietary deviation; consistency is key. Take these dietary tactics on board to help you get that restful slumber:

  • Put down the Java. Caffeinated beverages such as coffee will stimulate the central nervous system for up to 12 hours after ingestion. For best support to your sleep, limit these drinks after midday and opt for a non-caffeinated pre-training supplement and herbal teas (e.g. Rooibos tea) if you train later in the day.
  • Midday tipples only. Contrary to the popular belief that a nightcap will induce sleep, alcohol is highly disruptive to REM sleep so whilst you may feel sleepy after a few, you’ll not get that quality sleep that you’re after. Opt for alcohol-free beverages in the evening or if you decide to indulge, make sure that you enjoy it with lunch instead, to ensure it’s cleared in good time before sleep.
  • Snack to sleep. Were you ever sent off to bed with a glass of milk by your parents? They weren’t too far wrong. Dairy products are a great combination 
of protein and carbohydrates that’ll induce deeper sleep by reducing cortisol and increasing the secretion of the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT). This encourages further relaxation and a better night’s rest. Try the Slumber Shake recipe on this page to really capitalise on this opportunity to feed your body and rest well.
  • Lower carbs during the day and higher at night. Ever felt that relaxed feeling from a higher carbohydrate meal at night? Following on from the above point, by manipulating the ratios of foods during the day and at night, you can encourage better sleep. Go for a higher protein, lower carbohydrate breakfast and lunch, then a larger proportion of carbohydrates and smaller portion of protein at your final meal. The surge in serotonin will help you relax and if you train after work, those additional carbohydrates will be perfect for recovery.
  • Sip, don’t gulp! Whilst a decent fluid intake is pivotal for hydration purposes, drinking large amounts prior to bed will have you up and down to the toilet like a yo-yo. Ensure the bulk of your fluid intake is earlier in the day, then curtail it (sips only) in the two hours prior to bed.
  • Mineral support. The classic combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 is often used to help promote sleep with good reason. Magnesium deficiency results in lowered melatonin secretion and higher cortisol levels (Billyard et al. 2006, Sartori et al. 2011) whilst zinc is needed in the biochemical pathway to secrete melatonin and encourages healthy testosterone levels (Laires et al. 2004). Vitamin B6 is critical for the biosynthesis of serotonin to help with relaxation. A terrific combination.


While a good night’s rest won’t turn you into a cover model overnight, there’s a plethora of research now pointing towards the effect of sleep on your physique-enhancement, training and health-related goals. It’s ironic that one of the easiest strategies to improve your body was right at home in your bedroom.

Eat well, sleep well and watch your body transform. M&F


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