Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. —Thomas Dekker
It’s a vicious cycle. You know you need seven or eight good hours of sleep every night, but in a society that runs on a 24-hour clock, the first thing you ditch when you need more time for your life is a few hours in the Land of Nod.
Do this for a day, and it could hamper your productivity at work. Do it day after day, and you will actually subtract years from your life — between 10 and 15, to be exact.
“One-third of your day, your brain and body are in repair,” explains Eric Braverman, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of integrative medicine in neurological surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and author of Younger (Thinner) You Diet: How Understanding Your Brain Chemistry Can Help You Lose Weight, Reverse Aging, and Fight Disease (Rodale Books, 2009). “Without proper repair, all your muscles and all your repair processes are stopped.”
What does that mean for your muscles? Simple: No sleep, no size. And we’re not just talking about time spent, either — what’s required is high-quality deep sleep.
“Many people believe growth happens 24 hours a day, but it doesn’t. It happens in cycles,” explains Cheryl Myers, chief of scientific affairs and education at EuroPharma Inc., a nutritional supplement company based in Green Bay, Wis. “One of the hormones that has the most to do with this is manufactured while we’re sleeping — human growth hormone. If you want more HGH onboard, you need to sleep better because the vast majority of it is made in stage 3 and 4 sleep.”
A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. —Irish Proverb
Chronic fatigue isn’t just bad for your muscles. It accelerates every aspect of the aging process, setting off a cascade of interrelated and wholly undesirable effects beyond decreased muscle size, from increased fat storage to life-threatening diseases and brain degeneration.
“What the research shows is that people who don’t get adequate sleep run the risk of developing lifelong illnesses, such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure — the things that are now epidemics in our society,” says Donna Arand, Ph.D., clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center in Dayton, Ohio. “One of the things we’re finding out from the current research is that growth hormone is really important for staving off the aging process.”
But in another ironic twist, sleep experts say that the older a person gets, the less time they spend in the deepest stages of sleep. Brain chemistry has everything to do with the sleep-wake cycle — primarily, serotonin and melatonin, which have a yin-and-yang relationship with each other. Serotonin, most plentiful during the day, governs a host of functions — including powering the pineal gland, where melatonin is produced. Exposure to sunlight fuels the production of serotonin; but light hitting the retina of the eye will inhibit the production of melatonin, which not only helps people fall asleep but also helps them stay that way. Without the proper amount of melatonin in the bloodstream, sleep is disturbed and less time is spent in the restorative third and fourth stages of sleep.
“The human pineal gland usually secretes melatonin from about 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” explains Richard Wurtman, M.D., a professor of neuropharmacology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done extensive research on food, drugs and brain diseases. “But as we age, our pineal gland becomes calcified — no one knows why — and no longer secretes enough melatonin during the night.”
Under those circumstances, many sleep-deprived people turn to over-the-counter or prescription medications. But that’s a dangerous move, Myers says.
“They do put you to sleep, but they keep you in stages 1 and 2 all night long. You’ll sleep, but you won’t wake up rested,” she points out. “A lot of people think the warning not to use prescription sleep medicines for more than one or two weeks is because of addiction potential, but it’s also because of the lack of ability to get into deep sleep. I can’t imagine the damage of using them for years at a time — imagine the accelerated aging.”
Fatigue is the best pillow. —Benjamin Franklin
Fortunately, there are things you can do to control not only the amount but also the quality of sleep you get — keeping your muscles in a state of growth and staving off other aspects of the aging process at the same time.
“The information we now have indicates that if you stay physically active and maintain good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, you can help slow down that aging process,” Arand says. “People who remain very physically active and healthy [as they get older] tend to maintain and even increase the amount of sleep they’re getting, well past what the average person is getting.”
Braverman concurs: “No matter what you eat, most people can’t eat themselves to sleep — but you can definitely eat smarter for sleep. Exercise still remains your best sleep aid.”
The following dietary supplements may also help get you there faster.
- L-Tryptophan: The body uses this essential amino acid to manufacture serotonin, which in turn affects the production of melatonin as described above. “The idea is if you load up on tryptophan prior to going to sleep, you’ll produce more melatonin and sleep faster, longer and deeper,” Braverman says. “The truth is, in this country, your body is probably getting enough tryptophan. Whether loading it into the system has an impact is questionable. There are a few studies on it reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but the effects are minimal.”
Dosage: 500 to 2,000 milligrams
Food sources: Cheese, chicken, eggs, fish, milk, nuts, soy, tofu and turkey. A 3.5-ounce serving of these foods will contain100 to 500 of L-tryptophan.
- 5 HTP: Formally known as 5-hydroxytryptophan, this is a form of tryptophan that is one step closer in the conversion process to serotonin than L-tryptophan.
- Dosage: 25 to 300 milligrams
Food alternatives: None directly because it is processed from L-tryptophan.
- Melatonin: Supplemental melatonin is widely available, which is handy because you can’t get it from food. Many people also use it to reduce the effects of jet lag. Start off with the smallest dose to gauge its effects on your sleep habits.
Dosage: 1 to 5 milligrams
Food alternatives: None.
- Valerianroot: Though the research on this herbal supplement does not show strong results on its ability to promote quality sleep, Arand says many people report anecdotally that it helps.
Dosage: 200 to 400 milligrams of a standardized extract
Food alternatives: None.The average reader of this magazine is already living a very health-conscious lifestyle. But if quality sleep still eludes you, a sound bedtime routine is in order. For instance, get up and lie down at the same time every day — weekends included — to establish the right patterns. Take an hour before bed to wind down. Read for a while in the living room, put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, drink a cup of milk or chamomile tea, and make sure your bedroom is fully darkened when you crawl between the sheets.
“You cannot force sleep. It comes upon you,” Arand says. “But there are behaviors you can control that are the most conducive for sleep to come upon you.”