If you're like me, you wouldn't mind being a leaner and meaner version of yourself. If you're also like I used to be, then you might think that all you need to address before that six pack starts to reveal itself is your diet.
Unfortunately, diet is only part of the answer to the problem. The way I see it, there are five qualities that should be addressed prior to even worrying about tweaking your diet. They are sleep quality and quantity, hydration, exercise type, duration, and frequency, stress management, and mindset. In this article, we will cover how to optimize your sleep for losing body fat and gaining lean muscle mass.
Part 1. Hacking Your Sleep
As unfair as it may sound, sleep regulates many things in our lives, ranging from mood, stress levels, energy levels, and also hormonal levels. Because of this, I see sleep being the first quality that needs addressed in order to lay the foundation of all future success. This is because sleep regulates hormone production for Testosterone, Growth Hormone, and Cortisol, among others, for better or worse.
You may have heard of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is basically the "fight or flight" hormone (consider being chased by a bear in a forest kind of fight or flight), and kicks in to high production when our body is under stress (of any kind). Cortisol is also a hormone that, if elevated on a consistent basis, results in our body holding on to its fat stores, making body fat loss extremely difficult, if not impossible!
So basically, cortisol is not a hormone you want to have high levels of regularly. The problem is, though, if your sleep sucks, you probably have high cortisol. Why? Because if your body isn't getting the recovery it needs, your body will perceive it as a stressor, and elevate cortisol production naturally. Even if you don't "feel" stressed, your body, muscles, joints, organs, are all going to be working harder to function properly when they're not rested adequately.
The hormones you want to become more elevated are Testosterone (yes, even you ladies), and Growth Hormone. These two hormones contribute the most to fat loss and muscle gain when you're strength training and eating well. But the production of these spikes only when you hit your REM cycle (Rapid Eye Movement, usually associated with dreaming). It takes the average person about 2 hours to hit their REM cycle, too. Imagine if you only get a few hours of sleep every night, or wake up every few hours to use the bathroom, or just never reach a deep enough level of sleep to access that REM cycle. Honestly, now that you know that, why waste your time and energy trying to fix your diet if you're not sleeping well? If sleep is an issue, this should be priority number one!
Okay, we've touched on why sleep is important. Hopefully you'll agree with me on that. Now here's how to fix it! I personally recommend building these habits one at a time. Remember, make it so easy for yourself to make the change that you can't help but succeed!
Step 1. Set yourself a regular bedtime and wake up time, and stick to it.
If you work the same schedule during the week, set yourself the same sleep schedule. Your body's natural sleep rhythms will adapt and you'll naturally begin to feel tired at the regular time after a while (it really works!)
If you want to sleep differently on the weekend, that is okay, but plan ahead as much as possible. Napping on Sunday afternoon because you stayed up too late and slept too little on Saturday might jack up your sleep for the next few days.
If you're traveling and your schedule changes, stick with a consistent schedule while you're away, whatever that looks like. Get back on the old schedule once you're at home again.
Step 2. Optimize your bedroom for good sleep
Now that you're going to bed and getting up at a regular time, it's time to create an optimal sleep environment. What does this mean, you ask? Essentially, your room should be as dark as possible! Any light creeping in through the windows, light from an alarm clock, and any blinking lights from cell phones will cause a disturbance in your sleep. I won't go too in depth with what actually goes on physiologically when light is in the room, but just know it does mess with your sleep and make it less likely to reach your REM cycle.
Get black out curtains, cover your phone with a shirt or pants to completely block out the light, and even go so far as to put a piece of electrical tape over the blinking light on your smoke detector. Your mission should be to eliminate light. Or, if you're like me, invest in a comfortable sleep mask! This solves the problem cheaply, and will blow your mind with how much more soundly you'll sleep.
Step 3. Limit fluid intake and type before bed
You've taken the steps to setting yourself a regular bedtime, and also creating an environment that supports good sleep. Still, you may still have issues with waking up from your sleep because you have to use the bathroom. This is a common problem, I gather, because when I've asked my own clients what their sleep is like, many of them sleep terribly because they get up so much to use the bathroom!
If you want to fall asleep and stay asleep, don't drink any fluids at least two hours prior to bed. Why two? Because your body filters about one liter of fluids every hour. Two hours should give you plenty of time to drink water with your last meal and still have time to get rid of it before going to bed.
Absolutely do not have caffeinated beverages with dinner, too! Do you actually want to stay asleep? Yeah? So no more Coke or coffee with your evening meal, okay?
Step 4. Have a bedtime routine
Notice I didn't say to lose the TV, phone or iPad? Let's look at this as making a positive change, not taking something away, right? I'm not gonna get all techy on you here, but any light that is emitted from electronic device screens disturbs your sleep if you continue using them too soon before bed time. Harvard Health even recommends two to three hours before bed, but that simply is not realistic for some people, myself included, who get home late and go to bed early. Megan and I try to avoid using our devices before bed as much as possible (admittedly, we cave now and then and watch a movie in bed on the weekends).
Head up to bed at least 30 minutes before you intend to fall asleep. Wash your face, brush your teeth, floss, do whatever you need to do to get ready for your rest, and do it the same way every time. Your body will associate this routine with sleep after a while, and naturally prepare itself. After you've done all that, grab a book or magazine you find relaxing and read it for a while. I don't personally recommend anything super intense or suspenseful, though. Remember, you're trying to go to sleep here, not scare yourself awake!
5. Use Magnesium
If you've never heard of magnesium, it is a mineral which helps with recovery at a cellular level by relaxing the central nervous system. For a person who is in shock from an accident, magnesium is often used to bring that person back to a normal state. For a person like you who is looking to get better sleep, magnesium might just be the secret ingredient! (Even media giants like the Huffington Post are catching on!)
Magnesium is also a mineral that we should get from our food, but unless you eat handfuls of organic leafy greens regularly (yes, organic because regularly farmed veggies often lose a lot of their mineral consistency due to over-farming the land) chances are you're deficient. Supplementation is usually the only way to get enough--just for reference the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) is 400 milligrams (mg).
If taken at an appropriate dosage, magnesium will to reduce muscle tension, muscle spasms, and cramps even (this applies to PMS, too!). It also helps to bring a sense of calm about you, and that's due to the fact it literally helps your central nervous system relax. As you might imagine, it's great to take before bed.
Okay, so you're all aboard the magnesium train now. What's the catch? If there is one, it's to be aware that there are different kinds out there that you want to avoid. Magnesium oxide, in particular, may cause loose bowels the next day. Magnesium citrate and malate are two of the more easily digested types, and from my experience have far less side effects than when using oxide.
If you're taking it for the first time, start with a very low dosage (one capsule) and see how you do. Add one capsule per week until you have an issue, then back off one until the issue goes away. Megan and I use this kind, but we've used a few different brands, always purchasing either citrate or malate (remember, avoid oxide!). Ultimately, pick the one that gives you the most noticeable improvement to your sleep quality, while minimizing your side effects. Take it 30 minutes before bed and let the good sleep roll!
Ditch the addictive sleep medications and stick with magnesium and you'll be all set! Click this link to check out the kind that Megan and I have found most effective for our own sleep, personally.
6. Experiment with different sleep positions
This one is up to you. But if you diligently do the above five suggestions and still don't see any improvement in your sleep (I'll be shocked if you don't), then you might consider changing how you're sleeping. I am the perfect example. I used to be a stomach sleeper for years, but would change positions ever hour or so because my lower back and neck began hurting me. I tried sleeping on my side for a while, but even with a pillow stuffed between my knees, my hips and shoulders began to hurt. Finally I tried sleeping on my back, which was really hard at first! But I kept at it because I noticed that if I managed to fall asleep, I stayed asleep moved minimally, and dreamed more! After a while, I began feeling more rested with 6 hours of sleep than I ever did with 8-9 hours of sleep on my stomach or side.
There you have it! Six killer ways to improve your sleep, better your hormonal profiles, and kickstart body fat loss. Your belly will thank you.
Part 2 is all about hydration, an often overlooked part of body fat loss, but a crucial element to removing toxins and improving organ function and overall body performance. Stay tuned...