Sleep Science: Nature's Most Effective Performance Enhancer (Part 2)

Sleep Science: Nature's Most Effective Performance Enhancer (Part 2)
Want to take complete advantage of your muscle growth, fat loss, and performance potential? Learn how to take complete control of your sleep cycle.

Lights shine in the bedroom window as a car turns down the street and the brake lights slowly fade into the night.

You check your watch. The dimly lit screen reveals: “Tuesday, 2:47am”.

Your mind begins to race as you frantically calculate the hours you have left to enjoy the comfort of your bed.

Time seems to standstill as you stare blankly into the surrounding darkness.

“I have to get up at 7 but I can still get another 4 hours and 13 minutes…”

Your thoughts trail off as you begin to rehearse your impending “to-do” list for tomorrow.

  1. Complete data analysis and return to the boss STAT!
  2. Meet Mark for lunch at 12:30.
  3. Don’t forget to send Martha a birthday card.
  4. Take the dog to the vet.
  5. Get groceries on the way home.

You begin to feel the anxiety building as the list weighs heavily on your mind.

You recheck your watch. “Tuesday, 3:12am.”

Only 3 hours and 48 minutes now…

Woman checking her phone during night

Does the scenario above sound familiar? Maybe that was your life last night. Maybe you’re working through that to-do list right now and multitasking as you read this article.

If so, what can you do to improve your sleep? Once the day has started most folks won’t have a chance to make up for missed shuteye. As such, we need to make sure we take advantage of every tool in the toolbox when it comes to sleep quality and quantity.

Homeostasis and Sleep

Sleep is a rather fascinating concept - it’s a unique phenomenon experienced by all but maximized by few. Science doesn’t fully understand the process yet, but if you start to delve into the current research, you’ll quickly see that it is innately tied to nearly every system within the human body.

Sleep is primarily regulated by two unique mechanisms, an innate homeostatic sleep drive (i.e. the intrinsic need for sleep - commonly referred to as sleep “pressure”) and circadian rhythms.

Related: Science Tells All - Get Shredded While You Sleep

When you first wake in the morning, your sleep drive is essentially set to zero. However, as the day progresses, that drive will become stronger and you will begin to feel drowsier the longer you’re awake.

Why? Well, as your body utilizes energy (ATP hydrolysis), you begin to form byproducts called adenosine. Adenosine acts a neuromodulator within the brain and is the primary driver of sleep as levels rise over the course of the day.1

This is also one of the many reasons why folks will report improved sleep latency (i.e. how long it takes one to fall asleep) if they begin to workout. Higher levels of physical activity require more energy (ATP), which increases adenosine production.2

Circadian rhythms can tend to be a bit trickier as there are a variety of outside factors, which can influence them in either a positive or negative manner. However, a general discussion of their physiology will help in understanding the following recommendations within the article.

Within the brain, there is an area known as the “suprachiasmatic nucleus” (SCN) that receives input directly from the retinas in your eyes. This region is primarily responsible for regulating circadian rhythms within each physiological system in your body.3,4

As such, it’s vitally important to understand how intensity, wavelength, and timing of light exposure throughout the day can play a crucial role in regulating one’s circadian rhythms.

“Go 3 days without your favorite thing. Then go 3 days without sleep. It turns out sleep is actually your favorite thing.” - Joel Comm

“All of the Lights”

Kanye had the right idea; it truly is all about the lights. Research has consistently shown that the timing of exposure to high intensity light can shift circadian rhythms and alter melatonin production.7,8 Given that’s the case, we need to understand three key takeaways from this principle:

M&S Female Athlete Getting Sun in the morning

1. Get exposed to bright light (ideally outside) as soon as you wake up

Sit in the sun or near a window while eating breakfast. Early morning exposure to blue light improves nightly melatonin secretion thus reducing sleep latency.9,10

If you can’t get in the sun first thing in the morning, get at least 20-30 minutes of full exposure during the day.

Do not use sunglasses all the time (especially on your drive into work/school), your retinas are directly tied to your SCN, remember?

2. DO NOT look at your phone in the middle of the night. Ever.

Set your alarm and don't touch it. Set another alarm on a clock if you're worried your phone will die but do not check it.

Physiologically speaking, electronics are the biggest producers of blue light outside of the sun. Blue light exposure at night can decrease melatonin production from the pineal gland and shift circadian rhythms.7,8

Psychologically speaking, it’s the easiest way to take your brain from 0 to 100 real quick. A text message from your brother, 4 facebook notifications, and 2 calendar reminders set your mind on the fast track to insomnia. Don’t give your iPhone any mental real estate once your head hits the pillow.

If you have a tough time following through on this and not responding to notifications, simply set the “Do Not Disturb” function to automatically engage at a set time. You can alter the settings to allow phone calls to come through in case of emergency but it silences all other apps.

3. Don’t sleep with the TV on in your room.

Given everything we’ve discussed about bluelight, this should be obvious.

M&S Athlete Taking ZMAs

Supplemental Solutions

Before you default to buying anything in the hopes that it will improve the quality of your sleep, please read both of these pieces first:

Don’t drop a dime on supplementation until you get your sleep hygiene straight. However, once you get the fundamentals dialed in, increasing your magnesium intake can make a fairly marked difference.

Let’s get one thing straight though: MAGNESIUM IS NOT A SLEEP SUPPLEMENT. Read that again. Good, now we're on the same page.

Magnesium is responsible for over 300 enzymatic functions and sleep is just one of the many.11ZMA is marketed as a sleep product simply because magnesium assists with muscular relaxation (via the regulation of bioavailable ATP mediated cross bridge uncoupling) and catecholamine (epinepherine, norepinepherine) clearance.

As such, when individuals consume magnesium they feel more relaxed due to the physiological and endocrine mediated effects but magnesium has no direct ties to sleep. You could take it at any point during the day and notice the same benefits but that doesn’t mean you’d fall asleep.

Did you hear about the guy who fell asleep at the wheel from taking too much magnesium? Yeah, neither did I, because it doesn’t happen.

Just curiously, when was the last time you ate hemp seeds, squash, mackerel, or dried figs? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Since you’re likely not consuming enough magnesium through dietary options and/or you’re blowing through it due to training, you may want to look into oral ingestion or transdermal application.

If supplementing orally, here’s a few things to consider:

First, dosing can range up to 5xBW in certain cases as some individuals won’t absorb as much through the GI tract and others metabolize it much more quickly.12 You need to titrate up SLOWLY. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and take 1,000mg of magnesium oxide and see what happens. All I can say is you better have a bathroom in close proximity…

Secondly, Magnesium chelates (ex: Magnesium Bisglycinate Chelate, Magnesium Buffered Chelate, etc.) are more readily absorbed compared to magnesium salts (ex: Magnesium Oxide, Magnesium Stearate, etc.).

Magnesium salts are typically used as laxatives since they pull water into the GI tract and aren't readily absorbed - this is why folks can have GI issues with high magnesium salt consumption. Most companies don't use chelates because they're expensive. Do your homework, choose wisely, and know what you’re paying for.

Guy putting on magnesium lotion

If supplementing transdermally:
  • You can bypass the digestive tract entirely, thus reducing the chance for any undesired GI symptomology.
  • Absorption rates are significantly higher via transdermal application.13
  • Likely a more desirable option for those in active or athletic populations with high dietary requirements who can’t/don’t want to swallow multiple pills.
  • Ideal application of the product would occur after a shower when body temperature is raised, blood vessels are dialated, and the skin is clear of oils and other lotions.
    • Select areas of the body with vessels located closer to the surface of the skin - forearms, tops/bottoms of feet, back of knees, neck, etc.
  • More bang for your buck metaphorically speaking - given the higher absorption rates of transdermal applications compared to oral options, you will likely need to consume less of the product with each application.

Related: ZMA Supplements - Do They Improve Sleep & Test Levels?

Your best option here for determining specific dosages is to monitor RBC magnesium, serum magnesium, or urinary magnesium excretion via bloodwork and make adjustments accordingly.14 

Please keep in mind that urinary magnesium excretions will increase if magnesium consumption is altered. Therefore, it may be more difficult to determine statistically significant increases due to this homeostatic mechanism.

AMRAP? More Like AMHAP

As.Many.Hours.As.Possible. Live the motto.

To recap on the take home points:

  1. Get exposed to bright light as soon as possible for 20-30 minutes.
  2. Don’t utilize sunglasses all the time; give your eyes time to adjust to outside ambient light.
  3. Resist the urge to look at your phone in the middle of the night.
  4. You’re an adult; don’t sleep with the TV on.
  5. If you are going to supplement with magnesium:
    • Consider oral vs. topical.
    • Select the appropriate type - quality matters.
    • Determine an appropriate dosage.
    • Monitor your Mg levels via blood work.

I’ll leave you with one final quote:

“If you wouldn't get up early to do it, you shouldn't stay up late to do it. If it's important enough, you’d do either, so get after it. But how many people would wake up an hour early to watch a TV show before they start their day?” - Kirk Parsley

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About The Author
Mike received his B.S. in Exercise Science from USC and is currently pursuing his Masters in Exercise Physiology and Sport Performance at ETSU while continuing to serve as a strength and conditioning coach in his free time.

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