Did you know that the majority of bodybuilding takes place outside of the gym? It’s true. Most of us know the benefits of getting key nutrients before and after our workouts, but many trainees are missing out on the powerful anabolic response that can occur during sleep, given the proper prebedtime nutrition. That’s especially true for workaholics who treat sleep as an afterthought and for people who take thermogenic supplements like ephedrine and caffeine, which can disturb sleep.
Sleep is definitely one of the keys to building a better body. Up to 90 percent of growth hormone secretion occurs at night. And the 24 to 48 hours (including the time you sleep) after a hard workout is the prime physique-building period’increasing lean muscle mass and reducing muscle breakdown.1 Sleep is a prime time for amino acid turnover and protein synthesis as well as key hormone release. It’s important to understand the phenomenon of human sleep, the various hormones involved and how exercise affects those hormones and, most important, what you can do to enhance sleep and recover twice as fast from hard workouts.
You know that resistance training increases lean muscle mass, increases strength and helps reduce bodyfat. It can actually help increase fat use during sleep.2 In normal individuals muscle growth occurs only if protein synthesis, or the manufacture of protein, exceeds proteolysis, or muscle-protein breakdown. There must be a positive nitrogen balance in muscle cells to create an anabolic state. Weight training enhances the net muscle protein, but without proper food and supplements it can actually create a catabolic, or muscle-breakdown, situation.1
Amino acid availability is an important regulator of protein synthesis. When amino acids are present in greater amounts, muscle-protein synthesis is maximized.3 Because amino acids are used to rebuild and repair muscle tissue during sleep, it makes sense to give your body key amino acids before going to bed to reduce the chances of muscle breakdown during sleep and to increase protein synthesis. That’s why slow-release proteins like milk-protein isolate and casein are very beneficial when taken before bed. They digest slowly and provide a steady flow of amino acids during sleep, which is crucial to the recovery process.
Also, the circadian rhythms help determine the regulation of hormone release in the body.4 As a bodybuilder you want to maximize growth hormone, testosterone and IGF-1 during sleep. Resistance exercise has a profound effect on how and when those hormones are released.
The first thing you need to make sure of is that you get at least eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. Why? Even partial sleep deprivation can alter the hormonal response to exercise, which can lead to major muscle breakdown. That’s because only small changes in hormone output in the wrong direction can put a halt to muscle building.5
So what causes us to sleep mainly at night rather than in the day (most of us anyway)? It appears to involve the pineal gland in the brain, which releases melatonin. Melatonin converts to the hormone serotonin, causing us to fall asleep. Melatonin production is inhibited by light, so more melatonin is made at night.
Once you get to sleep, there are four main stages and a fifth called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The key stages of sleep for bodybuilders are the third and fourth, known as slow-wave, or delta, sleep. People who spend little time in those stages usually wake up with greater muscle soreness. That’s why naps usually don’t cut it. It’s difficult to get into stages 3 and 4 sleep during a nap.
Hormonal responses during sleep are different in weight-training individuals than sedentary ones. For example, research shows that in resistance-trained people GH release is lower during the first half of sleep and higher in the second half, whereas it is the opposite in people who don’t train.7 Usually, testosterone is at low levels during the early part of sleep and increases as morning approaches, while cortisol, the catabolic hormone, is lower in the early stages of sleep but rises considerably during the second half. Again, exercise, especially weight training, can flip that equation, with exercising individuals having higher cortisol levels during the first part of sleep and lower levels later. That makes it that much more important to suppress cortisol early by taking key supplements like phosphatidylserine, or PS, before bed.
Testosterone levels seem to rise throughout the night in people who train.8 GH comes into play during stages 3 and 4, and when REM sleep declines, cortisol levels increase.9 That’s not good from a muscle-building standpoint. Cell division, or mitosis, in many tissues, including muscle, also surges late at night and in the early hours of the morning, often coinciding with stages 3 and 4. Growth hormone could have something to do with that.
As you might guess, another pitfall of sleep deprivation is the negative impact on the immune system. Significant negative effects are evident after several days of partial sleep deprivation and only a few days of total sleep deprivation.10
Natural Sleep Aids
If you have trouble sleeping or want to enhance the quality of your sleep, here are a few compounds that may help.
Melatonin. This is a natural hormone of the pineal gland. Some research indicates that it may intensify REM sleep and, according to one study, it can boost GH levels’always music to bodybuilders’ ears.11 It can help create a better quality of sleep as well, so taking it before bed can have a dual purpose. It intensifies dreams in some people, so be careful. A dose of two to five milligrams before sleep will be about right for most people. Kava kava. This herb has been used as a calming and relaxing agent, and it’s been used successfully in Europe for treating anxiety as well. Its active ingredients, called kavalactones, act as a mild central nervous system depressant. Taking around 100 milligrams of active kavalactones before bed may improve sleep.
Valerian. This herb has also been used as a relaxing and sleep-inducing agent for many years. A number of scientists consider it to be a mild tranquilizer, and it seems to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep. The faster you go to sleep, the faster you get to the crucial stages 3 and 4. Taking 200 to 500 milligrams of a standardized extract (5-to-1 for valerenic acid) before bedtime may be beneficial.
L-theanine. This amino acid extract from green tea can have powerful relaxation effects. According to some research, it can stimulate alpha brain waves, which can induce relaxation and lower stress. Some studies show positive effects of L-theanine on brain function as well. Taking 250 milligrams before bed may enhance sleep.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan). This derivative of the amino acid tryptophan can act as an antidepressant and help induce sleep. Tryptophan is converted in the body into 5-HTP, which can then be converted into serotonin, a potent brain neurotransmitter that’s known as the relaxation hormone. 5-HTP has been used successfully by many bodybuilders seeking quality muscle-building sleep. The 5-HTP used in dietary supplements is derived from the seeds of an African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia. Taking 300 milligrams before sleep may work for you.
Note: It’s very important to consult a physician before taking any of the supplements listed above, especially if you’re on any medications or have a medical condition.
Sleep can make or break your progress in the gym. Be sure you’re getting enough’and don’t forget your bedtime protein drink and PS capsules. Sleep tight, and don’t let the cortisol bugs bite.
Editor’s note: Rehan Jalali is a biochemist, nationally published scientific writer, sports nutritionist consulting with many professional athletes and sports teams, industry-recognized product formulator and competitive natural bodybuilder. He’s also president of the Supplement Research Foundation. To contact him, write to [email protected].
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