Burn fat while you sleep. Are you sure?

Give yourself the gift of a good night’s sleep

Have you ever had the pipe dream of becoming a psychic? You have?! Well today my friend is your lucky day, I have a foolproof starter question that you can use and predict “YES” as the answer nearly every single time. And the question is:

“Do you feel tired in the mornings?!”

Simple eh! Only messing, but lack of quality sleep is such a widespread issue amongst people these days that you can almost guarantee it as an area to address when things go wrong. As I’m sure you’re well aware sleep is one of the few things that we cannot survive without, even a slight reduction in the amount and quality can have drastic effects (if you’ve had children you know this more than most!)

So let’s take a brief look at why it is so important. Our bodies follow many rhythms or cycles. Examples of these are:

– Annual cycles, which include the 4 seasons and the monthly
– Lunar cycle (which many of you women will know all about due to its affect on menstruation).

There is also the daily circadian cycle, or you may know it better as the sleep-wake cycle. The term “circadian” comes from the Latin circa, “around”, and Diem or dies, “day”, meaning literally “approximately one day”. When we are in tune with the circadian cycle our bodies follow the patterns of the sun. In a nutshell, as the sun rises (~6am) and creates light in the morning so our activity levels also rise, reaching a peak of activity around mid-morning to noon, then gradually decreasing as the sun sets and darkness increases encouraging winding down (~6pm-10pm) in preparation for sleep (~10pm-6am).

There are a whole host of hormones that help with this process. As we rise in the morning the stress hormone cortisol along with the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin rise to help us carry out our activities, these then fall as the day goes on allowing the ‘sleepy hormone’ melatonin and other growth & repair hormones to rise as illustrated in figure 1.

The Sleep/Wake Cycle

Figure 1: Natural sleep/wake cycle.
Many of our hormones are produced in tune with the cycle of the sun. Stress/activating hormones are produced as the sun rises and peaks around mid-morning. As the day progresses, the levels of the stress hormones decrease. The body then begins to increases production of growth and repair hormones as the sun goes down. Our bodies are designed to wind down from sunset till about 10 pm when sleep and physical repair should begin. Psychogenic repair takes place predominantly from about 2 am to 6 am.

Unfortunately though, for many of us a typical day for many involves elevated levels stress levels, resulting in increased levels of the stress hormones throughout the day, resulting in decreased levels of growth and repair hormones. Although a healthy body can bounce back from intermittent circadian stresses, chronic (long-term) circadian stress often leads to depressed immunity, illness and chronic fatigue.

So when our bodies follow the patterns of the sun our sleep quality improves drastically. After a busy day working, digesting, playing, basically changing the world our bodies need a break. Sleep provides the ideal opportunity for the essential rest & repair to take place. As seen in figure 1 the body uses the hours of 10pm-2am for physical repair (muscles, joints, organs etc). So for every minute we lose after 10pm, another minute is lost of reparation time for our physical body. This can attribute to achy joints, decreased injury recovery time, decreased ability to burn body fat and general tiredness.

So how have we got so far out of sync with the cycles?

Artificial light – As you have learnt by now most of the hormones are ‘light dependent’, which means some are activated by light (the stress and activating hormones) and some are activated by darkness (the sleepy and repair hormones). With so much artificial light in today’s society our body can get confused very easily, tricking it into thinking its morning when it could actually be the middle of the night!

Work patterns/nightlife – The ‘advance’ in technology has also lead to work being 24/7 now, so night shifts and late night events are very common, resulting in the 10pm-6am rest and repair pattern turning into a shift pattern! Vigorous exercise late at night can also skyrocket your

activity/stress hormones, leaving the body ‘hyperactive’ and unable to wind down for long periods post activity, well into your 10pm-6am-recovery time.

Eating habits – Also, if your organs have been working flat out all day for you (digesting, eliminating etc) the sleep you get between 10pm-2am is very important for their recovery. Eating a big meal late at night (just as they’re looking forward to a bit of hard earned R & R) gives them yet more work to do. Imagine how you’d feel nearing the end of a crazy day in the office and the boss comes in 2 minutes before you clock out and issues a whole new assignment that has to be done by the next day…. The words ‘bunny’, ‘happy’ and ‘not’ come to mind. If you haven’t had the chance to eat much food that day eating late at night is sometimes unavoidable, simply aim to eat what you need earlier in the day and give your liver a sympathetic thought before you dive into the mid-night munchies!

The type of food and drink you have has a bearing as well. Stimulants like sugar, caffeine, grains, alcohol, energy drinks raise cortisol (stress) levels again tricking your body into thinking its morning! I touch more on the effects of stimulants in the ‘Give your body a deserving break by reducing the amounts of stimulants and refined carbohydrates in your diet’ article.

Electricity – This is another product of the new era. Every electrical product gives off an electromagnetic field, which can severely impact the quality of our sleep. Have a look around your bed and see how many electrical devices there are within ten feet? In my own personal life I have found a major difference in my morning energy levels when I switch from watching television to reading last thing at night.

So, what simple steps can we take to improve the quality and quantity of our sleep?

Alpha Action Points:

– Aim to wind down gently from around 6pm onwards, working your way at getting to bed around 10 – 10.30pm. There are many ways to do this; dim the lighting (candles are a personal favourite!), gentle music, fictional/positive/religious reading, massage, journal keeping (writing down what you’ve enjoyed that day and are grateful for)

– Aim to decrease the amount of stimulants (sugar, caffeine, energy drinks, alcohol, grain based foods etc) ingested after mid day

– Unplug electronic items in your bedroom and keep them as far away from you as possible

– Turn your bedroom into a cave! As mentioned, most of the hormones discussed are light-dependent so making your room as dark as possible during the night can really improve your chances or a good night’s sleep

When I first looked into sleep-wake cycles (which was caused by the fact that I looked like a farm animal deposit and felt even worse pre-11am) I thought there was no way I could get to bed by 10pm, but as with anything, you can entrain your body into any habit you wish, good or bad (the 21 day phenomena!). As it becomes an engrained part of your lifestyle you will be pleasantly surprised at the ease of waking, the increase in your morning energy levels and how redundant your horrendous beeping alarm clock becomes.

On the alarm clock front, I have personally been using a natural light simulator alarm clock that has really made a difference. They slowly light up the room and simulate a sunrise, which wakes you up more gradually leaving you energized and refreshed. As opposed to my previous air raid signal, which caused my stress levels to think a certain German was back in town.

N.B. The usual concern is that a light will not wake you in the initial stages which can be true so keep your usual alarm clock alongside for the first few weeks just in case!

And remember, as with all these tips don’t worry about it if you don’t do it perfectly first time. Take your time and enjoy yourself, knowing that these steps will improve your health and allow you to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. So in this instance, instead of instantly trying to change the time you go to bed from 1a.m. to 10p.m. aim to go to bed half hour earlier each night. And of course these are just guidelines, not meant to demand you never have a late night ever again. An interesting factor you be pleasantly surprised with however is, the healthier your body is the quicker it will be able to recover from the days off or the late nights that inevitably happen!

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