Most athletes understand the need for proper exercise, nutrition and hydration, but they don’t always appreciate how important sleep is to their training. Sleep affects everything, including a number of metabolic pathways that influence nutrition and performance. Not getting enough sleep can increase your body mass, decrease your cognition and increase your risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. It can also increase your risk for psychiatric conditions, including depression and substance abuse.
Three Key Hormones
Long-term sleep deprivation can affect three hormones that are important for athletic performance: leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol. High levels of ghrelin and low levels of leptin are associated with less sleep and weight gain.
Leptin is a satiety hormone released by adipocytes, or fat cells, in the body. It assists with the regulation of appetite and metabolism. Your leptin levels are lowest in the morning, and they peak in the evening.
High leptin levels limit hunger and control appetite, while low levels stimulate hunger and increase your intake of foods.
When you are sleep deprived, leptin resistance occurs. This means your body tells your brain to stop eating, but your brain can’t get the signal because leptin levels are so low. The result is you feel hungrier and don’t feel satisfied as quickly. So you eat more and keep going. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Secreted by the stomach, ghrelin is a hunger hormone that promotes slow-wave sleep and the nocturnal release of growth hormone. Less sleep leads to higher morning levels of ghrelin, which increases appetite and the accumulation of lipids in visceral fatty tissue, such as the abdominal zone.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is secreted through the adrenal glands. Low cortisol levels cause exhaustion during the day and insomnia at night and can increase the inflammatory response throughout the body.
Tips to Improve Your Performance
- Get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep per night.
- Eat foods that will help maintain healthy serotonin levels. Serotonin levels rise and fall based on diet and vitamin intake. High levels provide restful sleep, while low levels lead to food cravings, insomnia and depression. Good choices include 100 percent whole grains such as whole grain cereals, pastas, brown rice and crackers, because they trigger serotonin levels to rise.
- Include foods in your diet that help you sleep, including warm milk, chamomile or peppermint herbal tea, and food with sage or basil. Good bedtime snacks include a banana with soy yogurt, cottage cheese on oat cakes, 100 percent whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese, and 100 percent whole grain pita chips with trans-fat-free peanut butter.