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Quality Sleep and the Zeo

Please do not overlook the next two statements. Quality sleep is critical to your health. Quality sleep is critical to your ability to manage your weight.

Sleep is one of those things that many people know they should do a better job with, but they let other things in their life get in the way. Even writing that statement, I can recall some recent instances where I let the clock move past 9 pm and didn’t make myself go to bed.

In the following article, I’d want to point out how significant quality sleep is to your health and your ability to manage your weight, as well as discuss what we’ve found to be the best way to easily track the quality of your sleep. For full disclosure, we will be offering the sleep device I’m going to discuss at Life Time. However, the reason we’re going to start offering the sleep device and integrating it with our programming is because of the quality of the device. We saw a need to assist people with understanding their sleep, and after reviewing many of the available options, we felt the Zeo was the best option available.

My main reason in bringing this up is to say that we know there is a huge need for people to understand their sleep better. Because we saw that need, we decided to start offering the Zeo at Life Time. We did not see the Zeo as a good gimmick and then start promoting the need for sleep.

Quality, Not Just Quantity

I recently discussed the topic of sleep debt. I temporarily started using a simple sleep tracker on my Android phone to track when I went to sleep and when I woke up. I had ordered a new headband for my Zeo sleep monitor and used this other app in the interim. The app calculated my sleep debt based on the total time I’d fallen short of my 7 ½ hour sleep goal during the previous 10 days. That meant if my total sleep time for the past 10 days was less than 75 hours, I’d be in “sleep debt.”

I love that concept for people just starting to pay attention to their sleep. It’s a simple way to get started toward better sleep habits. Either you’re in a sleep surplus or you’re in sleep debt. However, there’s more to sleep than the number of hours you lie in bed. Your ability to recover from daily stress, support your immune system, secrete hormones and maintain good brain function depend on your ability to reach various stages of sleep throughout the night.

In large part, the quality of sleep depends on the time spent in deep sleep and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep.

Sleep Stages

There are four primary stages of sleep: Wakefulness, light sleep, deep sleep and REM. Deep sleep is sometimes further divided, but for our purposes, these four are sufficient to discuss. Throughout the night, sleep is cycled from light to deep to REM and back again. Each cycle averages 90 minutes. Throughout the night, the time spent in deep sleep lessens and the time spent in REM sleep increases, so the first third of the night includes the most deep sleep and the last third includes the most REM sleep.


This state is fairly obvious, as it occurs from the time you wake up in the morning until you’ve laid down your head and begun the stages of sleep below. Unfortunately, many people find themselves awake at several times throughout the night as well. Noise, a restless bed partner or a newborn baby can contribute to a chopped up sleep pattern. Magnesium or other electrolyte deficiencies can lead to restless leg syndrome or cramps, which can wake individuals as well. Nutritional supplementation can often help in these instances. Still other disorders can be additional causes individuals are forced out of their sleep.

If you wake up many times during the night, your chance of successfully entering deeper levels of sleep will be reduced. If possible, take action by reducing stress levels before bed, optimizing your nutrition intake, modifying your sleeping environment, or trying a nutritional supplement such as Relora, 5-HTP or melatonin.

Melatonin is a natural sleep hormone. Its production is affected by a variety of factors, but the most controllable is our exposure to artificial light after sunset. Prolonged exposure suppresses melatonin secretion, which affects the body’s ability to enter sleep efficiently. In fact, a common practice to fatten cattle is to prolong their exposure to artificial light from eight hours to sixteen hours. If it has that effect on cattle, there’s a good chance it has a similar effect on our bodies as well. Suppressing melatonin contributes to insulin and blood sugar problems.[i]

Deep Sleep

Deep sleep is thought to be the most restorative state of sleep. In this stage, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes dominant compared to the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the “flight or fight” response, and increases reliance on sugar for fuel, reduces the ability to properly manage blood sugar and increases cortisol levels. When under chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is overused, which contributes to insulin resistance and weight gain, and eventually metabolic syndrome.

Heart rate falls to its lowest point and it becomes much more difficult to wake someone in this stage of sleep. Muscles become more relaxed as well.

Deep sleep suppresses the sympathetic nervous system. Interestingly, insomnia actually increases energy expenditure due to a stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Even though people burn more calories when they’re not sleeping, the chronically stimulated sympathetic nervous system affects blood sugar and muscle breakdown in a way that people gain body fat.[ii]

It is also during deep sleep that growth hormone levels are secreted at their highest levels of the 24-hour cycle. Growth hormone works against cortisol and supports fat utilization and the development, rather than breakdown, of lean body mass or muscle tissue.

Achieving deep sleep is also important for learning and retaining information into long-term memory.[iii]

REM Sleep

REM sleep is still somewhat of a mystery. There is no clear reasoning or benefit seen from dreaming, which is the most mysterious part of sleep. During REM sleep, metabolic rate increases and there is more reliance on the sympathetic nervous system. The brain is more active, contributing to the “rapid eye movement” that marks this stage as well as the dreams most people experience. About 80% of dreams occur during REM, with the other 20% occurring during deep sleep.[iv] Skeletal muscle goes under a temporary paralysis, so individuals don’t act out their dreams.

REM is thought to support the development of new brain cells, so it may play a role in long-term cognitive function.[v] There also seems to be a link between deep sleep and REM sleep in how information is stored, making both stages important for long-term memory.

During REM sleep, the body loses some control over maintaining regular temperature. If your bedroom is too warm or too cold, it will be difficult to stay in REM sleep as you may become too uncomfortable. You can experiment with your bedroom temperature to see what works best for you. I’ve found 68-69 degrees is ideal for me.

Measuring Stages of Sleep

Our trainers and dietitians frequently work with their clients on making sleep more of a priority. The reality is, if something can’t be measured, it’s difficult to change behavior. That’s why nutrition and exercise journals are so important for making regular progress toward better habits or improved performance.

With our regular focus on sleep, we’ve looked for the most accurate, economical and useful way of tracking sleep. We knew that if we could find a device that could measure not just the hours people slept, but the time they spent in the various sleep stages, it would be a powerful tool. Does high-intensity training in the evening negatively affect one’s ability to get quality sleep? Does using melatonin work better for someone to increase the hours they sleep, but for that same individual, is 5-HTP more effective for increasing deep sleep or REM sleep? What if we were able to adjust a training plan based on the quality of one’s sleep the night before, or their average from the previous week?

These were all questions we asked, which led us to looking for a device that could best give us the answers. Brain waves are the tell-tale signs of the stages of sleep one is in. Some sleep devices make assumptions based on how much someone moves throughout the night about what stage they’re in, but the only way to really know for sure is to record one’s brainwaves.

Research-level sleep equipment is extremely expensive, but a relatively new device was created for consumer use called the Zeo. The Zeo does record one’s brain patterns throughout the night and supplies a nightly report of time spent in each stage of sleep, how often one wakes up, the time it takes to fall asleep and other interesting information. Each night’s sleep is summed up with a nightly ZQ score.

The Zeo is the only consumer sleep tracking system with scientifically-proven accuracy that measures actual sleep phases, including Light, Deep and REM sleep, providing a complete and accurate picture of users’ sleep. Where other gadgets and smartphone apps can help you identify the time you’re in bed, and sometimes the number of times you wake up, Zeo provides a lot more information.

The one drawback we’ve seen from those who have tested the unit is the fact that you must wear the sensor around your head. Most people who exercise at Life Time understand the value of heart rate training and the importance of wearing a heart rate monitor. The Zeo headband looks like a heart rate monitor strap for your head. The Bluetooth sensor sends your brain wave information to your mobile phone’s or tablet’s Zeo Sleep Manager app throughout the night.

Once you wake up, you simply dock your sensor on the charging station and your evening’s sleep data is complete. The strap takes a little getting-used-to. Initially, some people may find the unit disrupts their sleep because they notice the strap around their head or the strap is too tight. Personally, it didn’t bother me at all, but it did for my wife.

While there are other tracking options available, we felt this was the best device on the market. We contacted Zeo, had many discussions with them to make sure the product was as good as we thought it was, and decided we’d begin carrying the product as of Black Friday. It’s very exciting to think about the impact this device can have on the overall health and performance of its users.

I’ve used my Zeo for the better part of a year now. For me, I’ve learned quite a few things. My experience and the effects of my choices may be quite different than others, which is why getting the device is so valuable. That said, for me, here are a few things I’ve learned about my own sleep:

  • I wake up between 4:45 and 5:30, even if I haven’t set an alarm. That means when I go to bed after 9:30, I’m seriously giving up sleep time. Knowing I’m tracking my sleep helps hold me accountable to getting to bed.
  • One glass of wine in the evening significantly reduces my deep sleep and REM sleep. I only have a glass of wine a couple times per month, so it’s possible that I just don’t have a tolerance to it.
  • My ideal ZQ score is between 90-100. Each person’s ideal ZQ is different, so it takes some time to determine what’s best for each person.
  • Calorie restriction reduces my ability to sleep. This makes sense because it can increase cortisol levels. Even if I get plenty of protein in my diet, eating a lower level of total calories for more than a couple days in a row starts to reduce my ability to sleep.
  • When I’m under extra stress or have a lot going on at work, Relora seems to work better than 5-HTP or melatonin, for me, to fall asleep quickly after lying down.
  • If I do decide to read on my Kindle before bed, setting the screen to black with white letters helps me fall asleep faster than when the screen is white and the letters are black.
  • Heavy weight training the morning before tends to (though not always) increase my deep sleep the following night

I hope you can appreciate the importance of sleep for people of any age. Sometimes you don’t realize how little you get until you start tracking it. It’s more than just the hours you sleep, which is why something like the Zeo can be so beneficial. Again, the reason we decided to start carrying the Zeo at Life Time, is we see sleep as a significant part of a health, performance or weight management program. If you track it, you’ll be more likely to make better choices about your sleep habits.

As an added bonus, superstar triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker put together a brief video for us to share his experience with the Zeo. It was originally recorded for our Health and Fitness Professionals, but I thought it was appropriate to share it with everyone. 

Written by Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Share thoughts and ask questions below.

[i] Cizza G, Requena M, Galli G, de Jonge L. Chronic sleep deprivation and seasonality: Implications for the obesity epidemic. J Endocrinol Invest. 2011;34(10):793-800

[ii] Dijk D-J. Slow-wave sleep, diabetes, and the sympathetic nervous system. PNAS. 2008;104(4):1107-108

[iii] Rauchs G, Desgranges B, Foret, J, Eustache F. The relationships between memory systems and sleep stages. J. Sleep Res. 2005;14:123-140

[iv] Chokroverty S. Overview of sleep & sleep disorders. Indian J Med Res. 2010;131:126-140

[v] Siegel JM. REM sleep: A biological and psychological paradox. Sleep Med Rev. 2011;15(3):139-142

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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