Performance Enhancement Part 3: Managing Stress and Sleep
Saturday, August 18, 2012
LifeTime WeightLoss in Performance Nutrition, Stress and Sleep, Tom Nikkola


If you’re tracking along with the performance enhancement recommendations so far from Part 1 and Part 2, you have very likely noticed a change in your level of energy throughout the day and your ability to recover between your exercise sessions, and may have possibly noticed some other positive changes as a result of your renewed focus on your nutrition. As a reminder, here are the key points we’ve covered so far:

Performance-Enhancing Principle #1: Emphasize large amounts of vegetables at every meal and some fruit during the day.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #2: Optimize nutrient intake with a high-quality multivitamin and a greens product.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #3: Athletic-focused individuals may do well to target their daily protein intake at one gram per pound of body weight, assuming they are currently at a healthy body fat percentage.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #4: Eat high-quality protein, rich in essential amino acids.

Before moving on with more changes to the diet, we’re going to cover some critical lifestyle components necessary for your body to handle the normal stresses of life today, as well as the addition of a basic exercise program. In addition to providing basic nutrition for your body, you also have to provide a metabolic environment where your body can make the most use of the vitamins, minerals and protein in your diet. For that, we’re going to turn our attention to managing stress and addressing the need for sleep. Stress management and the ability to sleep well often go hand in hand, so it’s appropriate to address them together.

Though there are some “Type A” personalities who may convince themselves they can get by on just 4 to 6 hours of sleep, most people intuitively know that shorting themselves on sleep is a really bad decision. Research shows that after just one week of shortened sleep, testosterone levels begin to fall.[i] Of more than 600 chemicals produced in the liver, more than 60% were found to be controlled by the body’s circadian rhythm, or cycle of being asleep and awake.[ii] Tracking the number of hours one sleeps is a starting point, but quality of sleep is often as important as, if not more important than, the amount of sleep one gets. When sleep quality is good, the body rotates through a few stages of sleep each night. These sleep cycles help the body and mind recover from the previous day. There are four stages of sleep: Being awake, light sleep, REM sleep and deep sleep.

Getting to Sleep

Some people have a hard time falling asleep. They lie in bed for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more trying to force themselves to fall asleep. If this happens on occasion, it’s probably nothing to be concerned about. However, if this is a nightly occurrence, it might be worth considering some “assistance” in falling asleep. Before resorting to pharmaceutical interventions, here are some alternative options that many people find beneficial.

Stages of Sleep

Light Sleep

Light sleep is an “in-between” stage of sleep. You may hear noises outside or have an awareness of how you are lying in bed, but you’re not really conscious. However, if there was an unfamiliar noise, you’d wake up and be on guard.

Even those who get good quality sleep spend a significant part of their night in this stage of sleep, but some people may never get beyond this stage of sleep. About half of a good night’s sleep is spent in this stage. It is during this time that memories are moved from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex, which is seen as the brain’s hard drive.[iii]  Basically, without sufficient time spent in this stage of sleep individuals may not be able to learn as well.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)

REM sleep is the stage at which people dream. If you’ve ever been woken from sleep in the midst of a dream, you woke from REM sleep. After a good night’s sleep, and without waking to an alarm, you probably won’t remember many of your dreams. Usually, when you are able to wake up on your own, you’ll cycle out of REM before waking up.

Though your brain may seem to be very active with all the crazy dreams it conjures up, it is also the stage during which your brain recovers. During this stage, your muscles undergo a temporary paralysis — which is helpful if you are fighting in your dream, so you don’t knock out your significant other lying next to you. Most REM sleep takes place in the second half of the night, so those who short themselves on sleep miss out on a key part of sleep for a healthy brain. 

Deep Sleep

Deep sleep is the ultimate goal for those seeking performance enhancement. It is during deep sleep that the body stimulates the recovery process. This stage of sleeping is associated with both mental and physical restoration or rejuvenation. Human growth hormone (HGH) is released during deep sleep, which is important for muscle tissue repair. Most deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night. As individuals cycle through the stages of sleep during the night, less time is spent in deep sleep with each new cycle and more time is spent in REM sleep.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #5: Sleep quantity and quality are equally important. Sleep quantity ensures the body has sufficient time to transition through the cycles of sleep at least 2 to 3 times per night. Sleep quality is important because it allows one to move through the various sleep stages and gain the physical and mental benefits of each stage of sleep.

Stress & Sleep

Hopefully you understand how critical the quality and quantity of sleep are to overall health, which directly impacts your physical performance. Managing stress is another key component to allowing your body to rest and recover. But, beyond affecting sleep, chronically high levels of stress can alter the main fuel your body uses, turning it into more of a sugar burner than a fat burner. It also can stimulate the growth of visceral or belly fat, and increase the breakdown of muscle tissue.

To your nervous system, stress is stress. It doesn’t matter if stress comes from mental, emotional or physical stressors. Stress can come from work or family obligations, a poorly designed exercise program, poor dietary habits, dependence on stimulants and other factors. If a would-be athlete doesn’t manage stressors properly, increasing exercise intensity or volume can be a recipe for disaster. However, when asking someone how well he or she handles stress, the individual finds it a difficult question to answer. The question then is, “How can you measure how well your body is managing stress and stress hormones?”

Measuring Stress Levels

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. Under normal circumstances, cortisol follows a regular circadian rhythm. Its levels should be the highest in the morning, with a sharp drop from morning until afternoon and a more gradual fall into the evening, when cortisol levels should be very low.

 As Robb Wolf writes in his book, The Paleo Solution,

"Cortisol is often referred to as a "stress hormone," given that it is released in response to stress and anxiety. Cortisol increases blood pressure and acts as an anti-inflammatory by lowering the activity of the immune system. It will trigger the breakdown of muscle mass by converting protein (amino acids) into glucose via gluconeogenesis. Cortisol decreases insulin sensitivity, lowers the rate of bone formation, and causes a loss of collagen in the skin and other connective tissues. The following increase cortisol levels: intense or prolonged physical activity, caffeine, sleep deprivation, stress, subcutaneous fat tissue, and certain contraceptives."

Chronic stress, whether it is physical, mental or emotional, can disrupt the circadian rhythm of cortisol secretion which can lead to some of the problems above and more — not what a performance-minded individual wants.

Fortunately, it’s easy to measure one’s cortisol pattern during the day with a simple saliva test, called a Four-Point Cortisol Test (or a Stress & Resilience Test at Life Time).

The Stress and Resilience Test is the most popular test offered at Life Time. No doubt, it’s because so many people deal with chronically high levels of stress. Serious athletes would be served well to retest their levels every 3 to 6 months, or toward the end of a 12- to 16-week cycle of training and competition prep. The test is affordable, non-invasive, and helps identify the need to modify nutrition or exercise programming in order to maximize one’s training.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #6: A Four-Point Cortisol Test shows how an individual secretes cortisol throughout the day, and how that compares with an optimal circadian rhythm. When one’s cortisol curve is outside normal, modifications in nutrition, supplementation, exercise and lifestyle can be instituted to optimize cortisol levels and potentially improve performance.

Optimizing Cortisol

It’s quite common for people to have less than ideal cortisol patterns during the day. Some people are low when they should be high, others are high at night when they should be low. Nutrition, nutritional product, lifestyle and exercise modifications can help bring cortisol patterns back to normal. We discussed this in What Kind of Stressed Are You?

To help modulate cortisol, decrease caffeine consumption and other stimulants, be sure to follow the nutrition habits discussed in Part 1 and Part 2, get into a consistent and sufficient sleep pattern, and consider the Stress and Resilience Test. Once you identify your cortisol pattern, adaptogens like Relora and ginseng, extracts like adrenal cortex (Cortrex) and other supplements can provide significant benefit. Keep in mind that the use of these nutritional supplements is most beneficial when used to complement the results of the Stress and Resilience Test.

The reality is that the best exercise and nutrition program can be sabotaged by poor sleep and mismanaged stress. At this point, we haven’t discussed techniques to take performance to another level because we need to make sure a solid foundation is in place. Managing sleep and optimizing your response to stress are two additional keys to providing a rock-solid foundation for an optimal metabolism. 

Optimizing cortisol rhythm through nutrition, exercise, lifestyle and nutritional supplement modifications can have a significant effect on physical performance. Of course, the better one manages his or her stress levels, the more likely it is that sleep will improve which further supports improved performance. 

Written By Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition and Weight Management

[i] University of Chicago Medical Center. Sleep loss lowers testosterone in healthy young men. EurekAlert! May 31 2011.

[ii] University of California - Irvine. Metabolic Output Profoundly Influenced By Circadian Rhythms. Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 25 Jul. 2012.

[iii] University of California – Berkeley. As we sleep, speedy brain waves boost our ability to learn. EurekAlert! March 8 2011.

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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