Post by: / June 11, 2020

The Importance Of Sleep

The Importance of Sleep.

Tara Postnikoff, RNCP, PTS, Coach

Sleep is a key pillar in our health, wellness and athletic performance.  It’s often overlooked, or put on the back burner because we perceive we don’t have time. However, sleep is something we are in control of and making changes cost very little

Sleep allows the entire body to rest and the mind to repair itself. The brain and organs are still active while you sleep but it’s a lower grade activity.  Sleep is absolutely essential to a health. While you are asleep a lot is going on to help your body recover and rebuild.  Sleep is actually a highly metabolic process that helps optimize our brain structure, repair damaged cells in the body and to restore energy levels.

  • Impaired sleep patterns and sleep deprivation impair physical function and performance.  Studies have shown sleep deprived persons experience a 9% increase in reaction time and accuracy when performing tasks and sports.
  • Impaired sleep decreases cognitive functions like learning, skill acquisition, emotional intelligence, decision making and social interactions.
  • Too little sleep increases your tendency to over eat and gain weight. Sleep deprivation causes you to look for additional calories to stimulate the brain and typically when you are tired you make poor decisions about food and look for quick hits of energy from stimulants and sugar.  Studies have shown an increase of 11% in body composition for those who are chronically sleep deprived.
  • Too little sleep also reduces your immune system and increases your risk of getting sick.  Increased inflammation markers, increased risk of disease like CVD, stroke and dementia are all seen with sleep deprivation.

How much sleep is enough?

Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep and try to get a couple of those hours before mid night as this is when you typically get the most deep sleep, where as the REM sleep is more active closer to waking..  Ideally you want to hit 5 sleep cycles per night and each sleep cycle is about 90 minutes.  Women tend to need more sleep them men.   Athletes also need sleep to help with recover from the stresses of training, so consider increasing sleep priority during heavy training blocks or before your big race.

There are 5 stages to sleep: Stage 1 and 2 are light sleep, stage 3 and 4 are deep sleep and stage 5 or stage R is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Light sleep initiates your sleep cycle and is a transition point for deeper sleep stages.  Approximately 45-55% of your sleep time is spent in light sleep.

Deep sleep is where a lot the cellular repair occurs through increased blood flow to the muscles, release of growth hormone, and clearance of waste products from the brain.  Approximately 13-23% of your sleep time is spent in deep sleep.

REM sleep is associated with memory consolidation, learning, problem solving and dreaming.  Approximately 20-25% of your sleep time is spent in REM sleep.

Quality vs Quantity

Sleep quality is just as if not more important than sleep quantity, so if you have trouble sleeping, here are some tips to improve sleep quality.

Create your Optimal Sleep Routine and Sleep Sanctuary

  1. No Screens!  Avoid electronics for 60 minutes prior to bed (TVs, phones, tablets) as these all stimulate the brain.  Blue light actually stimulates the brain (think of the sunrise) and red lights are a bit more calming (sunset).   Melatonin (a hormone which regulates sleep) is inhibited by light.  So you need darkness to sleep well.
  2. Reading is a great way to relax before bed, maybe just not horror stories or true crime.  And choose and actual book vs a device to avoid the flashing/bright lights.  Event on evening mode your brain is still affected by the light.
  3. Routine! Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day (+/- 30-60 mins).  Your body loves routine.


  1. Sleep in a cooler environment.  Turn your thermostat down to around 16-18 C.  In the evening melatonin levels in the body cause the blood vessels in the skin to dilate, releasing heat into the environment.  Cooling promotes drowsiness and helps you fall asleep.
  2. Sleep in a completely dark room.  Close the blinds and make sure those red dots from your alarm clock aren’t in view.  If your sleep-cave is not dark enough, your brain is signalled to wake up.  No phones or tablets in the bedroom either!
  3. Take a warm shower before bed.  This will aid in a faster cooling of the body which will help promote the release of melatonin.
  4. Exercise.  Regular physical exercise is good to promote sleep quality.  Over training or large amounts of exercise on the other hand can impair sleep. High intensity exercise before bed can also impair sleep, so if you are trying to improve sleep try to do that intensity workout earlier in the day.
  5. Self-Massage.  Try some light foam rolling or rub some lavender oil into your feet to help get you more into your para-sympathetic nervous system.
  6. Clean Linens.  Change your pillow case every three days and sheets weekly.

Food & Drink

  1. Avoid caffeine after 1pm.  This includes coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate and energy drinks as well as certain over the counter medications.  Caffeine sensitivity varies greatly from one person to the next, but it’s best to lay off it if you have trouble sleeping.
  2. Avoid alcohol before bed as it impairs sleep by releasing adrenaline and inhibits the transport of tryptophan to the brain (which is the source of serotonin).  While you may feel relaxed you are not.   Alcohol is also sugar which can inhibit sleep further.
  3. Don’t go to sleep with a full belly.  Have dinner at least 2 hours before going to bed.   If you need a small snack have something with a little carbohydrate and protein.
  4. Reduce sugar intake to improve sleep as sugar is a stimulant.  Sugar too close to bed will likely lead to you waking up at 1-2 am due to a hypo-glycemic response (low blood sugar) which causes a response to hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, that do not promote sleep.


  1. Take 4 slow deep breathes to calm the body and mind.  This is called progressive relaxation, and you can use to help your body reach a state of deep relaxation.  Inhale for 4 counts, pause, exhale for 4 counts.  Repeat 4-6 times.
  2. Write it down! Keep a note pad next to the bed to write down your thoughts and stresses so you can sleep with a clear mind.  Or journaling can also be helpful.

Sleep trackers and interpreting your data.

Wearable devices that track your sleep are becoming more common and more sophisticated, but what does the data mean and how can you use it.  First you can identify how much sleep you are getting night in and night out and compare that over the course of a month, season or year. You can compare the quality of sleep and the performance in your workout(s), race or identify if you are getting sick or burnt out.

Use the data to adjust your alarm / wake up time to be inline with trends you see on your device. For example, if you are being woke up in deep sleep or REM sleep you might feel groggy or shocked. Whereas if you adjusted your wake up time (and maybe bed time) by 15-30 mins you might wake up in a light sleep phase and actually feel more refreshed. Play around with your data and alarm time and see what impact it has.

Nutrients/Supplements to support sleep.

Here are some foods, nutrients and supplements to consider that can help support your sleep. If you have any questions about supplements it is best to consult a qualified health care practitioner and check for any contraindications with existing medications or health concerns.

  1. Magnesium– is a nervous system relaxant that can help you calm your mind and body to produce sleep. Start small with 250mg of magnesium citrate or bis-glycinate before bed and see if that helps. Increase your dosage to bowel tolerance (soft, incomplete stools) then back off a bit to find an ideal dose.
  2. Melatonin can be effective if your levels are low. Dosages of 3-9mg of melatonin can be used short term to help restore your circadian rhythm after time zone changes or periods of stress and impaired sleep.
  3. Cold Tart Cherry juice contains melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleepiness. Cold tart cherry juice can also help cool down the body and help the body release more melatonin.
  4. Herbals.  Valerian root, passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile, and skull cap are all great sleep promoting herbs. Try a blend of these teas 45 minutes before bed to help with relaxation.  There are blends like this in your health food store likely called Sleepy Time Tea.


How to Take Action

  • Assess where you currently are. How do you rate your sleep?
  • Analyze what small changes can do to improve your sleep.
  • Put your plan in place, take action and reassess.


If you already know you don’t sleep well, identify the areas in your sleep routine that you can improve on.

If you think you sleep well, but are only getting less than 6 hours of sleep, then choose to prioritize you sleep for the next 2 weeks and focus on setting an earlier bed time and see how you feel with more sleep.

Sleep is something we are in control of and making changes cost very little.  Remember, that email can wait until the next day. The TV show can be recorded and the friends you text at night will be OK too. Turn off those lights and go to bed!!