Even if you train hard and eat right, these four things can trigger fat gain, wreck your sleep, and kill your strength. Here's how to fight them.
You train hard, your diet is pretty good, and yet you're still struggling to reach your goals. Why? In today's world, we're losing muscle, storing fat, and getting weaker because we're exposed to a technologically dominated environment that's at war with our genetic makeup. Let's fix that.
1 – Light Is Wrecking Your Sleep and Recovery
Light, especially the blue-light from electronic devices, disrupts sleep.
Anyone who's experienced jetlag understands that human beings have an internal circadian clock that determines everything from energy and hunger to glucose tolerance and muscle building. Even without light or darkness, our body knows when it should be awake and when it should be asleep.
The eyes are the master of this clock because of their ability to sense light. When there are low levels of light, special nerve cells communicate to our brain that it's time to get ready for bed. The brain then releases chemicals to help us wind down and the pineal gland releases a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is the yin to the yang pumped out by the adrenal glands.
Since light determines whether or not we get the message to secrete melatonin, it's easy to see how staring at an electronic screen, or simply being in a brightly-lit house in the evening, can be problematic. Your brain knows it's time for bed, but it's still waiting for darkness so it can cue the pineal gland to secrete melatonin and start down-regulating stress.
Blue light, from electronics in particular, disrupts melatonin production, which means we'll continue to suffer from poor sleep and a disrupted circadian cycle if smart phones, TVs, tablets, and computers continue to be our main source of entertainment in the evening. Unfortunately, white light from a light bulb or overhead fluorescent appears to be nearly as problematic as blue light as research reveals that short durations (1-2 hours) cause near-daytime melatonin levels after minimal exposure (500-1000lux).
How to Fix It
- Set your life to the sun. Expose yourself to lots of light in the morning and during the day, then turn it off in the evening and night. This includes blue light, which isn't a problem when melatonin levels are supposed to be low (during the day), and may in fact improve alertness and performance.
- Fight the light. Consider using orange or amber-tinted glasses to block out the blue light emitted from electronic devices and prevent the melatonin suppression and poor sleep quality that occurs as a result. Furthermore, dimming the screen on your gadgets, or installing the free app f.lux, can also help reduce the blue light emitted from your devices in the evening.
- Don't forget white light, though. Blocking it, or sticking to reddish light (fire, candle), almost doubles melatonin levels, as was shown in the graph below from The New England Journal of Medicine.
2 – You're Chronically Stressed
Chronic stress makes your body secrete cortisol, which suppresses sleep and muscle-growing hormones.
Excessive stress hormones can overburden melatonin production and wreck sleep. Prior to pocket computers and artificially lit homes, one could argue that this was the driving force behind the poor sleepers of the past. That being said, it's safe to say that this problem is more significant today, as cell phones and 24-hour emails means work never stops. This forces us to be awake and alert when we should be asleep, and messes with our natural circadian flow of stress.
Circadian Release of Cortisol
Since there's no such thing as a 9-5 work day anymore, we secrete cortisol chronically. This suppresses sleep (melatonin) and muscle-building hormones (GH and testosterone), which promotes inflammation and insulin resistance and raises our risk of metabolic dysfunction and degenerative disease.
Stress is supposed to be a short and infrequent reaction, designed to help us run fast, jump high, and be strong when our life is in danger. It's not supposed to linger with us all day as a reaction to bumper-to-bumper traffic, social media trolls, and urgent late-night emails. This chronic stress and over-stimulation keeps us up at night, and not sleeping properly only exacerbates the problem. We don't produce enough melatonin to inhibit the stress production in the adrenals or enough GABA to turn off the over-stimulated neurons in our brain. This makes us sleep like crap and feel even more stressed the following day.
How to Fix It
- Avoid exercise, caffeine, and excess stimulation in the evening. Other than trying to exercise when it's light out and avoiding coffee too late in the afternoon, do your best to avoid stressful work and overly stimulating entertainment. It also means clearing your mind instead of filling it with a list of things you want to get done. Alternatives include meditation, writing out a to-do list for the next day, and picking up a book. We need to be heading to sleep with a calm brain, not a highly active one.
- Use stress-reducing supplements when necessary. Even with less light exposure and higher melatonin production, many are still over-stimulated by technology. After all, melatonin facilitates GABA production, but usually not enough to make up for an 8 PM viewing of Saw in 3D. Normally GABA acts as the brain's "off-switch," decreasing the action potential of the neurons in the brain and making them less likely to fire, but when the brain is overly-stimulated by the visual and audio orgasm that is the internet, GABA production is inadequate.
- Magnesium supplementation is a great place to start for calming the nervous system. Although, depending on the severity of your sleep disturbance, a supplemental mixture with melatonin and GABA, or some of their amino-acid precursors (tryptophan, taurine) may also be worth exploring.
3 – You Don't Sleep Enough
Inadequate sleep reduces insulin sensitivity and makes you fat.
We're not only sleeping poorly because of late-night emails from the boss and binge-watching TV, we're sleeping less in general: one to two hours less than 60 years ago. Furthermore, several studies show that over 30% of us are sleeping less than 6 hours a night.
In our brave new world, sleep has unfortunately become a luxury and trying to prioritize it is often looked at as lazy or weak. That's ironic, because people who don't sleep are actually getting fatter and weaker. Even if we looked past the compromised immunity and increased risk of degenerative disease and early death afforded by poor sleep, inadequate sleep negatively affects our ability to build strength and muscle.
Sleep releases growth hormone, and inadequate sleep is associated with higher levels of stress and lower levels of testosterone. Simply missing one hour of sleep per night (than what's optimal for you) prompts your brain to secrete cortisol and shift your body away from muscle building and toward fat storage. Even in healthy young men, a poor night's sleep results in temporary glucose intolerance (insulin resistance) and an increase in food intake. In fact, consistent sleep deprivation results in an 18-20% decrease in leptin (which affects the feeling of being full) and a 24-28% increase in ghrelin (which affects hunger), both of which facilitate fat gain.
This may not sound like a big deal to disciplined lifters as they're convinced cutting calories is all they need to succeed, and "sticking to their macros" can solve all the world's problems. Too bad they don't know that inadequate sleep alters the composition of weight loss.
In a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine, participants were put on the same restricted diet but split into separate sleep groups. Both groups lost the same amount of weight, but in the group that only slept 5.5 hours a night, only 48% of the weight loss consisted of fat. Contrast that to the group that slept 8.5 hours a night: 80% of their weight loss was fat.
How to Fix It
- Make sleep a priority. The need for sleep varies, but there seems to be a sweet spot between 7 and 8 hours. A study from Laval University in the journal Sleep analyzed 276 adults between the ages of 21 and 64 for six years and found greater weight gain in those sleeping fewer than 6 hours per night (4.36 pounds) and greater than 9 hours per night (3.48 pounds), compared to those sleeping between 7 and 8. Though one could argue that sleeping too much may be a symptom of weight gain rather than a cause, it's clear that sleeping too little is a problem. And this has clearly become the common practice in the general population, with more than 35% getting less than 7 hours, and 63% feeling they don't get enough.
- Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and cold. Along with keeping your sleep environment as dark and quiet as possible, it should be relatively cold. When the room is too warm (upwards of 65 degrees), the body's natural response is to cool itself and sleep quality suffers.
- Use sleep-aid supplementation. Use a natural supplement like Z-12™ – which contains L-theanine, 5-HTP, and phenibut. The main workhorse in it is PhGABA, which interrupts the flow of stimulatory neurotransmitters that keep you restless and awake. Its other sleep-inducing mechanisms include increased production of the sleepy-time hormone serotonin and brain alpha-wave production, which promotes a relaxed mental state. Some people even use one capsule of Z-12™ (instead of 2-3, the normal dosage before bed) for daily stress reduction.
4 – You Sit Too Much
You're much more likely to be fat and sick if you sit around four or more hours a day, regardless of how hard you train.
There's been a dramatic and consistent rise in sitting time since the 1950's, largely because of inactive modes of transportation, TV, and an increase in occupations that revolve around the computer. We sit on the way to work, sit while we're at work, and sit around watching TV when we get home.
Interestingly, it's not as simple as "more sitting means less moving," but rather that the actual act of sitting is dangerous to our health. For instance, research from Kansas State University concluded that those who sit four hours or more each day are at a significantly higher risk of developing a degenerative disease, regardless of the amount of exercise they perform.
That means that the person who walks more or spends more time at the gym isn't necessarily undoing the time spent sitting at his desk. Walking 10,000 steps before chronically sitting or standing at work for 10 hours isn't as productive as distributing your 10,000 steps evenly throughout the day. You're probably thinking that those who sit for more than four hours likely have poor eating and lifestyle habits and that contributed to their poor health prognosis, but you're wrong. The probability of chronic disease remained high regardless of body mass index.
How to Fix It
- Get an adjustable-height desk. Chronic standing isn't much better than chronic sitting when it comes to glycemic control, fat mass, and cardio-metabolic risk. And depending on whether you're a conscious stander or not, you'll probably end up with just as many pains and strains as it's common to over-arch the spine (anterior pelvic tilt), lock out the knees, and lean on one hip. That's why it's a good idea to get an adjustable workstation where you can move from sitting-to-standing, rather than an oft-recommended permanent stand-up desk.
- Take an activity break every hour. As demonstrated in a 2013 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the real metabolic improvements come from regular activity breaks. Australian researchers found a 39% improvement in glucose levels and a 26% decrease in insulin when 18 short walks on a treadmill (1 minute, 40 seconds) were spaced evenly throughout the day. The interesting part of the experiment was that those who took frequent breaks did significantly better than those taking part in 30 minutes of exercise per day. Of course, everyone doesn't have the luxury of a treadmill desk, so taking a 5-10 minute activity break every hour appears to be a viable solution. Depending on your workplace, this could mean setting an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you to walk to the bathroom, grab a coffee, or do a lap around the building.