Sleep Tutorial

20 Jan

Sleep Like a Baby


The role of sleep in terms of recovery can not be over stated.  So in that way this article is a centerpiece of the Foundations documents that you get as a Science Lab member.  Click here for details.

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Sleep is a common problem for so many people, but few learn to tackle it like they do nutrition; they barely give the time of day.   The importance of adequate nightly rest is vastly underrated, but it’s a vital component of keeping yourself healthy.  Sleep is the body’s time to perform routine maintenance and set up the endocrine system up for the next day.  It’s also a valuable fat burning window.  Unfortunately, people waste years of their lives lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering why they can’t catch some shut-eye.   From crying babies (or cats, let us not forget about cats) to stressing out over work the next day, sleep disturbances make a huge impact on the quality of your sleep.  On top of this, real sleep disorders like apnea (a condition where you stop breathing during sleep) exist that make every night a living hell.

No one should have the spend the night tossing and turning only to sneak in 15 minute naps during their lunch break when they should be eating.  You quickly reach a point where naps and caffeine don’t make a dent in your energy levels.  You become more and more stressed and fat starts hanging around your midsection.  You begin to look like a raccoon preparing for hibernation and walking to the other end of the office is a chore.  If mid-day fatigue, morning restlessness and a carton of 5 hour energy is your idea of making it through life, then you’re probably not going to look or feel very good.  Something must be done!

Cortisol and Sleep

A lack of sleep directly affects hormone function.  You begin to produce more of the hormone cortisol, at all the wrong times.  Cortisol is a key player in activating the sympathetic nervous system and stress responses.  When we’re scared or we feel threatened, cortisol jacks up our nervous output and helps us respond to the situation.  However, due to the way we live in modern society, this entire process is screwed up; we’re chronically stressed out.  We shouldn’t have to panic over our jobs, but we do.  We shouldn’t spend hours each night surrounding by lights, listening to cars racing in the distance, but we do.  As our stress response becomes overwhelmed, it becomes more and more difficult to function. Our appetite becomes ravenous and we need stimulants to get going in the morning because we are so worn out.  The system becomes overloaded and it crashes.

As you can see, at certain times of the day, you need elevated cortisol levels to get your blood flowing and stabilize plasma glucose levels.  One of the most easily predicted releases of cortisol occurs right as you wake up.  Low cortisol in the morning is usually tied to high morning blood sugar and low blood pressure.  Likewise, at night, when you should be enveloped in darkness, cortisol should be low.  Elevated cortisol at bed time interferes with growth hormone release, which will directly impact your ability to lose weight or gain muscle.

Top priority in resetting your sleep cycle is learning to react to natural external stimuli.  When you get up in the morning, immediately getting some sunlight is crucial to alerting your brain that its day time.  The same goes for bedtime; as the sun sets, you need to start turning lights down and turning electronics off.  If you don’t set up an environment that mimics our natural sleep and wake cycles, then it will be that much more difficult to establish a healthy sleep pattern.

Establish a Routine

A routine is key to getting good sleep.  That doesn’t mean living every day of the rest of your life in darkness from 6pm onward, but until you get a handle on your sleep, you need to follow a routine. It may seem boring going to bed early, but you’ll thank yourself later.  In the morning, open the windows and let the sun in.  It’s also a good idea to have a large, protein-dense breakfast.  When adjusting to a new sleep schedule, eating a lot of protein and exposing yourself to bright light will naturally balance cortisol levels.  This will also go a long way to stem cravings and hunger problems.

The Pre-Game Snack

Now for the evening; a huge protein meal won’t be beneficial in relation to sleep like it is in the morning.  In the evening, you’ll be winding down, so a different strategy is required. Fat can assist in regulating blood sugar levels throughout the night, and a slow digesting carbohydrate source will allow serotonin to level up with dopamine in the brain. A sweet potato with coconut butter is a surefire win here.  Trust me on this; when your hormones are up and running, your dreams will inform you that something is right.

This is an update from what I previously wrote.  In May of 2013 I started using Progenex’s Cocoon, it’s a slow acting protein with a key ingredient as a sleep aid L-tryptophan.  If you can afford it I would HIGHLY recommend this product.  I have used melatonin in the past but L-tryptophan gives me more “restorative” sleep and I wake up refreshed. When you order it through our site you get 10% off.


Don’t Go To Bed Hungry!

Hunger stresses you out, you produce more cortisol, and you wake up.  See where I am going with this?  The chain reaction of hormones that wake you up in the morning will also keep you awake at night.  You’re making your life a lot harder if you’re avoiding food (and particularly carbs) at night so you can lose weight.  You brain will be unable to shut down for sleep if you’re hungry.  A hungry brain is a never ending brain of revolving thoughts.

One Hour Before Bed

Start your nightly routine; wash your face, brush your teeth and dim the lights.  No distractions, no electronic devices.  This is the perfect time to look out the window at the stars, stretch, meditate, or read a book by candle light.  Make falling asleep at least as big of a priority as your favorite television show and give it one hour nightly.

30 Minutes Before Bed

Decaffeinated tea can help you wind down, as well as spending some quality time with your family or roommates.  It’s likely that if your children were asked whether they’d like to spend the last 30 minutes of the day with mom and dad, or watch an all new episode of a hit Disney show, they’d want the television. Tough cookies though, they also need to eat their vegetables regardless of the fuss. This works the same way.  My wife will often read poems from Shel Silverstein.  Sometimes, we have the kids read to us.  It is optional activity though; you have to want to be there and they do too.

Bedtime Means Lights Out!

I mean complete darkness.  That little light blinking in the corner or your DVD player?  Get rid of it.  Get new curtains if the street lights are shining in.  Darkness tells your brain to produce natural melatonin.  When first starting the routine, you may feel uncomfortable and squirmy in bed. It takes the body and mind a little bit of time to synchronize. Don’t expect everything to resolve itself over night.  Instead of being anxious about getting to sleep, think of this as “me time”.  This is where you can clear your thoughts, close your eyes and just enjoy the cozy comforts of your bed.

You should be setting aside 10 hours for this; one hour to get to bed, and nine hours for sleep.  You may not think you can sleep for nine hours, but give it time and you will.  Even if you only sleep 6 or 7 straight hours, that is six or seven restful hours.  The worst thing that can happen is that you simply wake up early and get some extra work done.

If You Still Can’t Sleep

If none of this stuff works, it might be time to see a doctor and ask for a 24 hour cortisol saliva reading.  A greater degree of hormonal derangement may require assistance from a sleep specialist.  You can put a band aid on the sore, but since sleep is such a big deal, you’re better off covering all your bases and getting sleep help from someone who helps people for a living.

My Trial

I gave up coffee for 30 days when I started this; I just needed to know if coffee was the problem.   I slept better and it seemed, at the time, that coffee was indeed to blame.  It was uncomfortable for a while, but I adjusted after a week or so and I was getting nine hours of sleep regularly.  I eventually re-introduced coffee and found that I was okay now.  In the long run, everyone is different.  I definitely believe that reducing my caffeine intake played a role in reducing my cortisol levels overall, and that was a good thing.

Mental Games We Play With Ourselves

The messages we send ourselves when alone need to change.  If you get five hours sleep one night, do not sweat it. You may want to lay off the five espressos to get you through the day though, because the routine will start again that night when you’re still wired from caffeine. That is sending your brain mixed signals.  I know people think they can drink coffee up until noon and “half-life caffeine.”  You will never truly know, until you are less reliant upon stimulants, if they really are affecting you.  I am drinking espresso right now because I have established my routine but when you are first starting off, you might want to try and lose the stimulants.  Lastly if you take a stimulant BECAUSE you are tired, ask yourself if you really want that added stress on top of an already stressful situation.


  • Sleep is one of the most underlooked aspects of achieving health and recovering from stress.  The importance of a good night’s sleep in regulating hormone function cannot be disregarded.  It’s also a great time to burn fat! 
  • Dysfunctional sleep can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels and low levels of growth hormone, resulting in poor body composition and overall health.
  • Exposure to light and dark can help you establish a more natural sleep cycle.  Get some sun during the day and try to spend less time on the computer at night.
  • Eat protein and good fats during the day to keep insulin levels low, your blood sugar stable, and growth hormone up.
  • Eat carbohydrates at night to maximize fat burning and anabolic signaling during sleep.  Don’t go to bed hungry!
  • Once you’ve developed a routine, stick to it and eventually it will become second nature.
  • Cut back on stimulants (like caffeine and energy drinks) when you’re trying to regulate your sleep cycles.  Excessive use can really aggravate the problem.  In general, try to avoid coffee after the morning is over and make sure you drink plenty of water.

6 Responses to “Sleep Tutorial”

  1. Bryon Thomas March 9, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    how long before bed do u eat the sweet potato ?

    • Paul Nobles March 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

      It’s ok to eat it 5 minutes before bed, it might actually be preferable as long as it doesn’t upset your stomach.

  2. Dustin Derrick March 10, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    Thoughts on crossfit raising cortisol levels so much that it could affect sleep. Been going at 7:30pm. Just started CBL, so additional carbs may solve the problem. Only getting 6-7 hours of sleep now.

    • Paul Nobles March 10, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      6-7 might be fine for you, I wouldn’t overthink it to be honest. How old are you?

      • Dustin Derrick March 12, 2013 at 11:34 am #

        I’m 32 at the end of this month. I think you’re right about overthinking.

      • Paul Nobles March 12, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

        Yeah, I have a general rule. When I am tired I will sleep. Personally sleep has to be one of my biggest priorities in my life. If I don’t keep it as a top priority everything falls apart. My family doesn’t always cooperate but they are getting there.

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