Getting good quality sleep is very important for your health and fitness. Who hasn’t heard that muscle only grows when you rest? From a biochemical standpoint that might not be totally accurate, but we can still take the adage at face value. Resting is a good thing, and sleep is the best kind of rest you can get.
Besides rest, one of the major benefits of sleep involves chemicals you’ve probably heard of: growth hormone and melatonin. Growth hormone comes out in bursts when you exercise and when you are asleep. It has a short half-life, meaning it doesn’t last long in the body, but its muscle-building and fat-burning effects are long lived.
The full effects of melatonin are often overlooked, however. People often think of melatonin only as a means for better sleep, but in reality it has many other functions in the body. Much like human growth hormone, melatonin occurs while we sleep (although unlike growth hormone, melatonin is not released during exercise). It’s probably obvious that one of its effects is drowsiness, but melatonin is also critical for recovery from exercise. As a very important antioxidant, melatonin is central to human health. In fact, in 2007 the World Health Organization listed night shift work as a probable carcinogen. Yes, just like the chemicals that pour out of an exhaust pipe and radiation, not sleeping at night seems to be deadly. And the most likely cause of this is chronic melatonin deficiency. It really is that important.
In recent articles I’ve discussed how exercise contributes to oxidative stress and the importance a diet high in antioxidants to tilt the scales of exercise toward its positive effects. But it’s not just your nutrition that’s important here; it’s also your behaviors. Namely, good high quality sleep in the dark is crucial for your success as an athlete and for health.
So how potent is melatonin? A study published this month in Nutrition and Metabolism reviewed the use of melatonin to fight the deleterious effects of cisplatin, a drug used to fight cancer. Cisplatin is one of the most promising anti-cancer drugs but it chews up the body’s antioxidants at an alarming rate. It should go without saying that effective anticancer drugs are powerful and harmful chemicals, but to illustrate, cisplatin has side effects ranging from kidney damage to ear damage. In the study researchers found that treatment with melatonin substantially prevented the kidney damage caused by a single dose of cisplatin. While melatonin didn’t completely eliminate the damage, it mitigated it heavily.
So what does this have to do with exercise? Remember in the previous articles exercise has similar antioxidant draining effects on the body, just on a much smaller scale. With sufficient antioxidants in the diet we can stay healthy and reap the benefits of exercise, but this study should illustrate the importance of a good night’s sleep as well. Sleeping in a dark room for a good eight hours or more each night will greatly boost your performance and your health.
1. Ulkan Kilic, et. al., “Melatonin suppresses cisplatin-induced nephrotoxicity via activation of Nrf-2/HO-1 pathway,” Nutrition & Metabolism 2013, 10:7
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