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Is 8 Hours Of Sleep Just A Myth?

By Tom Venuto - author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle

Sleep is very important, but sleep is also a very misunderstood subject. Three years ago in my newsletter I wrote something about sleep that stirred up some controversy and really disgruntled a lot of readers…

In issue #6 of BFS newsletter, August, 2001 in an interview with Lori Braun from female muscle.Com, I wrote:

"Sleep is for wimps! A friend of mine likes to say, ‘Life is for living; there's plenty of time for sleeping when you're dead!’ I don't sleep that much. There's too much to do, see, read and enjoy and just not enough hours in the day to be sleeping them all away. Usually I sleep 5-6 hours a night. I wish I could get by on 2 or 3; I would get a lot more done that way.

I’m being a little facetious, but seriously, though, I think the amount of sleep you need is largely an individual issue, a matter of certain lifestyle factors and is also tied into your belief systems. I believe all the emphasis on needing 8-10 hours a sleep a day to recover and grow muscle is a bunch of crap. I've achieved the absolute best condition of my life sleeping only 5 1/2 to 6 hours before contests.

Take a look at high achievers in any field: sports, business, whatever, and you'll see a lot of people who don't buy into the 8 hours theory. I remember reading Skip Lacour's daily training journal from 1999 and he said he slept less than I do - maybe 4-5 hours a night (Skip is arguably the best natural bodybuilder in the world). He was up at 4 or 5 am doing cardio - What a guy! And he won the overall Team Universe at around 225 lbs. Doesn’t seem to have hurt his gains!

We've been brainwashed into believing it and if you believe in something strongly enough, it will become your reality - any good psychologist will tell you that. The truth is, athletes, entrepreneurs, and people in other highly creative fields are filled with so much "juice" and passion for life and for what they do, that they can't wait to get up in the morning and go do it!

Quote all the scientific studies and physiology you want, but there are a lot of psychological "X" factors involved. Some people oversleep simply because they’re bored, they hate their jobs or they’re depressed and don’t want to wake up to face what they’re depressed about."

Phew! You should have seen the emails that stirred up!

For example,

"Tom, have a question for you. In your last newsletter you stated that sleep wasn't important but it seems that every article I have ever read in a muscle magazine says you need sleep for your muscles to repair themselves (in other words, to get bigger). True?"

(Actually most of the emails weren’t this nice – most of them were people yelling at me because I was "irresponsibly" giving "bad advice" and it was my ‘duty’ as a certified fitness professional to recant)

My reply was that I didn’t say sleep wasn’t important - getting enough sleep is critically important - I said that how much sleep (a) was an individual matter, (b) was tied in to lifestyle factors (more on that in a minute) and (c) was heavily tied into psychological factors and belief systems. In other words, if you believe you need 8 hours of sleep, you probably do.

I would even go a step further and say this myth is hard-wired into some people at a level even beyond beliefs, it has actually become a part of their self-image and identity: "I AM just the type of person who has to sleep AT LEAST 8 hours or I AM a ZOMBIE the next day!" Nice self-hypnotic suggestion! Have you noticed an increase in the living dead lately?

Well, I’ve stumbled upon some very interesting facts about how much sleep you really need that you might want to know about. I noticed a long time ago that I seemed to require less sleep before bodybuilding competitions. Then I started doing some research because I was concerned about whether I was sleeping enough for my health and my success as a bodybuilder. My initial findings seemed to confirm the 8 hours theory and I thought maybe I should sleep more.

I found studies showing that inadequate sleep:

Decreases testosterone (1998, Archives of Andrology: Disturbing the light darkness pattern reduces circulating testosterone in healthy men)

Impairs insulin function (1996, American Journal of physiology: Relationships between sleep quality and glucose regulation in normal humans),

Increases cortisol (1997, Sleep: Sleep deprivation results in elevation of cortisol levels)

Decreases Growth hormone (1995, Journal of clinical endocrinological metabolism: Nocturnal wakefulness inhibits growth hormone secretion)

We’ve also learned from research that disruptions in your circadian rhythms as a result of sleep disturbances can promote disease and degeneration - literally making you old before your time. (1998, Hormonal Research: Alterations of circadian rhythms and sleep in aging: Endocrine consequences)

And those are just a few selected studies.

YIKES! Based on the research, it looks like shortage of sleep is a very, very bad thing and that’s why most health professionals continue to recommend between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.

So what the heck am I talking about when I say some people may not need as much sleep as they think they need, and why the heck do I only sleep 6 hours per night if I’m so concerned with health and building muscle? And how does a champion bodybuilder like Skip Lacour get away with 4-5 hours of sleep per night? Why aren’t we terrified of increased cortisol and other problems, if not now, then down the road?

As a matter of fact, I was and still am concerned with my health and the results from my training. However, the more I kept looking into it, the more I found more to the story than just the results of these studies. For one thing, there are some simple and easy ways you can improve the QUALITY of your sleep, which can result in a slight decrease in your required QUANTITY of sleep while giving you the same benefits. Anyone who knows anything about sleep will tell you that 6 hours of undisturbed, quality sleep is better than 8 hours of low quality sleep.

I first stumbled onto this completely by accident: One of the things I noticed is that prior to competitions, my life became MUCH more scheduled, structured and regimented than any other time of the year. I ALWAYS went to bed at the same time and woke up at the same time very early in the morning. After a while I didn’t even need an alarm. I woke up automatically feeling very alert. I went to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends and slept like a rock. There was no partying and no late nights. Not a drop of alcohol touched my lips. I only drank coffee in the morning before my early cardio session. I stopped ephedra and all other stimulants. I often took a very short nap right after training (especially leg day). I also was NOT consuming any carbohydrates late at night.

During my contest training, the intensity of my workouts increased dramatically and my volume of cardio increased substantially. Even though I was probably on the verge of overtraining the entire time, I noticed that I needed less sleep and I felt more energy than usual. I maintained my strength and lean body mass, and my body fat decreased every week.

Earlier this year, I found out about a sleep science researcher (Kacper Postawski) who was studying insomnia to try to find a cure for this very common and life-disrupting problem. During the course of his research, he made some intriguing discoveries about why some people sleep 8, 10, 12 hours a day and still feel tired and why oversleeping like this is actually bad for you.

The reason Kacper’s information grabbed my attention was because he was studying the problem on two levels: The physiological level and also the psychological level, using Neuro Liguistic programming (NLP) as one of his tools. I knew he was onto something because one thing I know for certain is that lasting change of any kind – especially health and fitness changes – must be approached from both the physical and mental planes.

In Kacper’s articles, reports and book (Powerful Sleep), he mentioned some of the downsides of sleep deprivation I had already heard about from my own research. But he also showed another, little-known side to the story. He pointed out that controlling sleep quality, sleep cycles, light-dark cycles, circadian rhythms and lifestyle factors (exercise, stress, light exposure, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, etc.), are possibly more important than the quantity of sleep itself. I was amazed at how Kacper’s findings matched my pre-competition experience.

There was even more: He revealed info on psychological "triggers" and NLP tricks to fall asleep instantly, sleep soundly and wake up energized - automatically. It’s too much info to cover in this column, but Kacper has promised to become one of the contributing writers for Fitness Renaissance, so watch for some of his articles in upcoming issues.

Anyway, the bottom line is that all of this information reinforced what I had suspected all along - that the 8 hours of sleep idea wasn’t such a hard and fast rule after all and that I could, by using a few almost embarrassingly simple techniques, not only "get by" on less sleep, but actually optimize my health and improve my muscle building and fat burning efforts.

But I think the biggest benefit for me is that I’ve simply gained more time - because time is life! Almost every person in the industrialized world today complains that they dont have enough time. Some people even say they dont have time to exercise. If thats true, then you owe it to yourself to explore ways to give yourself more time.

Strangely enough, one of the things I keep hearing over and over again is that people who exercise regularly don’t need as much sleep. Some of my busiest clients, including Wall Street executives, gave up one hour of sleep and used that time to exercise early in the morning. After a brief adjustment period where some willpower was required, they found that they actually felt better on less sleep once the early morning exercise had become a part of their lifestyle. According to Kacper, "The biggest antidote to feeling tired is exercise and movement, NOT more sleep!"

So… I’m NOT saying sleep is not important for muscle growth and overall health – it is… and the research proves it. The question is how much? Im not saying you personally can get by on 4 or 5 hours. Maybe you do need 7 hours of sleep. Maybe you need 8. I am only suggesting that you should optimize your lifestyle and sleeping patterns for sleep quality first and then see for yourself the impact it has on your energy and your need for sleep quantity. Doing this, people often find that they can reduce their sleep time from 9 or 10 hours down to 7 or 8, or even from 7 or 8 hours down to 5 or 6, while at the same time increasing energy, health and free time.

If you pick up an extra hour or two a day, grab your calculator, punch in the numbers and multiply that out over 10 or 20 years and see how much extra time you’ll have in your life to spend doing the things you love to do most.

I highly recommend Kacper’s book, by the way. If you are interested, you can go look at his website now and download the first two chapters for free: www.powerfulsleep.com

For more great articles like this one, go to Global Health & Fitness where Tom Venuto is the Fat Loss Expert


Author Tom Venuto

Tom Venuto is a bodybuilder, gym owner, freelance writer, success coach and author of "Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle" (BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World's Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written over 150 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom's inspiring and informative articles on bodybuilding, weight loss and motivation are featured regularly on dozens of websites worldwide. For information on Tom's "Burn The Fat" e-book, click here.

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