It’s no secret that sleep is essential for health and many of us simply don’t get enough of it. For that matter, limited sleep has a range of negative effects, including impacts on physical health, mental health and behavior. This is also why a lack of sleep can promote obesity (1).
One less well-known connection is how lack of sleep and muscle loss are related to one another. This topic is critical for anyone trying to get healthier or to gain muscle.
Dieting, Lack of Sleep and Muscle Loss
For people actively working on weight loss, muscle mass is a significant area of concern. In many cases, you can end up losing muscle along with fat, especially if you’re on a fairly intense diet. That pattern is one reason for choosing a healthy lifestyle change instead, especially one that includes quality protein.
The relationship between sleep and muscle loss is especially relevant for anyone trying to lose weight.
In particular, one research study showed that people on a low-calorie diet tend to lose roughly the same amount of weight, regardless of their sleep time. However, people who spend an average of 8.5 hours in bed each night tend to lose more fat and less muscle, compared to those who have 5.5 hours a night (2).
Specifically, more than 50% of the weight loss was as fat when participants had 8.5 hours in bed. But, when the time was 5.5 hours, only around 25% of the weight lost came from fat (3).
With this study, participants were on a 1,450 calorie/day diet, which remained consistent regardless of the sleep patterns. The average sleep duration was around 7 hours, 25 minutes for the first group and 5 hours, 14 minutes for the second.
The results of the study strongly suggest that not getting enough sleep could significantly limit the effectiveness of any weight loss approach.
For that matter, the study also showed some hormonal changes, including increases in the levels of hunger (4).
This is another key way that lack of sleep could hinder weight loss, as the extra hunger may contribute to increased calorie consumption.
Now, this was a fairly small study and one that involved heavy calorie restriction. It also only looked at one specific nutrient composition (roughly 48% carbs, 34% fat and 18% protein). So, it isn’t clear whether the same impacts would be present in other cases.
Nevertheless, the study still shows that sleep is much more significant for muscle loss than we typically assume. After all, the difference in actual sleep time was only around 2 hours. Yet, the impacts on fat loss were dramatic.
As a result, getting enough sleep may be absolutely essential for anyone trying to lose weight.
Other Links Between Sleep and Muscles
There are also other reasons why sleep is so important for your muscles and lack of sleep can even result in poor muscle development (5).
One key area is performance. A lack of sleep can influence physical performance (6,7) , including exercise outcomes (8,9) and recovery (10). As a result, not getting enough sleep could make your workout less effective, which may reduce muscle development.
At the same time, a lack of sleep often contributes to poor decisions. For some people, this may mean that they don’t eat as healthily or that don’t exercise as much. Those patterns can also contribute to less muscle development or even muscle loss, especially if you end up not getting enough nutrients.
Not getting enough sleep also affects various hormones in your body. This includes cortisol, testosterone and human growth hormone, along with hunger-regulating hormones, like ghrelin and leptin (11).
Cortisol is significant for the storage of fat and the breakdown of muscle. As a result, changes to cortisol levels can increase fat retention and muscle breakdown, producing effects like those in the study discussed earlier (12,13).
Both human growth hormone and testosterone play a role in muscle development and their levels can increase with sleep (14). This means that insufficient sleep can reduce your ability to develop muscle as well.
All of these different areas show that you need sufficient sleep to exercise effectively and to gain muscle (15). Sleep is also important for health overall, especially as the sleep you get plays a strong role in how long you live (16,17,18,19).
The Best Solutions
So then, how do you make sure you’re not losing muscles while you sleep? Well, there are two key mechanisms. One is simply getting enough sleep and the other is connected to your diet and lifestyle.
In particular, you need to be getting enough quality protein to ensure that you’re building muscle, while also engaging in resistance exercise. Doing so is also relevant for preventing age-related muscle loss and for reducing the impact of sleep deprivation (20).
At the same time, you need to be sure you’re getting the nutrients you need. One such example is leucine, which is often used as a supplement for muscle development. Animal research also shows that leucine supplementation can reduce muscle loss during sleep deprivation (21), making it an especially important supplement.
Some people also suggest that doing exercises before bed can be beneficial, both for muscle development and sleep. However, this is strongly dependent on who you are.
For example, some people find that their adrenaline is too high and their brain is too active after exercise to be able to sleep effectively. Yet others tend to find that the practice helps them sleep (22,23), especially as you often feel sleepy an hour or two after a workout (24).
After all, exercise does help improve sleep – regardless of when you are exercising (25).
If you are sensitive, exercising a few hours before bed can help you get the best of both worlds. If that’s not the case, you could potentially exercise even just half an hour before bed (26).
Get more sleep is an extremely common piece of advice – but achieving that goal often isn’t easy. In part, the solution will depend on the underlying problems that are making sleep difficult.
There are also many different steps that you can take to increase the amount of sleep you get and also the quality of that sleep. Key examples include the following.
Sleep Scheduling. Going to bed and getting up at the same time makes it much easier to go to sleep. Ideally, you need to do this even on the weekends and on holidays.
Don’t Hit Snooze. For that matter, snoozing your alarm doesn’t help your sleep cycle or your overall health (27). There are various tricks that you can do to help get around this and the site Humor that Works (surprisingly) has a good list of techniques. My personal favorite is putting the alarm clock on the other side of the room.
Use Stimulus Control. Stimulus control is a way of creating an association between your bed and sleep. To do so, you would use your bed (and ideally your entire bedroom) just for sleep and sex. Doing so means you subconsciously associate the bed with sleep, which can make it easier to sleep.
Control the Sleep Environment. Ensuring that your bedroom is dark, cool and quiet plays a key role for sleep, which may include using blackout curtains.
Turn off the Electronics. Ideally, you should stop using electronics hours before going to bed, along with anything that is highly stimulating. If you need to use electronics for whatever reason, light filters like f.lux can reduce the blue light from screens. Doing so can help improve sleep quality and potentially health.
Focus on the Positive. Sleep problems are stressful, which in turn makes sleep more difficult. As a result, emphasizing the positive can help. This includes ideas like the fact that waking up during the night is fine and the fact that it may take you half an hour to go to sleep. In truth, people tend to get more sleep than they actually realize and stressing about it will only ever make the situation worse.
There are various lists out there about effective ways to improve sleep, like this article from Dr. Mercola. Some people also use melatonin supplements. These are best suited for short-term use and can be particularly effective for improving disordered sleeping and helping to restore healthy sleeping schedules.
Most of these ideas will only work in some situations and for some people. This means that you need to try out various ideas and determine which ones are going to help you.
Finally, you can turn to alternative approaches for sleep, such as polyphasic sleep. The site Polyphasic Society offers more details about this concept. Such ideas have been subject to much less research overall and the long-term health implications are poorly understood. However, for some people, this concept may be useful, especially if getting a full night of sleep seems impossible.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
A related topic is how much sleep you even need. The most common figure is 8 hours of sleep a night for adults. Yet, some research suggests that the optimum length may be closer to 7 hours, rather than 8.
One study suggests that anything above 7 hours decreases life length, as does anything less than 5.5 hours (28).
However, the ideal number does vary from one person to the next, with some people needing more sleep than others.
This makes it important to pay attention to how you feel when you first get up and differences in the way your body responds.
You may also need to experiment with different sleep and waking times, along with the length that you sleep for – in order to figure out the right solution for you.
Sleep is critical for many aspects of health, including muscle development and muscle loss. This makes it important to get enough sleep, while also ensuring that you’re taking in the nutrients that you need. Following a healthy lifestyle is a critical component of doing so, as is getting regular resistance exercise.
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