The Tale of Joe and Jo (Part Three): The Land of Zzzs.

This series of articles tracks the progress of an imaginary couple working to get back to fitness.  The aim to to identify and provide solutions for a range of very common issues people have when trying to build health with excercise. I'm sure that you won't have every problem that I describe but you might identify with one or two.

In part one Joe and Jo, my fictional and narratively convenient couple, started doing very basic mobility work in order to be able to train without their tight hips causing back pain.  In part two they cleaned up the very worst elements of their diets by removing the bulk of the sugar calories.

Things are going well and they are very very nearly ready to begin a training program.  The last obstacle in the path is a general fatigue and lack of energy.

Both Joe and Jo feel their sleep quality is very poor.  However Jo has noticed a huge improvement since cutting sugar out of her diet.

Jo used to fall asleep earlier than her husband but woke up repeatedly in the night finding it hard to get back to sleep.  Like Joe she often spent this time reading or watching television.  She would also often have a snack.  Since the dietary change this has improved greatly but she still lacks energy.

Joe sleeps for about five solid hours a night.  He wakes up every morning feeling awful and like he could sleep for the whole day.  When asked why he doesn't go to bed any earlier he informs me that last thing at night he doesn't feel tired and ends up laying in bed for hours reading or watching t.v.

First I explained Jo's improvement was down to improved blood sugar control.  Previously she would become slightly hypoglycaemic in the night and wake up.  The snack would balance her blood sugar for awhile before the same thing happened again.

Secondly I asked the pair of them to make a few changes to promote sleep quality.  

  • A little bit of excercise during the day.  It is not required that you totally exhaust yourself but some activity would help.
  • As awesome as coffee is in general and as helpful it is as a hunger suppressant it has no place in your life until sleep is under control.  Sad times. 
  • Save all the days carbohydrate intake until the evening meal.  Carbohydrate relaxes the central nervous system and promotes deeper sleep.  A higher carb evening meal after a period without carbohydrate will ensure better insulin sensitivity and more stable blood sugar during the night.  Carbohydrate also promotes production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
  • Low lights for a few hours before bedtime.  Our bodies are extremely light sensitive and bright lights will suppress melatonin production and prevent your body getting ready to sleep.
  • A TOTAL  ban on 'blue light' an hour before and during sleep time.  No smart phones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, television, computers or other display devices.  This type of light is very close on the spectrum to the light just after dawn.  It gives your brain a sharp wake up message and ruins sleep quality.  Not to mention that obsessively checking work emails and social media prevents you from relaxing in general.  It also makes you quite annoying.
  • Blackout during the night.  No LED alarm clocks, no standby lights on televisions and attempt to block out street lights.  Even our skin is light sensitive and sleep quality has been shown to be affected by even small amounts of light.  

For most people the above information will be okay but Joe reported that while sleeping better he still found it hard to drift off and often woke up fatigued.  Joe's case is more serious but honestly not all that rare.  He is experiencing adrenal fatigue.  A condition that doctors still can't really agree about whether it exists or not and as such are not usually a great deal of help.

Due to either a high level of stress during the day or due to an inadequate diet (or a combination of both) Joe does not have enough reserves of pregnanolone to last the day.  This is the 'mother' hormone that gets used to build all the other hormones.  When he falls asleep and his adrenal glands shut down a bit as usual but in the morning they haven't got the resources to get going again.  This leaves him feeling like death and existing on caffeine.  Later in the day when the adrenal glands begin producing normal levels again he is overly sensitive and feels too awake, not to mention the levels of caffeine in his blood.

This cycle is self sustaining for several reasons. The poor sleep causes greater stress on the adrenal gland and encourages caffeine consumption further stressing the adrenal glands and damaging sleep.  This stress causes a craving for sugar which in turn causes the blood sugar to rise and fall throughout the day causing further stress and further sugar consumption.

Another side effect is that the hormones released due to emotional response to stress are responded too more strongly than usual due to the sensitivity mentioned before.  People with adrenal fatigue become very stressed very quickly, often irrationally.  To make matters worse this stress response becomes almost required to get through the day and will be looked for.  If this sounds like someone you know share this and tag them in... If you dare.

To break the cycle Joe was given a few extra recommendations. 

  • A cool (or cold) shower before bed.  This strongly suppresses the central nervous systems level of arousal and promotes deep sleep. 
  • Magnesium supplements with the evening meal.  Vitamin B6 and zinc are also worthy of consideration.  These are often sold as ZMA.  These will promote the production of the missing hormones and encourage the body to relax.
  • More healthy fats and protein.  Weight loss during adrenal fatigue is not recommended and probably not possible, at least healthy weight loss.  Eating well to recover with a focus on healthy fats like nuts, olive oil and avocados.
  • Practicing breathing excercise before bed and during the day.  I know this sounds a bit too touchy feely but it works.  Breathing is controlled by both your conscious mind and your body's unconscious autonomic nervous system.  If you are under stress you will breath faster and by the same mechanisms if you breath more slowly you will become more relaxed.  Breathing is a way to consciously control your nervous system.

While Joe is not yet doing so it is worth noting that restricting carbohydrate will not help this problem.  Overly strict diets are a common cause of adrenal fatigue and attempting to further stress the body though carb restriction is a bad idea.  Get healthy and then lower carbohydrate carefully another day.

These changes helped greatly and within weeks both of my clients had adjusted well and were sleeping much better.

I hope you can take something useful from these articles and apply it to your own lifestyle.  Please comment with suggestions of other problems that may affect people in the early days of health and fitness.  Do you sleep well? Do you feel that sleep has much impact on you? Did these tips help you? 


Get strong, move well, eat naturally, 

become a force of nature.