The Ultimate Recovery And Anti-Stress Tool

The most important recovery/anti stress tool we have at our disposal is sleep. Sleep is probably the most underrated tool when looking at recovery with athletes I work with or know and likewise with stress heads and de-stressing. People talk mental strategies, nutrition, breathing etc. All are great but mediocre at best without sleep. When you begin to study the benefits of sleep, its function, and the effects of depriving yourself of it, sleep really does sound like the panacea. Recently I wrote about adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, and my experience with both. During my recovery process one of the biggest turning points was actually giving in to the fatigue. I had resisted feeling half dead for a long time, and everything that that state ‘meant’ for me, what it took away. So giving in to it was a big step. It was a massive turning point because what it meant was that when I felt tired, I respected that and rested. I slept A LOT. Any time of day, for as long as I felt I needed to feel like I could function again. My recovery improved greatly with this approach.


Sleep is such a massive part of our quality of life. It affects how well we think, react, work, learn, perform, recover, as well as our general safety (think micro sleeps and driving!). It’s essential when learning new things whether physical or mental as during sleep we ‘practise’ and ’consolidate’ the information. So anytime learning is a priority, sleep should be too. With these consolidated lessons being organised and emotional lessons enhanced our creative output and decision making processes improve. I feel like I could stop now. Sleep and learn, who needs more?! Sleep returns us to a parasympathetic state which helps reduce inflammation, which, if you’ve been keeping up to date at all has for a long time been shown to be the root of the majority of life’s major illnesses. What you want to read here is that sleep has a major affect on our immune system. If you’re an athlete, one of the easiest ways to improve performance is to sleep more. Multiple studies have shown improved performance across many sports simply by getting athletes to sleep more. And finally, sleep is essential in assisting your body composition goals. Inflammation and stress (both linked obviously) are enemies of body composition! This is not an exhaustive list! Just my favourites. So how can we make sure we make the best of our sleep?


Lets start with the basics. You can’t escape our circadian rhythm. During a normal circadian rhythm, sunlight (theoretically) hits our skin and eyes and signals hormonal changes via the brain that begin to elevate cortisol -  our stress hormone yes but also our wake up and go hormone. Cortisol (the black line in the diagram below) peaks between 6am and 8am, declining around 8:30am. It continues to declines until it’s lowest point around early evening. As the day wears on and darkness comes melatonin (the white line in the diagram below) is released which initiates restful feelings and sleep, as well as other growth and repair hormones. When lifestyle throws this rhythm out, my guess is people don't think about the fact that they’re playing with the major drivers of their health. There are very real and direct effects on your central nervous system and hormonal system with poor sleep hygiene.

The C.H.E.K Institute reports that from 10pm to 2am our system works on physical repair and from 2am to 6am it works on psychological repair. No wonder shift workers are often so messed up! So what happens around 10pm that makes this such a key time for repair and rest? Ever been exhausted but sat up anyway and boom! you're awake again? That’s your adrenals kicking in to high gear to keep you going. This places huge stress on the adrenals who’s job it is to work on repair during the 10pm-2am window. This is also when growth hormone is at it’s highest, working hard to repair our cells from the days damage. Out of interest, during adrenal fatigue, cortisol normally elevates initially in an effort to carry you, then starts to fall. We feel rubbish about this stage. This makes it very hard to wake up and feel rested. The catch 22 here is that early morning waking is a common sign of excessive stress on the body. This early waking only serves to worsen the issue increasing stress on your adrenals which are already overworked.


One of our major modern world issues is that we live in a world of artificial lighting. None of this will be new to you. Just thinking about what was said above, it should makes sense that our hormonal profiles and shut down signals are constantly messed with by our artificial environments. We don’t take the time to let our systems naturally wind down, often spending hours in front of blue screens (phones, computers, iPads etc) which, after only 15min, start to elevate cortisol in our bodies. We sit in well lit rooms, with stimulating shows which only seem to be about crime nowadays just to make you feel great before you take a 7 metre running jump in to your bed, pull the covers over your ears and call for mum. So we end up with a profile looking more like the diagram below.



In short, this is how it all comes together… We have a multitude of stressors that we lie in bed freaking out about, creating more cortisol. Falling asleep stressed, we have restless sleeps, and wake up early putting more stress on our system. Recovery from our workouts or life in general begins to suffers leaving us injury prone and dropping our performance. Our mental health suffers, we get anxious/depressed/moody. We start reaching for sugary snacks which mess with our already insulin sensitive system (sleep deprivation escalates insulin sensitivity). We have more caffeinated drinks because we feel so terrible. Fatigue escalates and all the problems associate with adrenal fatigue start. The caffeine and poor food choices tax our adrenals further, our gut health, making us more anxious/depressed/stressed. We’re wired when we go to bed from too much caffeine, we can’t sleep, and then get stressed about it. We get so uptight we start clenching our teeth or grinding them, then we get migraines regularly. They say but my Dr told me it was red wine, no tomatoes, no dark chocolate, it runs in the family… Sure, maybe some have hereditary issues. SOME. I’ve met and helped a lot of migraine sufferers. ALL are type A, all are stress heads, all had excessive caffeine consumption, ALL had compromised sleep (minus one, which was linked to their menstrual cycle). The only ones who I couldn’t help couldn't bare the thought of dropping the caffeine because they felt so terrible they didn’t know how they’d be able to function. 


So… what to do? 


Well, hopefully you’ll remember you have 4 pillars of health. Nutrition, stress, movement and sleep. It’s important to remember they all work synergistically and all compliment or are detrimental to each other. First, assess yourself using the chair analogy to determine which 2 pillars need the most work. Then work appropriately. Lets say one pillar was sleep (based on what you know now and inherently feel). Here’s what I’d do.


  • Bed by 10:30pm latest!

  • Keep your bedroom cool, DARK, and respect it for what it is. Your cave for primal things. Not a place for work or checking Facebook.

  • Keep a regular sleep/wake routine (very important for shift workers!). Even during your weekends. Not a life sentence. When your sleep is consistent you can have a life again.

  • Meditate before sleep.

  • No caffeine after 12pm! If you have migraines or sleep issues now, it needs to go completely. Migraine or no coffee? Easy choice no?

  • Wind down properly - a couple of hours before bed dim your lights, use himalayan rock lamps, candles etc. Turn your screens off! Or, use apps or your iPhones function to create organs light rather than blue. You can also get amber sunglass to wear ;)

  • Get regular exercise. If you train late, a naturopath may suggest  you get some magnesium, potentially some Adaptan in to you straight after your session. Strongly suggest you do something as soon as possible to bring yourself back to a parasympathetic state after your session. Some proven methods to return you back to this state quickly are flexion based postures, box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, yin yoga for 10min. If none of that tickles your fancy, just do something that relaxes you as soon as you can.

  • No arguments at night! Bet the couples love this one ;)

  • If waking in the middle of the night or early consider extra magnesium before bed, and consider a snack before bed. Some suggest carbohydrates will help you fall asleep (tryptophan does for sure) and protein and fat to help prevent night waking.