Sleep deprivation is an unfortunate reality in most people’s lives. Whether you’re a competitive athlete or just a busy person who wants to get in a great workout to reduce stress, there’s no doubt fatigue is an obstacle to you performing at your best.
No one likes being tired and for good reason. Sleep loss influences every aspect of your life:
• It reduces your ability to make good decisions and increases your tendency to take risks.
• It makes you more likely to be distracted by negative emotions and compromises problem solving skills.
• It lowers your ability to manage stress and causes the build-up of inflammation in the body.
• It deceases cognitive function, reasoning, and reaction time for poorer skill performance.
• It alters hormone balance and decreases blood sugar control.
Sleep deprivation also greatly reduces your motivation to exercise. However, if you can overcome your lack of enthusiasm for training, the effects of sleep loss on strength and endurance are relatively minimal. That’s where these five amazing strategies come in—to get you psyched to get after it even when you’re beat.
Creatine may be the most effective nutrient for overcoming the effects of sleep deprivation so that you can perform optimally. Though not as well known as caffeine for its ability to give you a lift, recent studies show creatine should be your first choice to overcome fatigue.
Most people don’t know that creatine can have a significant one-time effect on the body because it has been assumed that you have to build-up your muscle creatine stores gradually over time. In fact, a single dose of creatine can overcome the decrease in physical and mental skill performance caused by sleep deprivation.
A recent study tested the effect of two doses of creatine (50 or 100 mg/kg/bw) or a placebo before a workout on performance in professional rugby players who were sleep deprived. Results showed that using creatine allowed the rugby players to perform just as well on repeat rugby skill passing tests as when they were rested. Both creatine doses were effective for normalizing performance with the larger dose completely eliminating the sleep deficit.
How does creatine help athletes overcome both physical and cognitive performance impairment?
Sleep deprivation leads to an immediate reduction in high energy phosphates in the brain that lead to poor cognition and reduced central nervous system activity. A single dose of creatine can replenish those stores so that you can perform with normal precision, strength, and power. It may be most effective in repetitive skill or power performance rather than for a single short-duration trial such as a 50-meter sprint.
Creatine doesn’t increase the stress hormone cortisol, which will already be elevated when you are sleep deprived. Instead, this study found that cortisol levels immediately prior to the rugby skill trial in the high-dose creatine group were lower than in the placebo condition, indicating a lower stress response. Testosterone was elevated, indicating motivation and readiness to perform.
Take Away: Turn to creatine before training when you need to train or compete on lack of sleep. A small dose of 5 to 10 grams taken 90 minutes pre-workout is your secret weapon to overcome lack of motivation, drive, and low energy.
Caffeine is a powerful performance enhancer that can make all the difference when you are tired. Here are highly practical benefits of caffeine:
First, caffeine can reduce your inclination to take dangerous risks when exhausted, which is relevant for decision-making ability during competition. When you don’t get enough sleep, you experience a decline in metabolic activity in the brain regions important for judgment and impulse control.
A military study found that when soldiers were given 200 mg of caffeine every two hours during a three-day sleep deprivation study, the caffeine significantly reduced their risk-taking behavior and allowed them to make better judgments on a series of cognitive tests compared to a placebo group. Simply, the right dose of caffeine at the right time can keep you steady.
Second, giving 4 mg/kg/bw of caffeine to professional athletes who were sleep deprived prior to a strength training session resulted in them self-selecting heavier training loads than when they took a placebo. The caffeine increased voluntary workload and readiness to train. The caffeine allowed the athletes to get more out of their workout when they were tired.
Third, two doses of caffeine (1 and 5 mg/kg/bw) were also tested for an effect on skill performance in the creatine study mentioned in #1. Results showed that both caffeine doses equally enhanced performance when sleep deprived and it was as effective as the small creatine dose. The one drawback is that the caffeine trials significantly elevated cortisol pre-workout, simultaneously reducing testosterone. If you manage anxiety well prior to an important performance, this may or may not matter, but for people who “stress” before workouts and competitions, try creatine instead.
Take Away: People tend to vary greatly in their response to different doses. These studies show benefits from 1 to 5 mg/kg of caffeine during sleep deprivation, while doses as high as 8 mg/kg have shown a beneficial performance effect. Be smart: It’s prudent to start with small doses when you aren’t under extreme stress since sleep deprivation conveys its own degree of pain and difficulty.
You may be surprised to learn that sleep deprivation can deplete your body’s magnesium stores, decreasing your strength and exercise tolerance. A Japanese study tested the effect of supplementing active, college-age men with 100 mg/day of magnesium for 1 month while undergoing a period in which they experienced chronic sleep deprivation (sleeping time up to 60 percent less than normal). Then they performed an anaerobic interval test.
A placebo sleep-deprived group had much lower magnesium levels, experiencing decreased exercise tolerance compared to the group that took magnesium. Supplementing with magnesium allowed for the sleep-deprived to normalize performance and produce anaerobic strength and power as if they weren’t exhausted.
Maintaining intracellular magnesium balance is so important when we experience intense stress, such as when sleep deprived, because the body produces extra catecholamine hormones to keep it going. This causes the excretion of magnesium via the kidneys, resulting in compromised exercise performance.
Take Away: Consider supplementing with magnesium regularly when you are experiencing lack of sleep. Maintaining adequate magnesium stores may be one of the most important and effective ways to resist stress because this mineral plays a critical in balancing stress hormones.
Magnesium’s benefits will be chronic rather than acute because it’s not a stimulant like caffeine or an energy substrate such as creatine. Magnesium will keep you calm and focused so you can turn to caffeine or creatine when you need that extra edge to get it done in the gym or on the field.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that is a precursor of the catecholamine neurotransmitters, which are depleted during sleep deprivation. Research suggests tyrosine supplementation is most effective when you are experiencing additional stress along with lack of sleep, such as during intense combat training, regular travel for sports competitions, or extreme climate changes in which you are exposed to cold or altitude.
In one study, researchers gave 150 mg/kg/bw of tyrosine to subjects in the military who were sleep deprived and had them perform a series of active performance tasks with a cognitive component. Tyrosine was able to offset declines in performance and vigilance that was not seen in a placebo group.
A second study gave sleep-deprived soldiers in combat training five doses of two grams of tyrosine every two hours during a demanding performance test. Results showed that tyrosine allowed them to perform better on tasks involving memory and tracking than a placebo group, while reducing systolic blood pressure.
Take Away: Use tyrosine when you are fatigued and under additional persistent stress. In addition to enhancing memory, reasoning, and physical performance, tyrosine appears to boost mood and support optimal functioning of the central nervous system. It’s been shown to raise body temperature when humans are exposed to intense cold and it can help one resist extreme environmental stress.
Phosphatidylserine(PS) is a powerful but lesser known supplement that can significantly improve performance when sleep deprived because it regulates brain enzymes and hormone receptors. Following intense exercise performed in a sleep-deprived state it was shown to exert a buffering effect on the overproduction of cortisol in response to physical and mental stress.
One study showed that giving young men 800 mg daily of PS for two weeks during an intense weight training program resulted in decreased post-exercise cortisol. It also resulted in decreased muscle soreness and better mood. A second study in which participants took 400 mg of PS a day for two weeks found that the performed 20 percent faster on a timed skill test than a placebo group. They also reduced errors by 13 percent.
Researchers believe PS is most beneficial when you are under pressure and experiencing mental fatigue or physical stress such overtraining. It enhances neurotransmitter function and supports the hypothalamic pituitary axis for a lower cortisol response to stress.
Take Away: Use PS when you need precision, reactive ability, or a high degree of skill. It can also help you manage high-pressure competition or training when overstressed or sleep deprived. Doses of 400 to 800 mg have been shown to be effective.
Meditation can help you perform at your best despite not getting adequate rest. Though not as convenient or easy to use as taking a supplement, studies suggest amazing benefits from meditation including a better working brain during stress.
One study of Indian army volunteers found that after a two-month long meditation practice, they were able to perform significantly better when sleep deprived than a group that did not practice meditation. Meditation was likely effective because it can reduce inflammation caused by stress and has been shown to enhance hypothalamic-pituitary function for a better ratio between testosterone and cortisol.
Take Away: If sleep deprivation is a regular thing, meditation may help you feel calmer and overcome performance decrements due to exhaustion.