Step 5: Sleep

As I mentioned earlier, hormones play a vital role in how your body uses and stores fat. While working around the insulin / leptin cycle is the most important factor for many people, the majority of us have one more culprit in the fat storage battle: cortisol. 

Cortisol is an essential hormone. It’s what keeps us alive in extreme conditions, so it’s not surprising that it kicks into gear when we’re experiencing stress. Its job is to make sure we have enough energy to be active on a moment’s notice (fight or flight response), and that we won’t starve while staying in that state of readiness. 

It is, in short, what causes our metabolism to go into “survival mode.” 

Yes, of all the hormones we have, this is the sharpest double-edged sword. It has one of the most important functions for our survival in extreme conditions. But it also causes us to store fat. And not just any fat: belly fat, which, as you probably know from experience, is the hardest fat for most people to burn off. This is because it’s the last place your body wants to take it from; it’s the storehouse of energy that also protects our organs, insulates our body core, and interferes the least with power movements in our important weapons -- the arms and legs. 

For most modern humans, this vestige of our distant past is now a nuisance. We’re unlikely to experience winters with little to eat, or a week-long hunt in the wilderness surviving on small game, or being run down by a bear. We experience stress in different ways, and sadly there’s no way to reconcile the need to store visceral fat to cope with missing a few car payments or being chewed out by your boss. 

Fortunately there is one trick to help us reduce the amount of stress we experience day-to-day. While exercise and structure are great things to add to your daily schedule, and I always recommend meditation as a practice, the number one solution for stress induced cortisol production is get more sleep. 

You read that right: getting more sleep can help you reduce your stress levels by a significant amount. For the majority of people in North America, quality sleep is elusive. Nearly all of us suffer from chronic fatigue, and aside from the cognitive and emotional strain this puts on us, the physiological impact is enormous. 

And it’s worse if you’re exercising (how’s that for a Catch 22?). Your body recovers during sleep, so if you’re not getting adequate downtime you may be suffering from exercise-induced fatigue on top of everything else. 

What does this cause your body to do? 

Yup. Bump up the cortisol. 

Oh...did I mention that increased belly fat from cortisol also increases estrogen production, which further impedes testosterone production? Fun, huh? 

OK, so that’s the problem. Here’s the solution: 

Most people get up at the same time every morning by default. We’re trained to do this, and our bodies actually prefer it. Unfortunately, that long, relaxing “sleep-in” you like to do on the weekends isn’t super effective, because it shifts your bedtime clock for a couple of days and sends you into a bit of a tailspin trying to catch up on Monday morning. 

Try this. Just try it. Go to sleep an hour earlier. You’re aiming for 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep, so if you have to get up at 6 a.m., that means getting to sleep at 10:00. Not going to bed at 10...going to sleep. Who does this? 

(I do, actually.)

Listen, we all suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out). I get it. You want to watch late night TV or finish a movie or whatever. But those guys will be just fine without you, and the highlights of the funniest bits will be online tomorrow anyway. You’re not missing anything. 

Seriously, I haven’t watched a Late Show in 15 years. I haven’t missed anything. 

And I realize that with your long work day and your commute, plus all the other things you have to do in the evening -- kids, planning, bookkeeping, supper, friends, social things, and hanging out on Facebook -- it’s hard to just cut it short at 10 p.m. and get to bed. You’re not a child, right?! 

No. But you are a human, and humans need sleep. And if you’re going to get up at 6 a.m., you need to be asleep by 10-10:30 at the latest. 

First, stop caffeine after 3:00 p.m.. At 9:00, turn everything off. No phone, no TV, no computer. Off. Get ready for bed. This should include getting your clothes picked out for the morning, making your top-priority To-Do list, and ideally getting your lunch packed if that’s part of your plan. 

At 9:30, get into bed. This is a good time to write your gratitude stuff for the day, or set your intentions for the morning. Have your water ready for when you first get up. Grab a book -- preferably fiction, as this will help vacate all the stresses of your day without the annoying glare of the screen -- and read for half an hour. At 10:00, lights go out, and so do you. 

This may take some getting used to, but do it for a week, every night (including the weekend) and see how you feel. Your eventual goal is to stretch this out to a month, but let’s take some baby steps. 

One week. I guarantee once you’re over the initial bump (doctors recommend magnesium around suppertime to help with sleep; you can explore other options if it’s really difficult) your stress levels will come down significantly. 

This one strategy will not only prove enormously helpful to your waistline, but will also improve your mood, give you more energy throughout the day, and could potentially make you a better warrior. Oh, and your heart will be super happy as well.

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