By Rehan Jalali Updated on October 27, 2022



By Rehan Jalali, C.S.N.

From immune function to weight management, sleep is critical to optimal health, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how to get the 7-9 hours per night that you need.

We have a sleep crisis in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep (7-9 hours) on a regular basis. A survey in Consumer Reports estimates that 27% of people regularly have trouble sleeping or staying asleep, and a whopping 68% struggle with sleep at least once a week.

Our sleep crisis is felt by every age group and demographic—and it’s costing us. Americans spend $411 billion every year treating insomnia and other sleep disorders, and more than nine million adults take some kind of prescription drug for sleep disorders.

But worse than the price tag is the impact of inadequate sleep on our bodies. Scientists have found evidence that lack of sleep can cause molecular changes that promote weight gain. About 3-5% of obesity is the result of inadequate sleep, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. And findings from British researchers show that inadequate sleep more than doubles the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse. With increased stress from self-isolation, financial worries and other concerns, getting a good night’s sleep is tougher than ever. And considering the link between sleep and the immune system, it’s never been more critical to get 7-9 hours of deep, restful sleep per night.

If you are one of the millions who suffer from lack of sleep, it’s time to get serious about your shut-eye.

What actually causes us to sleep at night? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not watching TV while laying on the couch. Sleep is regulated by circadian rhythms generated by the circadian pacemaker in the hypothalamus (part of the brain), which control hormones in the body. The pineal gland, in turn, releases melatonin, then converts it into the hormone serotonin, which helps us fall asleep. Melatonin production is inhibited by light, so your body produces more melatonin at night. 

The Five Stages of Sleep

The five stages occur cyclically during the night. A typical person may complete five cycles during a full night’s sleep.  

Stage 1: Drowsiness. Stage 1 may last for five to 10 minutes.

Stage 2: Light Sleep. The heart rate slows and body temperature decreases. At this point, the body prepares to enter deep sleep.

Stages 3 and 4: The Deep Stages. These stages are known as delta or slow-wave sleep. They are critical in the healing, recovery and brain cleansing process that sleep provides. Stage 4 is more intense than Stage 3.

Stage 5: REM (rapid eye movement). REM sleep is when dreams come alive. Brain activity is actually high during this stage and your pulse increases as well. Intense dreaming occurs during REM sleep as a result of heightened cerebral activity, but paralysis occurs simultaneously in the major voluntary muscle groups. The first period of REM typically lasts 10 minutes, with each recurring REM stage lengthening and the final one lasting about an hour.

Detrimental Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Here are just some of the harmful consequences of inadequate sleep.

 Lower Immune Function. Significant negative effects on immune function can occur after several days of inadequate sleep and only a few days of total sleep deprivation. A recent study out of Oman found that only one week of moderate sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours per night) led to decreased neutrophil activity and a decrease in the levels of CD4+ T cells. These are important components of the immune system. Other research concludes that immune responses of humans are impaired by sleep loss. The Covid-19 pandemic is certainly not a time to lower immune health.
 Increased appetite and potential for binge eating Have you ever noticed that when you don’t sleep enough your food cravings go through the roof? This is the result of neurological and physiological effects from a lack of sleep. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience last year concluded that desire for food increased after sleep loss. Another study out of Sweden using MRI to measure neural activation showed that a single night of sleep deprivation can increase desire for food.
 Obesity/weight gain. The direct link between sleep deprivation and obesity is well established. A French study concluded that “several pathways could link sleep deprivation to weight gain and obesity, including increased food intake, decreased energy expenditure, and changes in levels of appetite-regulating hormones, such as leptin and ghrelin.” Several other studies have found that poor sleep impairs weight loss. Metabolic profiling studies have shown a decreased metabolism when individuals are sleep-deprived. Obviously not good for fat loss.
 Inflammation. A very recent study from the University of Houston discussed how sleep deprivation causes oxidative stress and inflammation. Other research shows that sleep disturbances cause inflammation that can lead to adverse health effects.  Many diseases are directly linked to inflammation, Covid-19 among them. The virus causes massive inflammation, especially in the lungs, with devastating results. This is not a time to exacerbate inflammatory responses in your body.
 Health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world, and poor sleep may be a factor. A recent study published in the journal Sleep concluded sleep deprivation is directly linked to increased cardiovascular disease risk. Many other studies have concluded this same correlation, along with other negative effects from sleep deprivation, including increased risk of diabetes and stroke.
 Memory Loss/forgetfulness/depression. Cognitive issues have also been linked to inadequate sleep. A recent study in college athletes concluded that sleep loss adversely affects mood and performance. Many other studies show similar effects in terms of neuronal lapses and forgetfulness with sleep debt. Depression and anxiety have also been linked to sleep deprivation.
 Impaired athletic performance and muscle loss. If you’re an active person committed to fitness and health, you have a lot to lose from lack of sleep. Up to 90% of growth hormone (GH) secretion occurs at night. Sleep is also important for amino acid turnover and protein synthesis, as well as the release of other key hormones besides GH. All are essential for muscle building and fat loss. These effects are also associated with lower sex drive and increased muscle and joint pain.

Tips to Improve Sleep

As you can see, getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep is critical. Here’s how to maximize the benefits of sleep and help improve your overall health and fitness.

 Stay on a consistent sleep schedule. Try going to sleep at roughly the same time every night to better regulate your circadian cycle. Keep in mind that night owls are more likely to develop diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular problems and even muscle loss more than early risers, according to published research. This is true even if those who stay up late get the same amount of sleep. But if that’s not possible for you, still try to stay consistent with your bedtime.
 Turn off the lights—and your electronic devices—before bed. Complete darkness is critical for sleep to help release melatonin. That includes avoiding light from electronic screens, such as smartphones and computers. A study published in the PNAS journal concluded that using electronic devices before bedtime “prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning.” One solution to disruption from blue light from screens is to use glasses designed to block blue light (available from TrueDark or BlueBlox).
 Avoid stimulants late in the day. Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol near bedtime.
 Turn down the heat. Make sure your bedroom temperature is on the cooler side.
 De-stress before you sleep. Try meditation, deep breathing or prayer before bed.
 Avoid eating too close to bedtime. Don’t binge on food before sleeping.
 Take supplements that may help you sleep. See below for examples. Also, make sure you don’t have a magnesium or vitamin D deficiency because this can adversely impact sleep.

Supplements to Help Maximize Sleep Benefits

Here are some over-the-counter dietary supplements that may help improve the quality of your sleep.

Melatonin—This natural hormone of the pineal gland can intensify REM sleep and may also support healthy GH levels. It’s essential in promoting proper sleep and can even help with jet lag. One very recent study even showed that it can help with COVID-19 symptoms.

5-HTP (5-hytroxytryptophan)—5-HTP is the intermediate metabolite in the serotonin pathway and is basically the direct precursor to the neurochemical. Serotonin is a key factor in determining sleep, appetite, mood and other bodily functions, including pain control. 5-HTP has been shown to help improve sleep quality and even treat insomnia in some cases by supporting REM sleep.

ZMA ZMA is a highly absorbable combination of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B-6. This unique vitamin/mineral combination can have a positive impact on health, fitness and even exercise performance. But when it comes to sleep benefits, ZMA really delivers.

The bio-available form of magnesium and B-6 in ZMA are keys to a more deep and restful sleep. Magnesium basically primes your body for a good night's sleep. Research indicates that a magnesium deficiency can disrupt sleep quality. Vitamin B-6 can enhance dream vividness and recall. One Italian study found that “the administration of nightly melatonin, magnesium and zinc appears to improve the quality of sleep and the quality of life in long-term care facility residents with primary insomnia.”

Another study out of Iran showed that taking magnesium (roughly the same amount contained in each serving of ZMA) improved sleep efficiency and sleep time, and reduced insomnia. What’s important about this study is that it also showed that nightly magnesium supplementation increased morning wakefulness. 

Naps Are Great, But You Need Your Nightly Shut-eye

If you were wondering about naps, they definitely help. One study published only a few months ago showed that a 90-minute nap improved memory and brain function. If you want to help improve your immune system, overall health and athletic performance—especially during the Covid-19 pandemic—you really do need to get at least 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night.

Sweet dreams!





About Author
Rehan Jalali is an internationally recognized Certified Sports Nutritionist (C.S.N.) based in Beverly Hills, Ca. He is the author of several books including “The Six Pack Diet Plan” (available on Amazon) and the “Sports Supplement Buyers Guide”. He is co-author of “The Bodybuilding Supplement Guide.” His upcoming books include “The Super Hero Diet Plan” and the “Ultimate Guide to Women’s Fitness”. As a Nutrition and Dietary Supplement expert, he has been featured in several movies including “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” and the recent “SUPPS: The Movie” on Amazon Prime Video.