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What you need to know about sleep

By Joseph Carman

While a lot of gay athletes and fitness buffs put time and thought into their training and nutrition, they often leave sleep to its own devices. You hit the pillow and that's it—or not. But with inadequate rest or poor sleeping habits, the body finds itself compromised in ways that can be quite damaging. Anyone familiar with a cranky queen who's been up all night at a circuit party knows how short-circuited the brain can get. Imagine what insufficient sleep does to the rest of your body.

Napoleon claimed that real men need six hours, women need seven, and only fools need eight hours of sleep. But look where that landed his highness—a party of one on the island of St. Helena (minus the ermine and the tiara).

Dr. Stuart Lehrman, director of the Sleep Laboratory at Westchester Medical Center (and an avid runner and cyclist), says athletes need at least eight hours of sleep. "We used to sleep when it was dark," says Dr. Lehrman. "With modern life, we've been sleeping less." He also says that some data suggests that there is an increase in mortality rates among patients with less than six hours of sleep.

The sleep states are divided into rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Non-REM is further divided into four stages. REM sleep characterizes dream sleep; non-REM sleep varies from light to moderate to the two deepest sleep levels. After falling into the deepest non-REM sleep, the body cycles back into REM sleep, ideally giving the body four to five REM periods per night. In adolescence, deep sleep comprises about 20 percent of the night, but that diminishes as we grow older. By the time we hit 60, it's down to 10 percent.

"Most people know what deep-sleep deprivation feels like: restlessness, irritability, muscle and joint aches," says Dr. Lehrman. In addition, the last REM stages happen right before we wake up. "Those people who don't catch the last hour or two shortchange themselves of the last REM period," he adds.

From a metabolic viewpoint, a delicate balance exists between the protein synthesis and protein catabolism (breakdown) of muscle cells. So what happens to our metabolism while we slumber? Besides the rejuvenating effects of sleep on the brain and nervous system, many of the body's cells show an increased production and a reduced breakdown of proteins during sleep. Studies have demonstrated that muscle protein synthesis in the biceps remains elevated for 24 hours after exercise. Growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin all increase during sleep. So it's paramount for athletes to provide the right environment for tissue growth and repair. They don't call it beauty sleep for nothing.

Exercise can help promote sleep, but Dr. Lehrman warns not to do it before bedtime. "Sleepiness tends to happen when your body temperature decreases," he says. "If you exercise too heavily too close to bedtime, you generate heat and raise your body temperature. You probably shouldn't exercise a few hours before bedtime. Exercise earlier in the day."

Dr. Lehrman also raises a caveat about sleep apnea and the accompanying snoring—the ultimate disruption of sleep that affects four percent of the male population. Sleep apnea is a constriction of the airways that causes the afflicted person to wake up periodically&151;every four minutes with even mild apnea. Men with collar sizes of 17 and over (hello, football studs) are particularly at risk because of their neck musculature. If you suspect your may suffer from sleep apnea, see a doctor, because there are therapies available that can help treat or cure the debilitating ailment.

With all that said, here are five ways to improve your sleep quality:

  1. Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Take a bath, read a book, listen to soft music. Turn off the tube and in particular avoid watching any shows that will rile you up or give you nightmares.
  2. Get a comfortable mattress. If you're falling into a chasm in the middle of the bed, your back won't be a good sleeping partner. To keep the mattress resilient, flip it every few months so the top becomes the bottom. (This may be instinctual for some.)
  3. Finish eating two to three hours before bedtime. Don't have caffeine—including chocolate—near bedtime. And avoid alcohol at night; at first it makes you drowsy, but when it leaves your system, your blood sugar drops, causing you to wake up.
  4. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex. Leave your work behind by keeping the computer in another room. (OK, insert your own joke here).
  5. Don't play catch up on the weekends. Get the rest when you need it—that night. There's no substitute for the real thing. Sweet dreams.
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor for >Dance Magazine who writes for the New York Times and the Advocate, as well as other publications. A former professional dancer, he is now a bodybuilder and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).