Sleep, Melatonin, and Athletic Performance


All mammals, including us, run on an internal circadian clock. It developed in early forms of life, and has been conserved across the millennia to reside in us today.

The clock times our physiology in precise rhythm with the most ancient environmental signal–light. Changes in the light created by the 24-hour revolution of the Earth on its axis provide the controls (1-4).

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The retinas of your eyes transmit light to the clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the middle of your brain. The SCN then triggers thousands of physiological functions of hormones, muscles, organs, and brain by the rhythmic night-time release of the hormone melatonin from the pineal gland (1-6).

Melatonin regulates all aspects of human physiology, especially sleep/wake cycles, energy, hormone release, brain growth, muscle growth, and body fat. This activity uses daily expression of over 20 percent of your total genome, making melatonin the largest control system in human physiology (1-8).

Until recently, however, effects of melatonin could not be properly studied. Decoding of the human genome in 2003 first allowed researchers to examine the genes involved. Before then, the power of melatonin to control the whole daily cycle of human behavior was just not understood.

Recent research shows that disrupting the melatonin rhythm simply by restricting sleep to 6 hours a night, impairs learning, memory, glucose metabolism, immune function, appetite regulation, and athletic training (1-8). Not surprising that sports scientists are now doing intensive research on sleep, melatonin, and sport.

Performance is devastated by sleep deprivation. Peak power in cycling is significantly reduced (9). Knee extension strength bombs in trained athletes (10). Strength in leg press, bench press, and dead lift is much reduced (11). Endurance performance also bombs, as does sprinting speed (12,13).

Inflammation and risk of illness go through the roof. With low melatonin levels and poor sleep, measures of inflammation, interleukins-1 and-6, and C-reactive protein all rise.  Hormonal rhythms also decline causing impaired immune responses (14,15).

Athletes are always balancing muscle and body fat. Gain fat, and the extra dead weight reduces performance. Strip off too much fat and you also strip off muscle, which reduces performance. They have to keep body fat low while re-building muscle mass every day. This is a difficult task without an optimum melatonin rhythm, and the sound sleep it brings. Almost all muscle recovery and growth occurs during the melatonin phase of the cycle (1-6). And research shows clearly that partial sleep loss fattens you up like a goose (16).

Even minor disturbance of the melatonin rhythm also increases insulin resistance, and disrupts both glucose regulation and hormonal controls of appetite (16,17). The main appetite-inhibiting hormone is leptin. With normal melatonin, leptin rises during sleep and controls appetite, not only that night but also next day. The main appetite-stimulating hormone is ghrelin. With normal melatonin, ghrelin falls during sleep and rises to stimulate appetite the next day. Poor sleep and low melatonin tip the balance in favor of ghrelin, leading to increased appetite and food intake (18).

Levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol, also rise, and anabolic hormones decline, especially growth hormone and testosterone (19). These imbalances set up the low-melatonin athlete for muscle loss and fat gain that cannot be corrected by diet or training.

For the last 30 years we have used specific nutrition for athletes to maintain normal melatonin, and have been very successful with numerous elite athletes including World and Olympic Champions (20). The precursor of melatonin is the amino acid tryptophan, abundant in pumpkin seeds, free-range turkey, and IsaLean Shakes. Diets high in tryptophan increase tryptophan levels in the blood. It is converted in the brain to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), then to melatonin (1-6).

We also use melatonin supplements. Most melatonin pills, however, are ineffective because up to 90 percent of the melatonin is destroyed by digestion and the first pass through the liver. That is why we designed the Isagenix Sleep Spray to effectively deliver the right forms of melatonin directly into the mouth. For the average athlete, 3 mg, that is three sprays, at bedtime, reliably raises melatonin levels, which benefits the whole 24-hour circadian rhythm, yields better sleep, and improves athletic performance.

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