Going Beyond the Obvious…

As an athlete, you know the basics to become lean and toned. Eat plenty of protein, high-fiber foods, and healthy fat. Get the nutrients your body demands for peak performance. Incorporate the right exercise and constantly mix things up so you don’t stagnate, or increase your chance of injury.

What many sports minded families and athletes often overlook, however, can seriously stall their game both on and off the field. Over my years working with both student and adult athletes (as well as non-athletes), I’ve pinpointed several hurdles that can be the deciding factor between not just first and second place, but more importantly energy, recovery and for student athletes, optimal performance in school; even when you’re doing everything else correctly. If you’re pushing yourself hard yet not making the gains (or losses) you’d like, consider these three hurdles as suspect:

Hurdle #1: Insufficient Sleep

Recovery is a vital yet undervalued aspect of peak performance. Nowhere does that factor in more than with sleep to allow your body to repair, facilitate optimal protein synthesis, and maintain your hard-earned muscle. A good night’s sleep is like charging your iPhone to 100%. If you only charge it halfway, the battery probably won’t hold up the following day.

You’ve likely suffered the after-effects of a bad night’s sleep in school, during practice, at work or at the gym the following morning.

That sleep-deprived grogginess is hard to recover from throughout the day. You can barely get through a ‘normal’ gym or on the field training session, you snap at a friend or family member, simple chores become nightmarish obstacles, and/or you find yourself craving foods you don’t normally indulge in like caffeine-loaded drinks, sugary sweets or endless handfuls of chips. The body is smart! It knows how to get a quick pick-me-up when asked to perform even when tired, it drives you towards sugar and caffeine to get a quick spike of energy…but this energy generally doesn’t last long…so back for more junk you go…unless you get what the body really needs – REST.

Many of these miseries stem from out-of-whack hormones. Studies show, for instance, that lack of sleep can create insulin resistance leading to diabetes and obesity [1]. Or more specifically, in the short term for athletes, this could mean the inability to use and store fuel appropriately.

Insulin stores glucose (sugar) as glycogen in your muscle cells after a workout. Except over time, when you don’t sleep, those muscle cells become more insulin resistant, unable to heed this hormones call so that excess sugar gets stored as fat.

Other hormones follow suit. Leptin, for instance, tells your brain to stop eating. Inadequate sleep means your brain doesn’t always get the message (also called leptin resistance), so a few tablespoons of almond butter become half the jar. Too little sleep also increases your hunger hormone ghrelin. That’s one reason you find yourself eating more after a terrible night’s sleep.

Then there’s growth hormone, the beloved fountain-of-youth hormone that among its duties boosts muscle and aids in recovery and healing while keeping you lean and energetic. Your body makes the most growth hormone during deep sleep. Light sleepers and people who aren’t sleeping enough probably aren’t making sufficient amounts of this crucial hormone.

I could continue with other hormones, but you get the point: Even one night of bad sleep (you don’t fall asleep quickly, you toss and turn and get up to use the restroom and you don’t wake up feeling rested) can knock you out of balance, stalling performance so you don’t get the results you work so hard to attain.

Hurdle #2: Stress

You’re probably familiar with anxiety and butterflies in your stomach with pre-game jitters. Or maybe you hit a stressful point during the game. These acute stressors can actually become beneficial as you get a powerful adrenal surge that keeps you hyper-focused.

Back in the day – going way back – adrenal hormones like adrenaline and cortisol “turned on” when a saber-tooth tiger wanted you for lunch. You ran like heck to save your life. Same deal today when you’re driving on the freeway and someone swerves in your lane. Hormones kick in, you go into hyper-alert, and you prevent what could have been a terrible accident.

Problem is, these hormones weren’t always meant to be “on.” Your body doesn’t know the difference between perceived and real threats, so for some people it keeps those adrenal hormones jacked up when they should be in the “off” position. Permanently amped-up adrenal glands lead to adrenal burnout, fatigue, compromised immunity, injuries, and other problems that stall your game.

So while, say, cortisol can give you that extra boost during your game, keeping it elevated all day breaks down muscle, can store fat and leave you feeling like you never can get enough rest and recovery.

Modern-day school, workplace and home stressors can keep stress hormones chronically elevated. What about training and competition? Over-training in general and chronic endurance training, in particular, can create the perfect storm of physiologic stress, a surefire recipe for overuse injury, fatigue and burnout.

Hurdle #3: Digestive Problems

You likely know someone with a peanut or maybe tree nut allergy. One bite can send that person into anaphylactic shock and potentially even kill them.

Food intolerances creep in more subtly: They won’t kill you, but they can inflict misery and totally wreck your game. Take gluten. I’m thrilled to see more athletes, such as Dana Vollmer, who won her first gold medal and set a new world record for the 100-meter butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics, come out as gluten-free [2].

Other food intolerances include soy, corn, and as many of my clients discover dairy and eggs. The same foods many people see as healthy ironically put your immune system on hyper-alert and trigger inflammation, leading to pain and achiness that is every athlete’s nightmare.

As your gut wall takes a hit (from over training, antibiotic use and exposure to infections), the normally super tight gut wall barrier becomes a bit ‘leaky’. Food is not digested down to its smallest components; food particles ‘leak’ outside of the digestion system in larger than normal pieces and the body (in an attempt to protect itself from this ‘foreigner’) attacks via the immune system. It’s not ‘normal’ to have an immune response to the food you are eating unless it’s highly contaminated with bacteria. Repeat this reaction daily, even multiple times per day and you’ve got the makings of feeling like you are sick…achy, sore, rashy, bloated, heavy, unclear…and tired! Not a recipe for success in school, at work or on the training field.

Highly reactive foods like soy and gluten can create leaky gut and other gut issues. So can pain medications, over-use of antibiotics, chronic stress, and over-training as mentioned above.

Common symptoms of food intolerances include bloating, fatigue, headaches, mental fogginess, and moodiness. Gas, running to the bathroom and other uncomfortable issues after a meal are not normal, nor are they always innocuous. They could be red flags for serious digestive issues.

How to Clear the Hurdles

Let’s be clear up front. There are no quick fixes for these issues, especially if you’ve struggled for years. Getting optimal sleep, reducing stress and healing your gut take time. If you suspect any of these issues are stalling your performance, taking the time to correct them will repay dividends down the road.

If you struggle with insomnia or a severely compromised gut, I would suggest working with an integrative practitioner (like myself) to relieve these symptoms, since correcting them could sometimes require trial and error, and a professional can guide you in the right direction and actually save you money in the long run.

I spend a few months working with my clients with these three issues. Among my strategies for them included:

  • Power Down and Aim for 8+ Hours of Sleep Every Night I say aim because life happens. Slowly add 15-30 minutes sleep to the evening or morning time to work towards getting 8 (kids and teens need more like 10); to restore hormonal levels and optimize recovery and repair. Power down – turn off laptops, cell phones, tablets at least an hour before bed. The blue light emitted from these devices keeps the brain stimulated…so does checking emails and watching movies. If you are still having trouble falling asleep consider adding Magnesium in a chelated form before bed (I use Thorne Research Magnesium Citramate). You can also consider GABA (I like Thorne Research PharmaGABA 250) if you feel you have trouble turning your brain off at bedtime.
  • Balance ‘Stress’  This is often easier said then done especially for an athlete that has to train 2+ hours per day for his/her sport in addition to working or going to school for 8 hours per day. Sleep is often the only stress antidote athletes and students may have. I challenge my clients to think about what is ‘fun’ to them, what takes their mind off things that might be stressful to them. We work to schedule a couple of these fun things in weekly. It could be going to a movie, hanging out with a particular friend of family member that makes them laugh, having quiet time alone to read, taking a bath, getting a message. Whatever it is, the body needs some down time for hormonal recovery and general well being. Find your ‘happy place’ and go there often to help with stress.
  • Pull the Highly Reactive Foods  While a food intolerance test can pinpoint specific sensitivities, I’ve found that pulling the “biggies” – dairy, soy, eggs and gluten – benefit nearly everyone. Most people eat these foods at every meal, removing requires planning for replacements, so do it one at a time. You will generally notice within a week or two improvements in energy, clarity, pain levels, sleep, digestive health and/or weight maintenance if you are reacting to one or more of these foods. Here are some swaps to consider if you plan to pull one or more of these foods:
    •  Swap dairy for unsweetened coconut and almond milk products, vinaigrette instead of creamy dressings, coconut yogurt instead of cows yogurt and broth soups instead of creamy soups*
    • Swap eggs for turkey sausage or bacon at breakfast or any other protein source
    • Swap gluten for veggies like sweet potatoes and gluten free grain like brown rice, quinoa and/or gluten free pasta if necessary.
    • Swap soy milk for the dairy suggestions above. Remove all fake soy foods like soy burgers etc. and use real nuts instead of soy nuts. Also don’t be afraid of soy lecithin, this is generally not an issue for those with a soy sensitivity.

* For those who choose to go dairy free long term, be mindful of eating other calcium rich food sources (salmon, sardines, almonds, broccoli etc.) daily in addition to taking a well absorbed calcium vitamin source is prudent.



[1] Sleep loss: a novel risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16227462

[2] http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Gluten-Free-Dana-Vollmer-164310186.html