Sports Nutrition: Sleep for Better Performance and Recovery

Sports Nutrition: Sleep for Better Performance/Recovery

Sleep loss can have profound effects on sports performance.  Sleep has numerous important physiological and cognitive functions for the athlete that are of particular importance.   The body restores itself during sleep, so it is necessary for recovery from intense training. Even small amounts of fatigue can significantly reduce reaction time, attention, focus and physical recovery, worsening athletic performance.  Compromised sleep may also influence injury proneness, learning, memory, cognition, pain perception, immunity and inflammation. (1)

During sleep, muscles and the central nervous system recover from the day before’s activity. The central nervous system is responsible for pain response, reaction time, and muscle contractions - all important for athletic performance.

Additionally, deep sleep is when most of the body’s Human Growth Hormone is released, which is necessary for muscle recovery, muscle growth and sustained performance.  Some research also suggests less sleep increases levels of stress hormone, cortisol.

And finally, sleep loss may also slow post-training, event and activity recovery. (2, 3) 

Arginine and Glycine

Arginine and Glycine support healthy nitric oxide (NO) production, which is essential for healthy circulatory flow to support the delivery of nutrients to the cell and the removal of metabolic toxins. Nitric Oxide causes blood vessels to dilate and improve circulatory status. It is also widely accepted that nitric oxide facilitates sleep. (4) NO is intimately involved in non-rapid eye movement sleep and sleep homeostasis. In one study, it was found that inhibition of nitric oxide synthesis, one of the pathways that creates NO, suppresses spontaneous sleep. (5)

At night, levels of cGMP are higher which suggests an increase in NO. It is known that increased levels of NO results in increased levels of cGMP.  It is through this relationship that another study proposed NO and cGMP are involved in the circadian rhythm. NO may also help with sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is associated with lower levels of nitric oxide. (6) For athletic performance, Arginine and Glycine are vasodilators, which results in increased blood flow so the heart can pump more blood more efficiently, which can promote cardiovascular and muscular performance.  Arginine can also promote the release of growth hormone and insulin, which support lean muscle mass and energy production from glucose. 

This improved utilization of glucose can be used for increased growth and energy demands. (7) 


Glycine also benefits the athlete because of its powerful antioxidant properties that aid in reducing excessive oxidative stress. It has a strong affinity for heart and muscle tissue and can support healthy stamina and performance. Glycine also supports hormone balance and the ability to maintain balance with cortisol and insulin after heavy exercise. Excess stress can cause cortisol to rise, which can result in an imbalanced hormone levels in men and women. Stress can also cause the sugar controlling hormone insulin to rise, which can result in blood sugar imbalances and body fat increases. (8)

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a compound made naturally in the body. It is produced as a supplement from the seeds of a plant, Griffonia simplicfolia, native to West Africa.  This compound has effects on both sleep and mood 5-HTP is converted in the brain to serotonin, an important initiator of sleep. One of the key benefits of 5-HTP is its ability to increase REM sleep by up to 25%, while increasing deep sleep stages 3 and 4. (9)

5-HTP can also be useful for the athlete that experiences performance anxiety to the point that it can jeopardize performance by a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, causing symptoms such as difficulty breathing, a rapid heartbeat, or tightened muscles. 5-HTP helps the body replenish its stocks of serotonin, the neurotransmitter also involved in processing emotion, mood and appetite to counteract the effects of higher levels of cortisol caused by performance anxiety, reducing the impact of the physical and psychological symptoms. (10)


Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland that increases 10-fold at night to prepare the brain for rest and sleep. The pineal gland is directly connected to the optic nerves: it is in direct contact with light. During the day the pineal is inactive. When the sun goes down, the pineal is "turned on" and begins to actively produce melatonin, which is released into the blood. As a result, melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and drowsiness occurs. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for about 12 hours throughout the night until the light of day, when they fall back to low daytime levels. That’s why melatonin is referred to as the hormone that regulates the wake/sleep cycle, the body clock also referred to as circadian rhythm. 

In the daytime, when exposed to sunlight, melatonin levels are then suppressed, promoting alertness. (11) Melatonin is one of the most powerful antioxidants known.  It reduces stress, inflammation and cellular apoptosis and to restore tissue function, also having a significant effect on immune function. (19) 


Valerian is an herb that may help improve sleep, promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. It contains several compounds that include valerenic acid, isovaleric acid and a variety of antioxidants.  Valerian interacts with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger.

Low GABA levels are related to acute and chronic stress, and are also linked to anxiety and low-quality sleep.  Valerenic acid has been found to inhibit the breakdown of GABA in the brain, resulting in calmness and tranquility. (12)

Valerian root also contains the antioxidants hesperidin and linarin, which have s sleep-enhancing properties.  These compounds may inhibit excessive activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that processes fear and strong emotional responses to stress.  Research suggests that taking valerian root may reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, as well as improve sleep quality and quantity. (13) 


Magnesium also plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of the neurotransmitter GABA to promote sleep and quiet down nerve activity.  It also regulates the hormone melatonin, which guides sleep-wake cycles in your body.

By helping to quiet the nervous system, magnesium may help prepare the body and mind for sleep. (14) In order to fall asleep and stay asleep, the body and brain need to relax. On a chemical level, magnesium aids this process by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for relaxation. 

Magnesium regulates the calming neurotransmitters, which send signals throughout the nervous system and brain. (15) Because virtually every body function requires adequate levels of magnesium, it is of particular importance to the athlete. Magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate diverse biochemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Magnesium deficiency is associated with heightened stress and anxiety. (16) 


Taurine is an amino acid derivative that reduces cortisol levels and increases the production of GABA, a major inhibitory neurotransmitter that is the body’s natural “off” switch. Taurine plays a key role in neurotransmitter regulation, helping to calm and stabilize the nervous system.

Taurine levels are very concentrated in the brain. Because of its ability to generate nerve impulses, stabilize nerve cell membranes and prevent erratic firing of nerve cells, Taurine helps calm stress and anxiety. (17)

Taurine reduces the effects of training stress and helps prevent muscle breakdown. It also supports healthy energy production, stress response and recovery, and healthy fat metabolism. Taurine promotes healthy cardiac and muscular adaptation to high intensity activity.  It maintains a healthy balance of the electrolytes Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium in the heart muscle. Taurine also reduces the negative effects of high intensity training on the nervous system. (18)



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