What Is The Big Deal About Sleep?

Dr Charlie Pedlar

January 12, 2017

Sports Science

The interest in sleep for health and performance has accelerated to the point where most sports teams are now taking the idea of sleep optimization very seriously. Reports of NBA, MLB and NFL teams incorporating sleep into pre-game and recovery protocols are proliferating [12] and sleep technology is rapidly advancing with an impressive array of tech available to measure and promote sleep. Some excellent literature is available to bring the science to a wide audience [34]. This week, Under Armour has launched pajamas that purport to improve sleep quality and even influence cell metabolism [5], although as yet there aren’t any studies published proving this technology. Is all this interest in sleep a fad or is there genuinely a good scientific rationale to justify the increased attention? 

Sleep for performance 

It’s true that athletes can get by with one or two poor nights sleep, and there are tricks to compensate in the short term, such as the use of caffeine or napping. But it is the consequences of multiple nights of poor sleep that are the real cause for concern. Military studies show that the cumulative effect of sleep loss drastically (and highly predictably) affects cognitive performance by increasing errors, whilst sleep extension to 9 hours per night reduces errors. Similarly, the number of errors demonstrably increases with sleep loss in skill sports such as rugby [6], pointing to a strong case for extra sleep for athletes. Furthermore, illness and injury risk (the antithesis of high performance) increases as a corollary to sleep loss (either by loss of sleep quality or quantity)[78]. 

Travel and fixture schedules, and the increased arousal necessary for competition are not conducive to good sleep. Some athletes find it hard to shutdown after the buzz of a big game and it can take hours to achieve deep, restorative sleep after a game. Part of the problem here may be to do with lighting. Floodlights, screen time and airport lighting late into the night directly disrupt the natural rhythm of melatonin. Melatonin (often referred to as ‘the sleep hormone’) would naturally be set by the rising and setting of the sun, but becomes suppressed with nocturnal bright light, holding back the onset of sleep [9]. If this were to have a name it might be called Sports Jet Lag where athletes and other performers who play in the evening constantly possess a phase shifted body clock. Technology has various solutions for this problem, but mostly these are designed to compensate for the disruption and potentially making matters worse, keep you using technology late into the night. It takes real discipline to switch off tech completely. Currently, the number of published studies that have investigated sleep and performance is accelerating and doubling every 4 or 5 years, but the technology is advancing at a faster pace than the research. 

The challenge is to apply appropriate technology, nutrition, behavior and scheduling strategies that facilitate good sleep without it becoming an obsession. Equally important is the challenge of identifying and helping those athletes that really have a sleep problem. So while in a few years we may all be wearing sleep boosting garments, the critical message for now is the importance, especially for health and performance, of a good night’s sleep however that may come.   

If you are looking for a few helpful tips on travel and sleep, Orreco's Dr Ara Suppiah shares his advice on the Golf Channel’s Morning Show.

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