Sleep: Better than Drugs

sleep-deprivation

I wrote recently about cycling coach, Sky Christopherson, and his recommendations for a particular member of the US women’s cycling team to get more deep-sleep in order to improve the performance and recovery of her intensive training regimen. Sensors attached to her body were informing the cycling team that Jenny Reed’s body temperature was not cool enough to reach consistent levels of deep sleep, so they made efforts to ensure a cooler room and mattress in order for her to get the sleep she needed to maximize the return from the next day’s training.

I found that tidbit fascinating. I had been reading fairly consistently over the years of the importance of sleep in the workplace and the impact that sleep deprivation has on performance of employees. Here are some of the insights I gathered from a recent internet search:

  • Sleep experts often liken sleep-deprived people to drunk drivers: They don’t get behind the wheel thinking they’re probably going to kill someone. But as with drunkenness, one of the first things we lose in sleep deprivation is self-awareness. (The Atlantic)
  • One 2014 study of more than 3,000 people in Finland found that the amount of sleep that correlated with the fewest sick days was 7.63 hours a night for women and 7.76 hours for men. (The Atlantic)
  • On an annual basis, the US loses an equivalent of about 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep. This is followed by Japan, which loses on average 604 thousand working days per year. The UK and Germany have similar working time lost, with 207 thousand and 209 thousand days, respectively. Canada loses about 78 thousand working days. (Rand)
  • An individual that sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a ten per cent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours. An individual sleeping between six to seven hours per day still has a four per cent higher mortality risk. (Rand)
  • When asked what factors are keeping us awake at night, the need to use the bathroom (55%), an old, uncomfortable bed (46%) and partner snoring (42%) emerged top. Meanwhile, 23% claimed they were being kept awake by the partner using a mobile phone or tablet in the bedroom.  (Huffington Post)

There is far less research done on the impact of sleep deprivation on athletes, but the emerging consensus is sleep “can have significant effects on athletic performance”, according to the paper “Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep“.

Sleep deprivation can impact how effectively your body metabolizes fat, as well as your neuroendocrine system, which impacts how much human growth hormone (HGH) gets released. Because HGH is important to how fresh and ready you are to take on physical and cognitive tasks during waking hours, and to how fast you recover from exercise, experts are preaching more and more how important it is for athletes (particularly young athletes) to get more sleep, especially more quality sleep. Why fiddle with illegal injections of HGH? You can get HGH naturally by simply hitting the hay.

sleep-patterns
Examples of my sleep patterns, taken from my Fitbit on two different days.

While the research on the correlation between sleep and sports performance is still light, the paper cited above provides some of the early findings:

 

  • Improved Physical Performance: Increased sleep has been shown to increase the performance of basketball players in their sprint speed and free-throw performance over a two-week period. Additionally, increased sleep led to better moods, and thus “increased vigour”. The same researchers found similar results with swimmers with improved sprint times, turn times and mood improvement. Napping for 30 minutes also has an impact, with post-nap sprint speeds increasing.
  • Improved Cognitive Performance: Increased sleep has shown to have an impact on attention spans, ability to concentrate, memory, and other high-level cognitive functions. This is particularly relevant to the ability to perform in team sports. If you’re feeling drunk from lack of sleep, you won’t be able to see the field of play as fully as you like, or anticipate the consequences of newly adjusted offensive or defensive alignments, or recall the rules well enough to make the split-second decisions required in the heat of play.
  • Diminished Levels of Pain: Athletes have all sorts of aches and pains from the beating their bodies take from competition and training. According to the research, sleep deprivation can “cause or modulate acute and chronic pain”. In other words, you can encourage a vicious cycle of pain, which causes you to lose sleep, which enhances the pain, which makes leads to continued loss of sleep. And as stated before, loss of sleep results in disruption to the release of HGH.

In other words, whether you are fighting it out in the corporate jungle or on the playing field, sleep, particularly deep sleep, may be your biggest competitive advantage in today’s always-on lifestyle. Sleep, perchance to dream….of greatness.