Environmental Evolution May Not Be For The Best
The start of the industrial revolution and the invention of the incandescent light bulb both unknowingly kicked off an assault on one of the biggest recovery and performance gifts nature gave to humans: sleep. Once factories and businesses could run all day night, the shift worker was born. Fast forward a few hundred years to today, as we Americans now equate hard work to long hours on little rest. It has become a badge of honor that we use to brag about how tough we are and to admonish lazy people who need to sleep more often.
Studies show that this mindset literally killing Americans as a whole. And in our world, it's robbing athletes of recovery and performance gains, causing unnecessary injuries to otherwise healthy individuals.
By The Time You See The Problem...
The dangers of sleep deprivation are downplayed by most because, like being drunk, it’s easy to convince yourself that you're "fine.” Researchers in Australia found that staying awake for nineteen hours straight leaves you as cognitively impaired as someone with a blood alcohol content of .08. Think of it as a standard Friday where you wake up at seven am, work all day and stay out with friends until 2 am. Even if you haven't had a drink, your reaction time and attention span are that of someone who is legally drunk. In my line of work as a fire fighter, that equates to a seventy-thousand-pound truck weaving in and out of traffic with far from optimal mental capacity. This is why we have such strict shift regulations.
There are multiple other chronic conditions linked to a person getting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Increased risk of suicide, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, chronic weight gain, and an ever-growing list of ailments have all been tied to sleep deprivation.
From an athlete's perspective, one of the most interesting biological shifts that occurs when an individual is sleep deprived is the leptin/ghrelin imbalance. Leptin is the chemical that tells you to stop eating. Ghrelin tells your brain to keep eating. The former is suppressed by sleeplessness. That later is spiked by it. So not only is your body is not telling you to stop, it’s asking for more despite being perfectly sated, nutritionally.
Not "cheating" on your meal prep is infinitely more difficult when you are underslept, not due to lack of willpower, but chemical reactions in your brain telling your body it's starving when it's not.
Athletic performance is put at a sizable deficit when an athlete has slept less than six hours the previous night. Exertion time to physical exhaustion drops by up to 30%, and studies have shown that vertical jump height shortens as well as limb force production. Other studies show reduced blood oxygenation and even the body's ability to cool itself are all affected by lack of sleep.
What is even more important is the correlation between injury and sleeplessness. In 2014, a study was done on young athletes and not surprisingly, the injury rate skyrocketed in the athletes that were underslept. Athletes who slept nine hours on average have less than a 20% chance of injury, while athletes who slept six hours on average have an almost 75% chance of injury. The most drastic change is the chance of injury between the athletes who average seven and eight hours. At seven hours sleep per night, the chance of injury is over 60%. With just one more hour of sleep, the risk drops almost thirty percentage points to just under 35%. The difference in averaging a few more hours sleep per night is startling.
The Solution Is in Your Hands
Of course, almost no one wants to sleep less. The problem is that family, work and society all get in the way, making it sometimes impossible to get seven or more hours in. But there are a few habits that aren't as commonly known but will help big time when it comes to achieving a longer, more restful sleep.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine after noon, and bright, blue light after sundown. Staying on a regular schedule also helps tremendously, so go to sleep at the same time every night. Try to stay away from alcohol after dinner. I know, I know. It helps you relax and sometimes makes you feel sleepy, but it vastly reduces the quality of your sleep. You wake up multiple short times, usually unknowingly, during the night when you've had a few before bed. Try dimming the lights in the house around bedtime. Your body is being bombarded by artificial light, telling it to stay awake in the evening, when it should be prepping for sleep. Where you sleep should be as dark and cool as possible without any electronics. It’s hard to not lay in bed and scroll through your social feeds but try leaving the phone in another room for a night. See how much better you sleep. Take a hot shower before bed so the drop in body temperature will signal your body to go to sleep. If you can't get to sleep, get up and do something for a few minutes to clear your mind. Don't just lay in bed and stare at the ceiling.
By not getting at least seven restful hours of sleep per night, athletes (occupational or otherwise) unintentionally rob themselves of some of the best performance enhancing and recovery accelerating methods available. We all adhere to our rest days, so why not treat our rest nights with as much credence? Sleep is possibly the best compliment to exercise. It's readily available, and anyone can do it. And if it wasn't extremely vital to our survival, it would've been deleted from our evolutionary progress eons ago. Next time, before you jump on the next best thing to give you a performance edge, evaluate your basic human functions to see if the solution is right in front of you.
Nolan Bastien has a BS in Exercise Science, National Strength and Conditioning Association CSCS and TSAC, and is an Exos XPS. He is also a 12 year firefighter on a ladder company on The West side of Indianapolis, and has traveled with the Indycar AMR Safety team for 7 years. Nolan is currently also the Operations Director for the Indiana Smoke Diver program. He is the most handsome athlete SOFLETE has ever recruited.