WHEN IT COMES TO overall health and wellness, the tandem twosome most frequently
discussed are diet and exercise. And with good reason – they are
crucial contributors. What you consistently put into your body and how
you move that body to build and maintain cardiovascular and musculoskeletal
fitness are vital to your health across a lifetime. But did you know that
some sleep researchers believe disordered sleep – a catch-all phrase
that encompasses a wide variety of
sleep conditions – may be more responsible for morbidity and mortality in American
men and women than cardiovascular disease and pulmonary conditions combined?
Sleep is a critical time for overall body healing, regulation and restoration.
Disordered sleep can affect blood pressure, heart rate, mental status, hormonal and immunological
function, and a host of other critical aspects of our normal physiology.
So many of the common diagnoses in the cardiovascular, pulmonary and even
neurological categories may be triggered and influenced by disordered
sleep. Here's the thing: In what has rapidly become of our modern
24/7 world, with more technology and demands for our time tugging at us
than ever before, our collective ability to sleep well has suffered, big
time. From difficulty falling or staying asleep to snoring, or many other
conditions, sleep disorders aren't new. But they are on the rise.
By some estimates, problems related to sleep affect more than 50 million
Americans, and the number of people who report being sleep-deprived has
significantly increased over the past few decades.
Sports neurologists, sleep experts, athletic trainers and strength and
conditioning experts will tell you that the best and most consistently
high performers on any team and in any sport tend to be the best sleepers.
In fact, some would argue that the single most important intervention
with the greatest effect on improving performance is optimizing sleep
and minimizing fatigue. Mainly as it refers to sleep's influence on
performance (physical or mental), research has shown that not getting
enough sleep each night (under six hours) is associated with becoming
physically fatigued sooner, a reduction in aerobic output, reduced peak
and sustained muscle strength, metabolic impairment and as you can imagine,
an increase in the risk of sustaining an injury. Conversely, studies have
shown that optimizing sleep (sometimes by "forcing" a minimum
number of sleep hours per night) can significantly improve a wide range
of physical and cognitive performance targets.
Sleep is a neurological phenomenon. And many neurological functions are
associated with sleep. From a sports neurologist's perspective, one
of the things we're concerned with is the ways that impaired sleep
affects something called the glymphatic system. You can think of the glymphatic
system as the brain's "plumbing" network. It's a pathway
for waste clearance in the central nervous system and is responsible for
the disposing of toxins from the brain. It also contributes to neurological
restoration, efficiency and performance. In fact, a 2013 National Institutes
of Health-funded study that was published in the journal Science suggested
that sleep is a linchpin in clearing the brain (by way of the glymphatic
system) of those damaging molecules that are associated with neurodegenerative
So how can you know if your sleep patterns are healthy, and what can you
do if they're not? We believe there are several factors that contribute
to any individual's sleep efficiency. There are physiologic factors
involved, such as presence of
restless legs syndrome and circadian rhythm disorders. There are work-related factors, such as
early morning and overnight shifts, work-related travel and jet-lag –
an area of focus with professional athletes, individual professional teams
and leagues, given the clear evidence of effects on performance and injury.
Finally, and just as important, are environmental/lifestyle factors, which
individuals can adjust to improve their sleep efficiency. We refer to
this last category as sleep hygiene. There are a few things that can let
you know right away if something's off. Are you able to fall asleep
within 15 to 20 minutes of lying down? Do you regularly sleep for a total
of seven to nine hours during any given 24-hour time period? Is your sleep
continuous (not characterized by periods of waking)? Do you wake up feeling
well-rested? When you are awake, do you feel alert and productive throughout
most of the day? If you answered yes to these questions, you're likely
on the right track. If you answered no, it's essential to get to the
bottom of why your sleep health isn't all it should be and to begin
The good news is this: There is plenty you can do to improve your
sleep hygiene if your sleep habits aren't up to snuff, and fixing the issues may
even help you reach health, wellness, fitness or sports performance goals
that you didn't know were affected by your ZZZs. Some of the most
impactful interventions to promote better sleep health may also be the
toughest at first. An important one is to get rid of bedroom distractions:
smartphones, tablets, televisions and other bright light sources that
can disrupt your brain's sleep signals. Making a commitment to eliminate
them from your sleep space can be a massive help to the overall quality
of your sleep.
But it isn't just what you do in the moments leading up to bedtime
that matter. Another great way to promote better sleep is to get enough
exposure to sunlight during the day, especially during the early morning
hours. Again, this has to do with your brain's sleep-wake "clock"
and is a frequently overlooked factor in getting better sleep since our
society is spending less and less time outside these days. Likewise, finding
ways to help your brain unwind before bed and throughout the day is crucial.
Mindfulness meditation, light yoga or taking a warm bath can all help.
sleep problems need more help than what you can do on your own. If you feel like you've
tried the above and still aren't getting the quality shut-eye you
need, talk to your doctor about it. There may be a medically-related sleep
disorder that needs to be addressed. Remember, these issues can affect
your overall health – including your risk of developing cardiac,
pulmonary, neurological and other diseases. Today there are a variety of sleep study
options that medical experts can employ to figure out precisely what's
going on and to get you back to your optimal performance levels –
in sports, your career, in school and in your overall quality of life.