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Sleep and Performance: The Best Performance Enhancer

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): Sleep quantity and quality matter. Strive for 7+ hours of sleep during the week, if possible, and set your bedtime routine up by unwinding to increase the chances of you staying asleep.

Today, we're talking about the importance of sleep. Sleep has been shown to be one of the most underrated aspects of overall physical and mental performance, recovery, and health and well-being. The quantity and quality of sleep you’re getting matters. Recent research shows that the more sleep athletes obtain, the better cognitive function they have. In addition, higher-quality sleep has been linked to enhanced immune systems, better mood, lower stress levels, and enhanced productivity.

Did you know that 5 consecutive days of getting 5 or fewer hours of sleep results in the same cognitive and motor impairment of a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .05%? With this finding, you’re legally drunk with this sleep loss when going about your day-to-day. Below are some other crazy facts regarding lack of sleep.

  • Men that sleep 5 to 6 hours a night have levels of testosterone that are the same as people 6-10 years older than them.

  • When you get 6 hours or less of sleep, your time to physical exhaustion decreases by around 30%.

  • The less sleep you have the lower your max muscular strength, vertical jump, and max running speed.

  • The most significant lifestyle factor known for developing Alzheimer’s Disease is a lack of sleep throughout one's life.

  • Staying up all day/night? Once you reach 20 hours of being awake, you are physically and mentally impaired on the same level as if you were legally drunk.

  • A sleep study proved that individuals who were sleep deprived experienced a 70% loss in a crucial anti-cancer fighting cell.

It's been said by Sleep Expert and Neuroscientist, Dr. Matthew Walker, that "Sleep is the greatest legal performance-enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting."

Recent studies show that good sleep directly correlates to enhanced recovery, and improved sports performance, which is vital for athletes' success. But are you getting enough? Studies show that we should be aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Athletes that are training more during the day may need more sleep than the general population. As you get older, sleep needs decrease closer to the 7-hour marker but is usually seen in those ages 50+. Some athletes may also say things like, "I'm in bed 8 hours, so I'm good!" Well, sorry to say, even though you're in bed for 8 hours, people typically wake up in the middle of the night without consciously being aware of it. You might actually only be getting closer to 7 hours depending on how much you're waking up at night.

Check out these 12 tips to enhance your sleep. Like to read? Check out “Why We Sleep” by Dr. Matt Walker. Listening more to your style? Andrew Huberman’s podcast episode with Dr. Matt Walker titled “The Science & Practice of Perfecting Your Sleep” is a great primer on all things sleep.

1. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule (same wake and bedtime), even on weekends.

People have a hard time adjusting to new sleep patterns. The body’s internal clock shifts when we sleep in and go to bed late on the weekends. Which makes it hard for you to wake up on Monday. If you need to sleep in to make up for poor sleep during the week, aim for no more than 60 minutes past your normal wake time.

2. Avoid caffeine and nicotine later in the day.

Caffeine is a stimulant and can impact your sleep if consumed later in the evening. The half-life of caffeine is 6-8 hours, so try to have your last caffeine boost before 2:00 pm.

3. Avoid alcohol before bed – if you drink, do it during dinner and cut off 2 hours min before bed.

Alcohol reduces your sleep quality by breaking up the sleep stages. You’re less likely to fall into a deep sleep and it will keep you in the lighter stages of sleep throughout the night. A small amount of alcohol often promotes the onset of sleep, but as alcohol is metabolized sleep becomes disturbed and fragmented. Thus, alcohol is a poor sleep aid and should not be used as such. If you do drink, stop 2 hours minimum before bedtime – more time between intake and sleep is ideal.

4. Watch your food intake at night.

Aim to avoid all food within the 2 hours prior to bedtime. If a post-dinner snack is needed, keep it a light snack. Such as low-fat dairy (e.g., skim milk, low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese), nuts and seeds, or 8 oz low-sugar tart cherry juice to promote sleep. Avoid high-fat, high-sugar snacks before bed. Avoid snacks in the middle of the night since awakening may become associated with hunger.

5. Avoid medication that disrupts sleep (chat with your primary care doctor for more on this).

Scientists have shown that sleep medications lose their effectiveness in about 2 - 4 weeks when taken regularly. Despite advertisements to the contrary, over-the-counter sleeping aids have little impact on sleep beyond the placebo effect. Over time, sleeping pills actually can make sleep problems worse. When sleeping pills have been used for a long period, withdrawal from the medication can lead to an insomnia rebound. Thus, after long-term use, many individuals incorrectly conclude that they “need” sleeping pills in order to sleep normally.

6. No naps after 3:00 pm!

Many individuals with sleep problems “pay” for daytime naps with more sleeplessness at night. Thus, it is best to avoid daytime napping so you are actually tired when it’s time for bed. If you do nap, try to keep it either a) under 30 minutes or b) 90 minutes or more.

NASA scientists found that power naps were able to boost their pilots' performance by 34% and improve alertness by up to 54%. NASA found that a 26-minute nap was considered optimal. See below for the benefits of other nap times.

7. Try to avoid high-intensity workouts 2-3 hours before bed – sympathetic activation can disrupt sleep.

Regular exercise in the late afternoon or early evening seems to aid sleep, although the positive effect often takes several weeks to become noticeable. Exercising sporadically is not likely to improve sleep, and exercise within 2 hours of bedtime may elevate nervous system activity and interfere with sleep onset.

8. Shutdown Routine – leave time to unwind (30-60 mins before bed is best).

It’s important to have time before bed to unwind. Find some relaxing activities, dim your lights to promote sleep, or have some non-caffeinated herbal tea.

9. Baths (or showers) are best to drop your core body temperature.

Spending 20 minutes in a tub of hot water or shower an hour or two prior to bedtime may promote sleep and is strongly recommended. When you get out of the shower, the cool air on your body kick-starts the internal body temperature drop which promotes sleep.

10. Set your external environment (at night) – dark, cool, clean, and device-free.

Extremes of heat or cold can disrupt sleep. A quiet environment is more sleep-promoting than a noisy one. Noises can be masked with background white noise (such as the noise of a fan) or with earplugs. Bedrooms may be darkened with black-out shades or sleep masks can be worn. Gadgets such as mobile phones and computers can be a distraction. Additionally, the light they emit, especially blue light, suppresses the secretion of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycles – with it increasing in the evening to induce sleep. Use blue-light filters on your phone or blue-light blocker glasses to limit exposure later in the evening.

11. Get some sunlight exposure (during the day).

Sun exposure during the day helps us regulate our sleeping patterns. Earlier in the day, it can also release the body’s excess cortisol (stress hormone), so that accumulation over the day is less likely to build later in the day (which helps you sleep better!).

12. Tossing and Turning? Do something else in a different room.

If you find yourself still in bed for more than 15-20 minutes, or you’re starting to get anxious in bed, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. Anxiety whilst trying to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep. Go to the kitchen for a small sip of water, read some pages in your book, or choose something that doesn’t take up too much cognitive load.

Want to learn more about sleep? Send us a message! Don't "sleep when you're dead," because you might be selling your performance short by not getting enough zzz's.


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