Sleep plays a vital role in athlete recovery and performance. Athletes often aim for the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night, considering it an essential aspect of their routine. However, the specific sleep requirements can vary individually. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that athletes who experience poor sleep quality tend to fall ill more frequently. To delve deeper into the relationship between sleep and immune health, Professor Neil Walsh and his team from Liverpool John Moores University conducted a comprehensive study.
Athletes and Sleep Challenges
Contrary to popular belief, many athletes struggle to obtain both the recommended duration and quality of sleep necessary for optimal performance. In a previous study highlighted, it was observed that athletes spent more time in bed during intensified training but did not actually sleep longer. Additionally, their sleep became more fragmented, with increased instances of wakefulness throughout the night.
Factors Contributing to Poor Sleep
Several factors contribute to athletes not meeting their sleep requirements. Training schedules, such as early morning swim sessions or late-night team practices, can disrupt sleep patterns. Athletes often find themselves juggling multiple responsibilities, sacrificing sleep to accommodate other obligations. Moreover, intensified training or increased stress levels can also impact sleep. Research indicates that individuals habitually obtaining inadequate sleep, less than the recommended 7-9 hours, have heightened susceptibility to respiratory infections.
Study on Sleep and Immune Health
Professor Walsh and his team conducted their study among over 1300 army recruits participating in a 12-week training program, with approximately two-thirds being men and one-third women. The recruits reported their sleep habits before commencing the training, and the researchers divided them into two groups. The first group slept their habitual hours during the 12-week period, while the second group slept at least 2 hours less than their usual sleep duration. Sleep duration was recorded, and participants' perception of sleep quality was monitored. Physician-diagnosed upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) were documented.
The study revealed two significant findings. Firstly, sleep restriction increased the risk of URTI by threefold, corroborating previous reports. However, the more intriguing discovery was that the perceived sleep quality played a crucial role in this relationship. Recruits who experienced sleep restriction and reported poor sleep quality had over a twofold greater chance of developing URTI. Conversely, the group with sleep restriction but reported good sleep quality appeared to be protected, with no increased risk of URTI compared to the reference group.
Top 5 Tips for Enhancing Sleep Quality
These findings emphasize the importance of sleep quality alongside quantity for athletes and non-athletes alike. To improve sleep quality, athletes can consider the following tips:
- Establish a consistent sleep schedule: Maintain a regular sleep routine, going to bed and waking up at consistent times.
- Limit exposure to screens before bed: Avoid electronic devices for at least an hour before sleep.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management contribute to better sleep quality.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Engage in activities such as deep breathing, meditation, or gentle stretching to relax before sleep.
- Create a sleep-friendly environment: Ensure the sleep environment is comfortable, dark, quiet, and cool.
The study's key findings highlight that sleep quality holds equal importance to sleep duration in preventing infections. Athletes, as well as individuals in general, should focus on improving the quality of their sleep rather than solely prioritizing hours slept. By implementing strategies to enhance sleep quality, athletes can bolster their immune health and overall well-being.
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- Walsh NP, Halson SL, Sargent C_, et al_ Sleep and the athlete: narrative review and 2021 expert consensus recommendations _British Journal of Sports Medicine_ 2021;**55:**356-368. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-102025
- Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep. 2015;38(9):1353-1359.
- Walsh et al Sleep 2022. https://academic.oup.com/sleep/advance-article/doi/10.1093/sleep/zsac222/6702165
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):62-67.