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My Q and A With W. Chris Winter, Sleep Whisperer to Some of the World's Top Athletes

02/26/2015 10:54 am ET | Updated May 07, 2015

Perhaps more than any other group, athletes have fully embraced sleep as a performance enhancement tool. Top athletes are, of course, all about results. So there's no better place than the world of sports to see the tangible effects of sleep (including pre-game naps) on performance.

As medical director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia, and one of the country's leading sleep researchers, W. Chris Winter has worked extensively with athletes eager to learn from him. He also works with teams to teach them about sleep's importance. In fact, when we exchanged emails, he was in Florida, and shortly bound for Arizona, working with Major League Baseball teams. Here are his answers to my questions about why athletes are putting sleep at the forefront of their lives -- and what the rest of us can learn from them.

You don't always publish your research on how sleep affects athletic performance. Why is that?

The reasons for this are many, but generally boil down to two things.

First, teams view what I do as a way to gain an advantage and do not want to give that advantage away. Second, I have been involved with sleep research for about 21 years now, including my involvement while I was in medical school, neurology residency, and my sleep fellowship. There are individuals and groups out there with no real sleep background who sell sleep services to businesses, teams, etc. that do little more than borrow other's research ideas and sell it as if it were their own. Given these facts, I see little upside to publishing.

You've researched the effect of time zone travel and jetlag on the performance of pro baseball players. What did you find?

The convention in sleep medicine is that for every time zone you cross when you travel, it takes about 24 hours to acclimate. So, with that in mind, we looked at every team, every day of the season for ten seasons and assigned them a value as to how adjusted they were, and used it to predict game outcome. Basically, we proved what hardcore gamblers have probably known for years...travel impairs performance!

Since then, we have studied how a player's chronotype (are you a morning lark or a night owl) affects performance at different times of the day. For instance, does a night owl pitcher pitch better at night versus in the day? Our data suggests so. It also suggests batters hit better if their game matches up with their chronotype too. We have unpublished data on this as well.

We have also looked at the incidence of sleepiness in college football players and compared the number to that seen in professional football. College players blow the pros out of the water. Just under half of the players we studied were excessively sleepy, and usually not because of lack of sleep!

Beyond day-to-day performance, how can inadequate sleep affect an athlete's career?

We have looked recently at measures of sleepiness in professional athletes and have seen that players with high levels of sleepiness tend to exit their sport earlier than those who are not sleepy. For players who want to have long, lucrative careers, ignoring healthy sleep is not the way to go about it!

My work in the past has looked at the active athlete and shown how poor sleep can affect multiple aspects of his/her performance. Currently, we are working on using sleep-specific parameters to predict future performance, injury risk, and potentially whether or not an organization should invest in a player. If two equally talented writers want to work for you and one is much sleepier than the other, who would you hire? Initially that was our directive. Taken a step further, what if you had a really good sleep doctor on your staff who said he could diagnose and fix the sleep problems we discovered on your staff during the sleep screening process (what I am often doing for teams). Now who would you hire? Perhaps the sleepy writer, who is already amazing prior to the intervention, will be a superstar once I figure out and treat her sleep issues. Now you can see how a team could find treasure in other team's trash... if they know what to look for.

How are professional sport teams leveraging sleep consultants to enhance performance, and what tangible benefits are players receiving?

The short answer is in many different ways. I think the most important way is through better education about sleep and its impact on our health, recovery, and performance. Players learn that the hours spent in the bedroom lay the foundation for their physical improvement, and nutritional goals.

I love to talk about sleep. Despite this tendency, I don't like to talk a lot about the specifics of what I do for teams. I think it is something my teams value -- I keep my mouth shut. Strangely, the San Francisco Giants spoke to the media about me this season in the midst of their third World Series win. I'll let this article, which was the result of their comments to the media, answer your question.

What's the big takeaway for those of us who aren't pro athletes?

The funny thing about all of this was that my research started as a way to get ordinary people to pay attention to sleep. I thought, if I can get a pro athlete to really value sleep, his or her fans might do the same.