(Reuters Health) - Though regular exercise tends to improve sleep for mere mortals, up to half of elite athletes may be getting too little sleep or have poor quality sleep, according to a review of existing research.
Sleep disturbances can lead to fatigue and sleep-related performance anxieties that in turn affect athletic performance itself, the authors write in the journal Sports Medicine.
“Many studies to date have investigated the impact of sleep deprivation, which is the loss of sleep, on health, wellbeing, and aspects of athletic performance,” lead author Luke Gupta told Reuters Health by email.
“Little research, however, has looked into sleep quality, which is one’s experience of sleep or perceived sleep adequacy,” said Gupta, a researcher at Loughborough University in the UK.
Gupta said he and his coauthors set out to organize the current literature to find out whether aspects of elite sport degrade sleep quality.
They reviewed the findings of 37 studies published between 2001 and 2016 that included Olympic, Paralympic, national and professional athletes. Studies had anywhere from six to 2,067 participants, mostly men, ranging in age from 18 to 30 years old.
The researchers focused on symptoms of insomnia, which is characterized by trouble falling or staying asleep, the feeling that sleep wasn’t restorative and excessive daytime fatigue.
Based on these studies, they conclude that about one third to one half of all elite athletes are poor sleepers, with Paralympic athletes reporting the most insomnia symptoms.
“The findings of review revealed high levels of sleep complaints among elite athletes, however, there is little evidence to suggest that these levels are disproportionately higher than those of young, high-achieving non-athletic individuals such as students,” Gupta said.
The analysis also highlighted aspects of elite sport that can challenge athlete sleep quality, Gupta said.
“Broadly speaking, these include international travel, training due to early morning scheduling and high-intensity periods, and insomnia due to pre-competition worry and late night scheduling,” Gupta said. “However, athletes do not appear to respond uniformly to these challenges with some experiencing severe disturbances whilst others are otherwise unchallenged.”
Gupta said that daytime naps appear to be a common way for athletes to deal with sleep disturbances.
He also said that worry and anxiety about athletic performance and increased physiological arousal after late competitions could make it difficult for athletes to fall asleep
“Delaying bedtimes by employing relaxation strategies in these instances can minimize disruption to sleep quality,” he said.
“Evidence is increasing that sleep interventions can improve the quality and extend the duration of athlete sleep,” Emer Van Ryswik a sleep researcher at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study said in an email.
She pointed out that the research studies used in the review were primarily of low quality, as noted by the study authors.
“Therefore, higher quality original research is needed in this area before firm conclusions can be drawn,” Van Ryswik said.
In a study published in August in the European Journal of Sleep Science, Van Ryswyk and her colleagues describe a sleep optimization program for athletes. Some of the program advice can apply to anyone having sleep troubles: avoid electronic devices right before bed and caffeine or alcohol at night and establish a regular bedtime.
In addition, Antic suggests, athletes should do something relaxing when they can’t sleep and should avoid stimulating activities, such as checking Facebook, which would make insomnia worse.
SOURCE: bit.ly/2i04XKA Sports Medicine, online November 29, 2016.