Effects of Insomnia and Sleep Deprivation on Athletes

by Aaron S. Ziebart, PT, DPT, cert. MDT, CSCS

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What if I told you that there was a new supplement that could increase your testosterone levels, increase your growth hormone levels, decrease your appetite and increase your energy levels–how much would you be willing to pay for it?

Of course there are many companies ready and willing to pounce on the opportunity to sell this to you but the reality is that it really won’t cost you money, just time. Sleep as the solution  is moving more and more to the forefront of research.

As an athlete you probably plan your training carefully. Maybe you are even disciplined with your diet. You’ve laid the essential components in place–you have a stimulus for change and the fuel to accomplish it, but you also want to allow time for these changes to occur.

Maybe ignorance is bliss, but is it causing you to fail in your fitness endeavors?  Instead of searching for the next great supplement, I’m encouraging you to spend the next few minutes to gain a more complete understanding of something you do every day of your life, sleep.  What is happening when your head hits the pillow?

Stages of Sleep

Our sleep can be categorized into two types of sleep, NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). NREM sleep is divided into 4 stages, and we progress from stage 1-4 in a stepwise fashion. Stages 3 and 4 are sometimes combined into only stage 3–what researchers refer to as “deep sleep.” After we complete the “deep sleep” stage, we transition back to stage 2 before entering the REM stage, the period in which we primarily dream.

During REM our brains are quite active, eye movement occurs, heart rate varies and breathing becomes more shallow. Adults spend about 20% of sleep time in the REM stage.  As our night progresses, the periods spent in REM sleep also progressively increase. A total sleep cycle is approximately 90 minutes; our first REM stage may be 10 minutes whereas a later one may be 30 minutes.

Deprivation and the REM Stage

The effects of sleep deprivation lead to elevated levels of cortisol in the evenings. Chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance. In addition to this being a risk factor for diabetes and obesity, insulin resistance reeks havoc on muscle building and repair, as insulin facilitates and stimulates the entry of glucose and amino acids into muscle tissue.

Elevated cortisol levels also prevent people from entering deep sleep. Another major downfall of sleep deprivation for the athlete is depressed levels of leptin (appetite suppressant) and elevation of ghrelin (appetite stimulant).  Let’s hear it for “eating up a storm!”

Impact on Testosterone

Testosterone levels (both free and total) are also directly related to total hours of sleep. The more sleep deprived you are, the more likely your testosterone levels will be decreased. Decreased testosterone levels lead to fatigue and its associated losses of energy, concentration and strength.

Adequate testosterone can lead to increased muscle mass, decreased fat, increased bone density, increased sex drive, and other benefits – most of which occur for both males and females. Who among us would not sign up for this?

Testosterone is specifically released during the deep sleep stage, or that portion that occurs just prior to the REM. Unfortunately, low testosterone can also reduce the time spent in deep sleep.

Impact on Human Growth Hormone

Human growth hormone (HGH) is also extremely important in recovery from exercise, as well as in body fat composition. HGH is released in the deep sleep stage. Deficiencies in HGH can lead to increased body fat, decreased muscle mass, decreased bone density and other changes associated with aging. The cascade of hormonal releases and maintenance that occurs during NREM is obviously far more complex than just those related to testosterone and HGH, but an obvious trend can be identified –we need sleep!

Impact on the Brain

Interestingly, during REM sleep, even though our brains are quite active, our large muscles become nearly paralyzed, and reduced thermoregulation occurs (our ability to maintain our body temperature). Unfortunately, little is known about why we need REM sleep. Obviously dreams occur during this phase, and areas of the brain associated with learning are stimulated.

Neurotransmitter regulation (the chemicals of our brains and nervous system) is also thought to occur. The fact that REM duration increases as our sleep time progresses coupled with the fact that sleep deprivation leads to so many negative side-effects suggests that even though we truly do not understand this stage of sleep, it is essential.

Think About Your Sleep Ritual

In the midst of your fast paced life, start observing how much you prioritize and plan for your nightly ritual.  Are you going about it haphazardly, running yourself into the ground only to crash, struggle to get up and do it all again the next day?  What if you trained like this? Would you expect to succeed or fail?

Prioritized sleep may be the game changer all athletes need.


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