Poor Sleep Is Not a Disease
In the United States, there are thousands of professional athletes, hundreds of thousands of college athletes and tens of millions of high school, club and individual athletes that participate in every sport imaginable. However, being active and in good physical shape does not make one immune from the same frailties seen across the nation’s entire population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 32% of 18- to 24-year-olds and about 38% of those ages 25-34 sleep less than seven hours a night.
An entire wearable industry has evolved to address this issue with athletes and teams. Unfortunately, wearables do little to solve the actual problem of low sleep hours and poor sleep quality. That is because they treat poor sleep as a disease and wearables as a cure. Poor sleep is not a disease; it is a symptom.
There are many causes of poor sleep amongst athletes, including sleep disorders, mental health issues, organic diseases, anxiety, medications, food choices, travel and lifestyle issues. These factors are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I have worked with athletes who suffer with sleep apnea but also have superimposed anxiety issues related to athletic performance, physical injuries and lifestyle issues. The sleep apnea diagnosis was helpful to the athletes who were able to get treatment that alleviated some of their poor sleep, however, for the other causes of their poor sleep, they were largely left on their own.
When athletes show up at a sleep clinic, they are there because of a perceived sleep problem. Whether they are eventually diagnosed with a sleep disorder or not, it is helpful for practitioners to understand the other issues affecting the sleep of athletes.
The Importance of Communication
High school and college athletes often must juggle their time between academic studies and homework; their athletic games, practices and meetings; family commitments; and their social circles. Unfortunately, these groups rarely communicate with each other to help the athlete.
College athletic departments rarely speak with athletes’ academic instructors and likely never with the athletes’ families or social circles to coordinate the time needs of the athletes. Athletes are left on their own to juggle their commitments, often without any time management skills and what suffers is often their sleep.
Now couple the impact of the lack of communication with the “elephant in the room” — adolescent circadian rhythms. The timing of academic instruction, athletic games, meetings and practices are often
out of sync with young athletes’ natural circadian rhythms, causing unnecessary sleep loss and circadian disruptions. While some schools recognize the issue and are trying to schedule school start times later in the day to allow for more sleep, athletic programs, for the most part, have not followed suit.