The Next Game Changer in Sports Science: How Prioritizing Sleep Timing, Quality, and Quantity Drives Improved Athletic PerformanceIn this month’s sleep story, we talk about the importance of sleep, sleep’s impact on human health, and more specifically, the impact of sleep on athletic performance with the Yale-educated neurologist and sleep physician, Dr. Dimi Barot, MD. Sleep represents a fundamental component to human existence, with a far-reaching impact on every aspect of our lives, and that is why Dr. Barot devoted his life to sleep medicine.
Sleep is Fundamental to Human ExistenceDr. Barot first learned about the subspecialty of sleep medicine when he was still a medical student from his father, who also practiced neurology. At that time, sleep was a newer discipline within neurology. Classes weren’t yet required for sleep medicine, still, medical school is where Dr. Barot’s professional and personal journey would begin and evolve. Currently, Dr. Barot serves in more than a half dozen sleep-related roles, including over a decade as a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and providing Sleep Health Care Management with Arima Health. As a sleep physician, he is board-certified in both neurology and sleep medicine. He has been passing down both his passion and knowledge for sleep at his alma mater, teaching medicine at the Eastern Virginia Medical School. All this because sleep is fundamentally important.
“We don’t have a choice. Without sleep, we perish,” Dr. Barot said matter-of-factly.He described the process, starting at the cellular level, where humans, and all creatures, simply don’t have a choice but to sleep, because it’s a fundamental existential requirement.
“As I learned about sleep, it became more and more naturally interesting, at a personal and a professional level,” said Dr. Barot. “And particularly as I learned more about the brain, I became more fascinated by and passionate about the quantity and quality of sleep and how it impacts every aspect of human life.”One area of passion for Dr. Barot is the intersection of sleep and athletic performance, and how emphasizing sleep can generate positive athletic outcomes.
Sleep and Athletic PerformanceWe’ve established that sleep is fundamental. But it’s more than just how sleep relates to the management of medical conditions. As Dr. Barot mentioned above, sleep impacts human life starting with the basic unit of life: the cellular level. So, when it comes to athletic performance – both physically and mentally – sleep can have an immense impact. Dr. Barot highlighted several athletes and organizations, including Tom Brady’s TB12 method, LeBron James’ long declared emphasis on sleep, and the University of Oregon’s space-age sports facility featuring sleep pods for student-athletes. Each has put a focus on getting good sleep, in what appears to be a wave of athletes who are prioritizing their sleep health. Dr. Barot posited on the longevity of the careers of these players:
“It’s impressive to see Lebron James and Tom Brady performing at an exceptional level at 37 and 45 respectively. Despite their age, their level of performance, physical ability, and mental strength set them apart, and those strengths are largely buoyed by their commitment to sleep,” he said.Both Tom Brady (NFL quarterback) and Lebron James (NBA power forward) have emphasized sleep in their routines. For Tom Brady, getting 9 hours of sleep is a must, as outlined in his book: The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance. Similarly, LeBron James emphasizes a full night of sleep, aiming for upwards of 12 hours of sleep a day, with a particular emphasis on getting as much REM sleep as possible. Another physician, Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT provides a brief overview of LeBron’s secret to success in this short video, (hint: it’s REM sleep): Finally, for an organization putting their money where their mouth is, we take a look at the University of Oregon, where an incredible new facility, the $19 million Marcus Mariota Sports Performance Center, features sleeping pods for athletes to get naps in to prioritize sleep. If all these high caliber athletes are putting the emphasis on sleep, what’s holding sleep back? The answer: general awareness around sleep is lacking.
Breaking the Sleep Awareness BarrierIn short, a lack of awareness holds sleep back from really taking the main stage in the mainstream frame of mind. “The primary barrier that sleep faces is really the lack of awareness,” said Dr. Barot. (Stop us if you’ve heard that before during an EnsoData sleep story).
Dr. Barot added: ”If you think about how much time, energy, and resources athletes devote to augmenting their performance both for personal and professional reasons, including the longevity of their playing careers or the level of short-term performance improvements, if they’re not focusing on sleep, they’re naively missing potential benefits.”Essentially, Dr. Barot highlighted that athletes typically should prioritize three pillars when it comes to sleep: timing, quantity, and quality. In other words, make sure to get your 8+ hours, on a consistent schedule, and try to get “good” sleep. Dr. Barot talked about athletes who take scheduled naps on days before games to improve performance on game day. But the total quantity only goes so far. He emphasized that the quality of their sleep is often more important than the overall quantity, especially for athletes who may not know about unknown sleep disorders.
Physically Fit Athletes Have Different Warning SignsDr. Barot emphasized the importance of the quality of sleep that athletes get each night. He noted that athletes with sleep disordered breathing challenges often go unidentified when screened, as they don’t display typical warning signs.
“Athletes can sleep for 10 hours, on a regular schedule, and take a midday or pregame nap, but if during the course of that sleep, they are interrupted by sleep disordered breathing, a vastly under-recognized and poorly diagnosed condition among male athletes, then they’re not really necessarily optimizing the value and the power of ideal or healthy restful sleep,” said Dr. Barot.Put another way, if you sleep eight hours, but your breathing is interrupted, did you really get 8 hours of sleep? For Dr. Barot, the answer is no. And, for this elastic group of young athletes, it’s crucial to pay attention to other important clues as to patient health. Again, because athletes are more athletically conditioned, physically fit individuals, they may have more subtle signs of sleep disordered breathing. Dr. Barot encourages physicians to avoid assumptions and take the time to talk with athletes about their sleep.
“When you really look for those signs and zoom in on those clues, you can potentially empower your athletes to perform at a higher level, for a longer duration of time, and with a reduction in the incidents of injuries,” highlighted Dr. Barot.What more needs to be said? Sleep is the next big thing when it comes to sports performance enhancers. It’s time we get the word out.