Importance of Sleep for Athletes and Adults

In a technology-filled society that operates around the clock, sleep has become a scarce commodity. Rather than recharging their bodies’ energy systems with adequate rest, millions of Americans are choosing to work or entertain themselves – despite the well-known fact that humans need 7-9 hours of sleep every night. However, a lack of sleep may be more harmful than the most people realize. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, cravings, poor job and athletic performance, illness, and possibly even mortality. Choosing to operate a daily lifestyle centered on a healthy sleep pattern may be the missing link which holds back many people from achieving goals of successful athletic or workplace performance.

There are two types of sleep deprivation that can occur as a result of poor sleeping habits: acute or chronic deprivation. An acute sleep deficit is defined as a period of one night, or several nights, without sleep or with impaired sleep.[1] Chronic sleep deprivation is a more serious condition consisting of prolonged sleep loss over the course of weeks, months, or years.[2] According to David P. White, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, it is possible to make up for acute sleep deprivation, “but we don’t know what happens when people are chronically sleep-deprived over years.”[3] One or two nights of additional sleep can make up for acute deprivation, but for a chronic case of sleep deprivation it can take two or three weeks of extra nightly sleep to recover.[4] Because of the potential dangers of total sleep deprivation studies, little is known about severe chronic sleep deficits in humans, but in lab studies, sleep-deprived rats die within a matter of weeks.[5]

Sleep deprivation is concerning to athletes of all ages, but especially to young athletes. Many high school and college athletes regularly sacrifice sleep for a variety of reasons, from partying to studying, or binge-watching Netflix to searching for jobs. Through the demands of athletics, academics, and the social sphere, many young people choose to sacrifice their sleep during critical developmental stages. One study showed that an acute sleep deprivation in young men can lower testosterone levels and increase the chance of contracting type 2 diabetes.[6] Research shows that proper sleep habits are essential to the success of an athlete, and that sleep may be the single best recovery strategy for athletes.[7]

For the general population, both acute and chronic sleep deprivation may be a significant contributing factor in the rising obesity epidemic in the United States.[8] One study showed that an acute sleep deprivation leads to increased food purchasing in men.[9] Yet another study displayed an increased response in the brain to food stimuli while sleep-deprived.[10] Even general safety is a concern while sleep deprived, as going longer than 17 hours without sleeping can be equivalent to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10%.[11]

Improving sleep habits is one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective ways to improve performance and overall well-being, for athletes and for the general population. Making small sacrifices in order to get at least seven hours of sleep nightly will pay off in the long run, as you will feel more alert, rested, happy, and energetic. When a period of chronic or acute sleep deprivation occurs, make deliberate choices to help your body recover from that deficit, through extra sleep at night or daytime naps. Promote a culture of healthy sleep among immediate family, relatives, and friends. Intentionally spend one third of your life asleep, so that the other two thirds can be enjoyed to the fullest!


Written by:

Caleb McKusick - Strength and Conditioning Intern



[1] Doghramji K. Waking up to sleep deprivation: important definitions. Medscape Neurology. 2005; 7(1).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Lambert C. “Deep into sleep.” Harvard Magazine. 2005.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Rechtschaffen A, and Bergmann B. Sleep deprivation in the rat by the disk-over-water method. Behavioral Brain Research. 1995; 69(1-2): 55-63.
[6] Reynolds A, Dorrian J, Lui P, et al. Impact of five nights of sleep restriction on glucose metabolism, leptin and testosterone in young adult men. PLoS ONE. 2012; 7(7): 1-10.
[7] Halson S. Nutrition, sleep and recovery. European Journal of Sport Science. 2008; 8(2): 119-126.
[8] Copinschi G. Metabolic and endocrine effects of sleep deprivation. Essential Psychopharmacology. 2005; 6(6): 341-347.
[9] Chapman C, Nilsson E, Nilsson V, et al. Acute sleep deprivation increases food purchasing in men. Obesity. 2013; 21(12): E555-E560.
[10] Benedict C, Brooks SJ, O’Daly OG, et al. Acute sleep deprivation enhances the brain’s response to hedonic food stimuli: an fMRI study. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012; 97(3): E443-7.
[11] Williamson A, and Feyer A. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med. 2000; 57(10): 649–655.