Sleep disorders are so painfully common among the general population, but there’s one demographic that suffers significantly more than the rest of us: athletes. A new study from Finland has some good news for this group, though. Researchers say that for the first time ever, they’ve shown just how treatable sleep disorders among athletes really are.
For the study, now published online in the Journal of Sports Sciences , researchers from the University of Eastern Finland had 107 professional athletes take a survey about their general sleep patterns. The survey revealed that one in four of the athletes involved in the study suffered from significant sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep, snoring, and issues with breathing, such as sleep apnea. Most of the athletes surveyed admitted to sleeping too few hours and one in six used sleeping pills.
Athletes who suffered from notable sleeping disorders were referred to a sleep specialist for an examination and an individualized treatment plan. Although many of the athlete’s sleep troubles were classified as “significant” the study showed that general sleep-related guidance and personalized treatment plans greatly improved their sleep, follow-up visits one, three, four, and 12 months later found.
The treatment plans were based on each athlete's specific sleep difficulty. Athletes who experienced general breathing difficulties at night — a condition that has been linked to being overweight/obese — were given advice on how to avoid weight gain. They were also taught more effective breathing techniques for sleeping. Meanwhile, those with insomnia were given melatonin and taught certain stretches to do before bed.
Sleep disorders among professional athletes are a widely recognized problem, and researchers have suggested a variety of issues that might cause them. Intense training, rigorous schedules, and frequent traveling across time zones are only some factors that may disrupt sleep patterns, The Huffington Post reported.
Lack of sleep can reduce performance quality, though, and as many as one in four athletes involved in the study reported that sleep-related guidance helped to improve their athletic performance. Aside from affecting how good someone is at their sport, lack of sleep can also have serious health consequences. For example, disrupted sleep patterns can often raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn interferes with the microbes in our gut, depleting populations and making them less diverse. This slows down our metabolism and can lead to weight gain.
A study released earlier this year also found that poor sleep may increase risk of developing type 2 diabetes . The study analyzed self-reports from more than 6,000 women with type 2 diabetes over the course of a decade and determined that having trouble sleeping increased the risk of developing this condition by an alarming 45 percent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , more than a quarter of the U.S. population reports occasionally not getting enough sleep, and about 10 percent of the population experiences chronic insomnia. In addition to health problems, the agency also credits lack of sleep with a higher rate of car- and machinery-related accidents, which cause a vast amount of injuries and disabilities each year.
Lead researcher Henri Tuomilehto said his results further highlight the need to study sleep deprivation among athletes. “Solid research evidence of the adverse effects of sleeping disorders on our health and our ability to function exists,” he said in a statement , “and this calls for action."
Source: Tuomilehto H, Vuorinen VP, Pennttila E, et al. Sleep of professional athletes: Underexploited potential to improve health and performance. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2016