The Importance Of Sleep

Whats good friends! Welcome back for another edition of The Nerdy Athlete. Like always, I want to take a second to say THANK YOU to everyone who read last week’s entry, and to everyone who is here reading this right now. I hope I was able to answer some of y’all’s questions about BCAAs last week. This week’s topic is one that was requested on my Instagram a few weeks back. As promised, this week we are focusing on the importance of sleep, and its role in our cognitive and physical health. Let me just say that this was honestly a really fun one to write, and I’m excited to share it with you guys. Lets get to it!

Siri: Define “Sleep”

I may be a little biased but I simply think that sleep is the best thing ever, and I am positive that a large percentage of you guys agree with me hahah. Sleep is the shit. How many days have you caught yourself staring at the clock while at work or while studying in the library and thought “Damn I cannot wait to get home and knock out”? I would guess an uncountable number of times if you are anything like me lol. Since we all sleep every night, we all know what sleep is, but just to get technical, lets take a look at the definition of sleep. Webster’s dictionary defines sleep as “the natural, easily reversible periodic state of many living things that is marked by the absence of wakefulness and by the loss of consciousness of one's surroundings, is accompanied by a typical body posture (such as lying down with the eyes closed), the occurrence of dreaming, and changes in brain activity and physiological functioning, is made up of cycles of non-REM sleep and REM sleep, and is usually considered essential to the restoration and recovery of vital bodily and mental functions” (Sleep 2020). So, in other words, sleep is exactly what the hell you thought it was hahaha. There are four stages of sleep that make up the sleep cycle: 3 stages of Non-REM (NREM) and 1 stage of REM sleep. For our purposes today, before we get into the importance of sleep, I want to be sure we all have an understanding of the differences between REM and Non-REM sleep.


First things first, let it be known that REM is an acronym for rapid eye movement; therefore, NREM is a state of the sleep cycle in which your eyes are not moving rapidly (What are REM and Non-REM Sleep 2005). There are three stages of NREM sleep:

  • Stage 1: From Awake to Asleep

The first stage of NREM sleep is the simple transition from being awake to falling sleep. This stage lasts about 10 minutes and consists of a very light sleep - you can be very easily woken up during this stage.

  • Stage 2: Deep Sleep Prep

In the second stage of NREM sleep, your body begins to prep itself for NREM deep sleep. Your muscles begin to relax, your body temperature lowers and your heart rate significantly decreases from waking levels.

  • Stage 3: NREM Deep Sleep

The third and last stage of NREM sleep is deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep. In this stage, your brain begins to produce delta waves, which are associated with deep sleep. Dreams are more likely to occur in this stage of NREM sleep; however, dreams that occur in this stage are typically less memorable than dreams that occur in REM sleep. It’s rather hard to wake someone up during this stage, and if you are woken up during this stage, it is typical to feel briefly confused and disoriented.

REM Sleep

REM sleep typically begins about 90 after you fall asleep, and typically lasts for about 10 minutes (Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep | National Institute of Nuerological Disorders and Stroke 2019). During REM sleep, your eyes begin to twitch and move rapidly, as opposed to NREM sleep in which your eyes don’t move. In the REM phase, your breathing becomes irregular, and your heart rate raises to near waking levels. Most of or dreams occur during the REM phase of sleep. Because of this, when we enter our REM stage, our body temporarily “paralyzes” or limbs to prevent us from acting out our dreams. As we age, we begin to spend less and less of our time in REM sleep. For example, when babies spend about 50% of their sleep in REM, while adults spend about 20% of their sleep in REM (Sleep 2005).

Why is Sleep Important?

Alright now that we have an understanding of the sleep cycle, lets get to the meat and potatoes of this week’s entry. There are literally a billion things we could talk about regarding the importance of sleep; however, I want to focus on how sleep affects two things:

  • Cognitive Health


Cognitive Health

A lack of sleep causes significant impairments in cognitive performance and behavior (Ellenbogen 2005). I know each and every one of you has gone about your day after a shitty night of sleep and just felt like an idiot all day hahaha. Feeling slow, having trouble comprehending things, mood swings, etc. We’ve all been there and we’ve all experienced first hand how poor sleep can have a negative effect on our sharpness the following day. That is no coincidence mate! There are literally thousands upon thousands of studies in the literature demonstrating time and time again how poor sleep has a significant negative effect on alertness. That decrease in mental sharpness can truly impact people’s day to day lives, and cause them to make costly mistakes.

When looking at nursing residency interns (who were typically working 24+ hour shifts), a study conducted by Landrigan et al., (2005) found that residency interns working 24+ hour shifts were 36% more likely to make a serious medical mistake than the intervention group of the study who worked significantly less hours per week. Think about that - the interns who were working 24+ hour shifts were 36% MORE LIKELY TO COMMIT A SERIOUS MEDICAL MISTAKE. These are mistakes that could potentially cost a patient more time in the hospital, or quite literally cost them their life. All due to a lack of adequate sleep… how crazy is that? Now I know that not all of us are in a position with such great risk like working with sick patients everyday; however, I do know that ALL of us cannot afford to be making costly mental mistakes all day regardless of our occupation/duties. I love this study because it demonstrates a real world example of how detrimental a lack of sleep can be on cognitive performance, and brings it into perspective for people. I mean come on, nobody wants to have medical care from a provider who is 36% more likely to make a serious medical mistake lmfao.

Sleep also plays a huge role in the development and improvement of memory (SCL Health). Even when knocked clean out after a long day of work, the brain is still hard at work thumbing through all of the information it absorbed throughout the day. The brain works to consolidate and store memories from the previous day while asleep, and poor sleep can result in our brain either storing information incorrectly (creating false memories), or simply not storing the information at all. Whether it be information from your textbook, a new skill you are trying to learn, or even simply a classmates name, it is imperative to everyday life that our memory serves us well daily.


Now, here is what we’ve all been waiting for!! Let me start of by saying this: when it comes to gains and recovery, SLEEP IS A CHEAT CODE. Let me explain a bit more in depth what I mean by that. During NREM sleep, the endocrine system releases an increased amount of growth hormone from the pituitary gland (Nédélec et al. 2015). Why is the important? Well, growth hormone is what fuels our childhood growth, but also helps to repair our muscles and ultimately increase our muscle mass (Bancos et al. 2018). A majority of muscle recovery happens during sleep due to the increased levels of growth hormone in the system, which means that creating a habit of poor sleep can and will inhibit the gains an individual is trying to make in the gym. The industry has always been rather focused on quick tricks and supplements to catalyze muscle growth, when the reality is there should be an equal (if not more) emphasis on how much sleep an individual is getting.

Wanting to look at how restricted sleep affects the muscle synthesis process following strenuous exercise, Datilla et al. (2011) conducted a study in which they grouped individuals into two groups: a group that slept 5.5 hours each night and a group that slept 8.5 hours each night. They found that individuals who slept only 5.5 hours had 60% less muscle mass at the end of the study, while those who slept 8.5 hours each night had 40% more muscle mass. Thats crazy!! The results of this study not only again demonstrate how important sleep is to the muscle synthesis process, but they even suggest a possibility that a pattern of restricted sleep can ultimately lead to a decrease in muscle mass. As far as why that is, I’m not entirely sure. I hypothesize that maybe since the muscle synthesis process is disrupted during restricted sleep, the rate of muscle degradation during that fasting period is higher than the rate of muscle synthesis, causing a decrease in muscle mass over time. But again, just a hypothesis lol.

Poor sleep can also severely affect an individual’s athletic performance, and there are multiple studies in the literature to demonstrate that. In a study that followed 42 netball athletes during annexational competition, using wrist actigraphy and sleep diaries to track sleep, it was found that first and second placed teams showed significantly greater sleep than the bottom two placed teams, and a strong inverse correlation was observed between sleep duration and tournament placing (Juliff et al. 2018). There is definitely something to take away from this study; however, it is also important to note that correlation does not equal causation. Also, many of the studies on the affect of sleep on athletic performance are done in the context of team sports rather than individual performances, so it is hard to generalize these results to individual athletes.

As stated earlier, poor sleep can inhibit the brain’s ability to consolidate and store memories. Athletes are constantly learning new motor skills and movement patterns as they progress through their respective sport. Poor sleep can affect how the brain consolidates and stores those motor skills, ultimately causing an athlete to take a longer time to master those motor skills (Stickgold and Walker 2007). As an athlete, that is simply not going to get the job done. Elite athletes who are focused on their goals cannot afford to risk inhibiting their ability to stack motor skills, since the movements required for their respective sport are typically complex movements. Athletes want to give themselves every competitive advantage possible (within the rules of course), and the ability to properly consolidate and store motor skills and movement patterns in the memory while sleeping is a massive advantage that is relatively easy to adopt.

Wrap It Up

Like I was saying, proper sleep is a damn CHEAT CODE. Maybe I’m projecting a little bit, but after reading this I feel like we can all a better job at making sure we are getting enough sleep. In order to keep ourselves feeling mentally sharp and to maximize our gains/recovery, it is recommended that 7-9 hours of sleep each night (CDC 2017). Just to recap, Sleep is important because it:

  • Improves our cognitive performance and behavior (Ellenbogen 2005)

  • Improves our brain’s ability to consolidate and store memories (SCL Health)

  • Causes an increase in growth hormone secretion, resulting in muscle growth and recovery (Nédélec et al. 2015)

  • Improves athletic performance (Juliff et al. 2018)

With all that being said, make sure you are getting enough sleep!! ITS A CHEAT CODE!!!!

Now look, I am 100% positive I left some stuff out and missed some things, so if there’s something you’re curious about, ask!! I hope I was able to answer any questions you may have had about sleep and really emphasize how important it is. I appreciate each and everyone one of you who made it this far! Thank you again for rockin’ with me. Happy Monday. Go attack the week! #CCTS #TheNerdyAthlete

Next Week's Topic:

The Importance of Stretching and Foam Rolling

Works Cited

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Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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