The science of sleep

“For me, sleeping well could mean the difference between putting up 30 points and living with 15.”

-Steve Nash

Good sleep is crucial.

An NBA blogger on assignment in Boston who tossed and turned on his cousin’s air mattress the night before and so got barely a wink of it can tell you that. So can Stephan Fabregas.

“Scientifically speaking, a single night without sleep is the equivalent to being legally drunk, and if you’re getting four or five hours a night, every night”—Fabregas, who seems really well rested, demonstrates a sharp downward slope with his hand—“your performance goes like that.”

Fabregas is a research scientist with ZEO—a company that’s developed a headband device users wear in the comfort of their own bed that measures sleep architecture, analyzes it, and translates it to a simple sleep score. He and ZEO are of the mind that improved sleep quality can significantly improve physical and cognitive performance—to say nothing of general well being—and so has broad application in the wide world of sports.

The science has their back.

Sleep, or a lack of it, profoundly depresses mood, memory, strength, speed, muscle tissue repair, immune function, and a laundry list of other systems. And, professional athletes, he added, are often more affected than the general population by sleep disorders.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

“They’re traveling from city to city, so they have no regular sleep schedule. They have no regular performance schedule either: sometimes they’re asked to perform at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, sometimes they’re asked to perform at night. On the other end of that, after a game stops they’re up partying all night and then they have to get up in the morning.”

In addition to the lifestyle factors that cause sleep issues in athletes, their superb conditioning can, counterintuitively, affect their sleep as well. Body mass index is, independent of body fat ratio, a contributor to sleep apnea. In other words, the more muscle an athlete carries—we’re looking at you here LeBron—the more likely they are to suffer sleep disordered breathing and the many complications it triggers.

This isn’t a fact the sporting world is ignorant to. But despite the reality that improving athlete’s sleep often requires just a few simple fixes (cutting caffeine, lowering bedroom temperature, etc.) diagnosing the problem is tricky: getting a good measure of sleep quality usually requires an overnight stay in a sleep lab for a polysomnography—and so often goes undone. Enter ZEO.

“Every time I have this conversation with a player or a coach, when I say, ‘Look, here’s how important sleep is to what you’re doing and here’s how we can help,’ they say, ‘I get it. I get it. How much does it cost?”

Jarrod Shoemaker, a US triathlete, measures sleep quality fanatically. He claims to have gotten his highest sleep score the night before he won the US National Championship.This comes as no surprise to Fabregas.

“Every time I watch a game and a player makes a mistake, everybody goes, ‘What was he thinking about?’” said the scientist. “I’m just wondering how much sleep he got last night.”

Tom Sunnergren writes for Philadunkia. Follow them on Twitter (@Philadunkia).