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Athletes Take Note: Sleeping More Can Give You a Competitive Edge

Story at-a-glance -

  • The gains achieved for athletes by sleeping more were equal to performance-enhancing drugs or years of additional training
  • Basketball players who increased sleep time from an average of 6.5 to 8.5 hours per night improved their free throw shooting by more than 11 percent
  • They also improved their three-point shooting scores and their sprint drill speed

By Dr. Mercola

Athletes, take note: if you want to optimize your athletic performance, be sure to get your zzz’s. As noted by The Atlantic:1

“Without proper sleep, whether it’s a short-term or long-term deficit, there are substantial effects on mood, mental and cognitive skills, and motor abilities. When it comes to recovery from hard physical efforts, there’s simply no better treatment than sleep, and a lot of it.”

Not surprisingly, sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on sports performance across the board, but certain types of athletes see a particularly marked drop in performance if they skimp on sleep.

The largest performance drop-offs can be seen among endurance athletes, and sports requiring quick reaction times and reflexes.

Non-athletes will also optimize their health and longevity by paying attention to the quality of their sleep. In fact, getting enough sleep appears to be key for aging well, and maintaining healthy brain and body into old age.

Competitive Athletes Get a Leg Up with More Sleep

To determine whether an athlete might gain a competitive edge simply by sleeping more, Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah reached out to The Cardinal’s men’s basketball team.

For two weeks, the players’ athletic performance was assessed after getting their normal amount of sleep. They were fitted with motion-sensing wristbands to determine the actual length of their sleep, which averaged in at a mere 6.5 hours per night.

Next, the players were asked to extend their sleep time as much as possible for five to seven weeks. The players increased their average sleep time by about two hours—to 8.5 hours nightly. As reported in the featured article:

“The results were startling. By the end of the extra-sleep period, players had improved their free throw shooting by 11.4 percent and their three-point shooting by 13.7 percent. There was an improvement of 0.7 seconds on the 282-foot sprint drill—every single player on the team was quicker than before the study had started.

A 13-percent performance enhancement is the sort of gain that one associates with drugs or years of training—not simply making sure to get tons of sleep. Mah’s research strongly suggests that most athletes would perform much better with more sleep...”

Unfortunately, extensive and hectic travel schedules usually make sleep hard to come by when you’re a competitive athlete. While not an ideal alternative to getting a solid night’s sleep, taking naps whenever possible can help.

For the majority of you though, who are not professional athletes, research like this shows just how important it is to get enough sleep. If athletes can improve their professional performance by sleeping more, the same will apply to “regular folks” as well.

The Importance of Staying in Sync with Nature

Maintaining a natural rhythm of exposure to sunlight during the day and darkness at night is one crucial foundational component of sleeping well. This was addressed in a previous interview with Dan Pardi, a researcher who works with the Behavioral Sciences Department at Stanford University and the Departments of Neurology and Endocrinology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Exposure to bright daylight synchronizes your master clock—a group of cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). These nuclei synchronize to the light-dark cycle of your environment when light enters your eye. You also have other biological clocks throughout your body, and those clocks subsequently synchronize to your master clock.

One reason why so many people get so little sleep, and/or such poor sleep, can be traced back to a master clock disruption. One lifestyle factor that can significantly hamper your sleep is spending the entire day indoors in an area with few or no windows.

That, combined with spending your evenings in too-bright artificial light, is a surefire way to get out of sync with the natural rhythm of daylight and nighttime darkness. The end result is difficulty falling or staying asleep when it’s time for bed, and persistent daytime sleepiness.

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Improve Your Sleep Hygiene with a Fitness Tracker

Getting enough sleep is really crucial to overall good health; I strongly recommend taking the matter seriously. While overuse of light-emitting technology is part of the problem, some gadgets can actually help you improve your sleep hygiene. We’re about to see an explosion of fitness trackers hitting the market, and I believe this can be a really good thing, provided you make good use of it.

There are already a few good ones available, but even better versions are sure to follow. The Apple Watch being launched next year is one example. Currently, one of the best is Jawbone’s Up32—it’s definitely among the most advanced fitness tracker to date. This lightweight wristband keeps track of a wide variety of data, including exercise, hydration levels, and REM sleep. The data collected can even tell you what activities led to your best sleep, and what factors resulted in poor sleep.

With this kind of data at hand, you can start making some really healthy choices. The Smart Coach will also remind you when it’s time to hit the sack. Besides tracking your sleep patterns, a fitness tracker can also inspire you to get enough movement into your day-to-day life.

A Fitness Tracker Can Help You Lead a More Active Lifestyle

Overwhelming evidence shows that prolonged sitting is an independent risk factor for chronic health problems and a shorter lifespan, so regularly getting off your chair is just as important as having a regular workout schedule. While some experts in this field recommend standing up at least 10 minutes out of every hour of sitting, I believe this may not be enough for optimal health. Personally, I now try to sit as little as possible. I strive to sit less than one hour per day, which is an achievable goal unless I’m travelling and am forced to sit in a plane or car.

Simply standing up has had the remarkable effect of “curing” my chronic back pain, which I’ve struggled with for many years. It would normally start after I’d walk or stand for more than 30 minutes, but since I reduced my sitting, the pain has essentially disappeared. 

Prior to this simple intervention, I’d tried four different chiropractors, posture exercises, Foundation Training, ab work, inversion tables, standing up every 15 minutes to stretch, and strength training. Yet the improvements were minimal. I’m still surprised I missed this important health principle for so long! Another recent epiphany I had is that most of us need to walk much more than we do. This is where a fitness tracker can be very helpful, as it allows you to objectively record how much you walk.

Most of us need about 7,000-10,000 steps a day, which is about four to five miles (6-9 km). Keep in mind that this is walking is in addition to, not in place of, your normal exercise program. If you can, consider walking barefoot, as this will help you get grounded—it’s even better if you can walk on the beach by the ocean. I believe the combination of high intensity training, non-exercise activities like walking 10,000 steps a day, along with avoiding sitting whenever possible is the key to being really fit and enjoying a pain free and joyful life. If you don't have a fitness tracker that records your steps and your sleep, I would encourage you to get one.

Beware of Sleeping Pills...

While most would not knowingly put their life on the line, you may be doing just that if you take sleeping pills. They’re simply NOT a viable alternative to synchronizing your sleep rhythm to the natural cycle of light and darkness... According to the statistics3 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, and nearly nine million Americans take prescription sleeping pills in pursuit of good night’s rest.

Unfortunately, the price you may end up paying for taking this “shortcut” could be higher than expected. A study4 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reveals that emergency room visits involving the sleep aid zolpidem nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010, reaching 42,274 visits in the year 2009-2010. Zolpidem is the active ingredient in sleep aids sold under brand names like Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, and Zolpimist. Polypharmacy—the use of multiple drugs—is part of the problem. In 57 percent of these overmedication cases, there were additional drugs involved:

  • In 26 percent of cases, zolpidem was combined with benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, etc.)
  • 25 percent involved a combination with narcotic pain relievers
  • Alcohol was also used in 14 percent of these emergency room visits

Sleeping Pill Use and Driving Can Be a Dangerous Mix

Recent research also shows that prescription drugs are involved in fatal car crashes at three times the rate of marijuana, and sleeping pills are among the drugs that could turn you into a danger on the road. Studies submitted to the FDA have revealed that blood levels of zolpidem above 50 ng/mL may impair your driving to a degree that increases the risk of an accident, especially among women. As a result, FDA recommended manufacturers cut the dosage of zolpidem from 10mg to 5mg for immediate-release products (Ambien, Edluar, and Zolpimist) and from 12.5 mg to 6.25 mg for extended-release products (Ambien CR).5

A 2013 CDC report6 also estimated that up to one-third of all fatal car crashes involve a drowsy driver, and daytime drowsiness is a very common side effect of sleeping pills. Other side effects associated with zolpidem include dizziness, hallucinations, agitation, and sleep-walking. It’s also important to realize that narcotic pain relievers and anti-anxiety drugs or sedatives can cause a dangerous enhancement of sleeping pills’ sedative effects.7 Sleeping pills have also been linked to a 35 percent increased cancer risk, along with a greatly increased risk of death from any cause.

Helpful Tips to Improve Your Sleep

My advice is to skip the medication and focus your attention on lifestyle changes that will allow you to get the best sleep possible. Remember, to sleep well, you need to have properly aligned circadian rhythms, and to achieve that, you need to get daylight exposure, ideally around solar noon, for a minimum of 30-60 minutes each day. In the evening, once the sun has set, dim all artificial light sources. In particular, you want to avoid the blue light wavelength.

Research shows that exposure to bright room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin production in 99 percent of individuals, which can rob you of sleep by preventing sleepiness. For night-time lighting, use blue-blocking light bulbs, dim your lights with dimmer switches and turn off unneeded lights, and if using a computer, install blue light-blocking software like f.lux.8 Also keep in mind that digital alarm clocks with blue light displays could have a detrimental effect. The following infographic, created by, illustrates how your electronic gadgets wreak havoc on your sleep when used before bedtime.9

Sleep Infographic

To optimize sleep you also need to make sure you’re going to bed early enough, because if you have to get up at 6:30am, you’re just not going to get enough sleep if you go to bed after midnight. Again, many fitness trackers can now track both daytime body movement and sleep, allowing you to get a better picture of how much sleep you’re actually getting. Chances are, you’re getting at least 30 minutes less shut-eye than you think, as most people do not fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. Besides maintaining a natural circadian rhythm as described above, there are a number of additional ways to help improve your sleep if you’re still having trouble. Below are five of my top guidelines for promoting good sleep. For a comprehensive sleep guide, please see my article 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep.

  1. Avoid watching TV or using your computer at night—or at least about an hour or so before going to bed. TV and computer screens emit blue light, similar to daylight. This tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion.
  2. Sleep in darkness. You don’t need to sleep in total darkness; the intensity of light has to be at a certain level (different levels depending on the spectrum) to suppress melatonin production. That said, complete darkness is probably best. I recommend covering your windows with blackout shades or drapes, or use an eye mask. Also avoid using night-lights, and cover up the display on your clock radio.
  3. Keep the temperature in your bedroom below 70°F. A reduction in core body temperature is a part of the sleep-initiation and sleep maintenance process. A room temperature that is too warm or too cool can prevent your core temperature from lowering to its ideal place for good sleep. Aim to keep your bedroom temperature between 60 to 68 degrees, and identify the best room temperature for you through trial and error.
  4. Take a hot bath or shower 30 minutes before bedtime. The hot bath increases your core body temperature, opening up the blood vessels in your limbs. When you get out of the bath, heat can leave your body easily (if the room temperature is cool), abruptly dropping your core body temperature, making you drowsy and ready for great sleep. Just be sure to filter your shower water as you can absorb more chlorine from breathing in a hot shower than you can by drinking chlorinated tap water all day.
  5. Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to shut down all power in your house. If electrical alarm clocks or other gadgets must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. Cell phones, cordless phones, and their charging stations should ideally be kept three rooms away from your bedroom to prevent exposure to harmful and sleep-disrupting electromagnetic fields (EMFs).