How The Olympics Messes With Your Sleep (And What To Do About It)

Olympic fever is about to descend. The 2012 opening ceremonies on Friday will kick off 17 days packed with 3,147 events and 304 gold medals.

The only hitch? The timing. With events starting as early as 4 a.m. Eastern time (that's 1 a.m. Pacific), the 200 million Americans expected to tune in for at least some of the Games could find themselves at risk for serious sleep problems. Those on the East Coast will be setting the alarm for early wake up calls to catch their favorite sports (especially 9 to 5-ers for whom this might be the only time to watch the Olympics), while those on the West Coast will be burning the midnight oil.

"We want to support our Olympians. We want to be there at 5 a.m. watching," says Michael Decker, Ph.D., an associate professor at Georgia State University and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "But unlike Olympic athletes that are used to getting up at 5 a.m. and working out, we're not."

And the inevitable result will be sleep loss, which can affect daytime performance and, over the long term, our health in very profound ways.

When sleeping, we cycle through five stages, the first of which are called stages one through four, with REM sleep being the fifth and final stage, explains Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., HuffPost blogger and author of "The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan." Each cycle takes about 90 minutes, and the average person should go through about five of them over the course of the night (that adds up to seven and a half hours). But the purpose and significance of each stage changes through the night -- while the physically restorative early stages happen more frequently at the beginning of our sleep process, the mentally restorative REM sleep happens more often in the later cycles.

And missing out on that REM sleep by waking up after, say, four hours of rest can mean that while you're physically functioning, your cognitive performance is paying the price, making you more forgetful and, ultimately, less productive. On top of that, feeling tired can lead to poor eating choices the day after. And, over time, you can develop bad sleeping habits that remain far past the Olympics -- and too little rest can ultimately lead to problems with memory, mood, weight, cardiovascular health and immune function, to name a few.

The best solution, according to all the experts who spoke to HuffPost on the topic, is technology.

"It's called a TiVo," Breus jokes. "Use it."

Joe Ojile, M.D., founder and CEO of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, Missouri and a board member of the National Sleep Foundation, agrees that taping or DVRing is your best bet. "If an event is on at 4 a.m., can't you really watch it at 6?"

But for die-hard fans, for whom nothing but live will do, there are a few ways to be both well-rested and a loyal fan. One short-term solution is to start by mapping out just a couple of days when you really want to be up at an odd hour, and then stock up on shuteye in advance.

"We want to accumulate at least three nights of sleep if we can," Decker says. "If we can get a good eight hours of sleep the nights before the event, then one or two nights of reduced sleep is not going to have a big impact."

If you're up early, try to capture some bright light for a few minutes first thing to signal to your brain that it's time to be awake -- a light therapy machine or good old-fashioned sunshine will do the trick. And if you're watching an event late at night, remember that your brain won't immediately flip the switch from an excitement-packed game on a bright 60-inch television to falling asleep -- Ojile suggests scheduling time to wind down in between. A short nap -- 30 minutes to an hour tops, and not too close to bedtime -- can also help to boost your total sleep hours for the day, he says.

And if you still end up warping your sleep schedule to accommodate the Olympics, the result could be a case of social jet lag, where your internal clock is shifted without actually traveling a bit -- or, in this case, what Breus calls "Olympic jet lag."

"What we're doing is re-synchronizing our circadean rhythms ... You're teaching your brain to be on Greenwich Mean Time, yet the rest of our body has to survive on Eastern Standard Time in the United States," Decker says. "Getting up that early in the morning when we're not used to it has the same impact of going across different time zones."

The best way to realign your clock is to practice some basic sleep hygiene -- if you've pushed your clock forward by staying up late, expose yourself to bright light first thing in the morning. If you've done the opposite and pushed your clock back, seek out that light in the late afternoon, Ojile says.

Set a regular wake time and stick to it in the days following the Olympics, avoid drinking caffeine in the late afternoon and make sure your bedroom is cool and dark, Decker adds. Altering your sleep schedules can sometimes trigger insomnia, causing you to awaken before you should -- a sleep mask and ear plugs can assist in re-training the brain.

Ultimately, Breus explains, it should take your body about the same amount of time to readjust after the Olympics as it would if you'd actually traveled to London -- about one day per time zone, or hour, difference. But whatever you do, don't cope by loading up on caffeine, which will only mask the problem and lead to a host of long-term health issues.

"You can't fool mother nature," he says.