Sleep: The New Gatorade

I think the sleep revolution is one major endorsement away from exploding into popular culture. The foundation is in place. We just need one athlete to speak out about how he or she considers sleep to be a cornerstone for success.
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It is a ubiquitous image: a sideline shot of any college football game. Exhausted players scramble to encourage their teammates, listen to last-second instructions from their coaches, and prepare themselves mentally for the last few plays of the game that will decide who jogs off the field victorious. In each case, while the team colors vary, there are two colors that are constant in almost every scenario -- the green and orange of the Gatorade cup.

In 1965, Dr. Robert Cade and his team of physicians set out to determine why players on the University of Florida's football team were running out of steam late in games. They figured out that losing hydration and electrolytes with sweating as well as consuming their carbohydrate stores led to their performance decline. Through this investigation, Gatorade was born.

The idea of sport-specific hydration would gain in popularity over the next several years as more and more athletes and teams came to accept the idea that replacing lost fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates in a thoughtful way could significantly boost performance. Today, the idea of an athlete not properly hydrating himself prior to or during a game is as preposterous as a player smoking a cigarette on the bench.

Since Gatorade was introduced almost five decades ago, we have come a long way when it comes to doing what is right for our bodies. Both professional athletes and weekend warriors alike hydrate themselves silly with any number of sport drinks, electrolyte-enhanced waters, gels, blocks, or jelly beans. Gatorade and similar products can be purchased at any grocery store, gas station, hardware store, or vending machine. Beyond athletes, these specialized hydration drinks are used by other laborers as well as the public in general.

We have fully embraced the ideas of hydration and proper nutrition. The revolution has come, and what was once radical is now mainstream. What was the advantage of a few is now in the hands of many. Sure, there will be variants and nuance when it comes how we achieve our proper nutrition and hydration balance, but this is largely academic (and clever marketing). So what will be the next big performance revolution?

In roughly the same time period since Gatorade was introduced, the average adult has somehow lost an hour of sleep every night, no doubt struggling to determine which electrolyte goo flavor is right for them to make up for it. As a sleep specialist, I am face-to-face with daily reminders of how dysfunctional sleep or inadequate sleep can dramatically impair an individual's ability to perform at their best. We all have had the experience of a bad night of sleep. Perhaps you have even pulled an "all-nighter" cramming for an exam or desperately trying to meet some work deadline. It is no secret that our functioning level the following day is less than optimal.

So with fitness beverages and sports drinks the accepted norm, why hasn't "sport sleep" caught fire? Perhaps it is because sleep science is still considered fringe research by many, including professional sports organizations. Maybe there is a stubborn reluctance to admit that going out at night after the game and dragging into the clubhouse the following day is still a part of sport culture that the establishment is not ready to give up. Let's face it: The image of the professional athlete that makes sure he is in bed early so he gets plenty of sleep does not fit with the rockstar image we have come to associate with star athletes.

Times may be changing, though. Some researchers believe that if an athlete's sleep is ignored, he is at a huge disadvantage -- perhaps on par with performing while intoxicated.[1] Premier European soccer leagues routinely employ sleep scientists to ensure their players are resting optimally and deriving as much performance and recovery benefit from their slumber as possible. Domestically, more and more attention is being paid to the schedule and sleep of players to make sure that the millions clubs have invested in these players are protected. Enhanced sleep environments are sought in travel situations, napping practices are more defined, and even dietary considerations in terms of how food affects sleep are being addressed behind the scenes.

So if you are not a New York Jets fan, why does it matter that head coach Rex Ryan announced early in the NFL season that his team would be seeking help from a sleep specialist? It matters because when the countless number of people who are missing an hour of sleep every night see that Tim Tebow's team cares about sleep, they will care too. My medical school diploma, neurology residency certificates, and sleep fellowship board certifications are nice and may help me convince a patient or client to sleep more. These things pale in comparison to the news that your favorite athlete or team has decided to prioritize their sleep so that they can be their best.

In 1967, The University of Florida beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Orange Bowl, after which Bud Carson -- the losing coach -- explained the loss by saying, "We didn't have Gatorade. That made the difference." I think the sleep revolution is one comment like this away from exploding into popular culture. The foundation is in place. We just need one athlete to speak out about how he or she considers sleep to be a cornerstone for success. After that, it's just a matter of time before we look back on the days where athletes, both professional and otherwise, did not prioritize sleep with the same disbelief as when we look back at ads where star athletes promoted cigarettes.

For more by Dr. Christopher Winter, click here.

For more on sleep, click here.


[1] Manfredini R, Manfredini F, Fersini C, Conconi F. "Circadian Rhythms, Athletic Performance, and Jet Lag." British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1998; 32:101-6

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