Olympic athletes know sleep is important to doing your bestWhat does it take to medal in the Olympics? A good night’s sleep may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet Olympic athletes know it’s an ingredient in success.

Take US figure skater Jeremy Abbott, who admitted to thrashing a lot during his sleep. He slept poorly at the Vancouver Winter Olympics four years ago because he was worried about falling off a twin bed. This year, he took a queen-sized mattress to Sochi so he could sleep better.

Speed skater Lee Seung-hoon of Korea, on the other hand, was unlucky in sleep this time around. Lee won a silver medal in the men’s 5,000 meter in Vancouver but placed 12th in the event this year, attributing his disappointing finish to insomnia.

Different Responses to Sleep Loss

When you lose out on sleep—due to insomnia or for any other reason—it can handicap your performance the next day. But while some people are seriously compromised by sleep loss, others are remarkably resilient. Just as we humans differ in our ability to get to sleep and stay asleep at night, so we function differently after sleep deprivation, say Namni Goel and David Dinges. These researchers have identified some common genetic variants that play a role in determining who falls apart after pulling an all-nighter and who emerges unfazed.

Their research came about because of concerns voiced by scientists at NASA. Astronauts are susceptible sleep loss while traveling in space. Some are able to function and perform critical operational tasks just as well after a poor night’s sleep as after a good one. Other astronauts cannot function quickly or well when sleep deprived.

So Goel and Dinges embarked on a series of experiments. The healthy subjects of their research underwent first one night of total sleep deprivation followed by neurobehavioral testing, and, after recovering, a second night of sleep deprivation and testing. Some underwent a third night of sleep deprivation and testing. The subjects fell into three groups based on their performance of tasks involving mental and physical coordination:

1)    Those who consistently showed performance deficits when sleep deprived

2)    Those who showed amazing resistance to sleep loss

3)    Those whose performance fell somewhere in between.

All in the Genes

Goel and Dinges concluded that the way humans respond to sleep loss appears to be a stable trait. They then set about finding genetic markers that predicted their subjects’ response to sleep restriction. They identified five genes involved in sleep-wake, circadian, and cognitive regulation, whose common variations appear to protect some people from the negative effects of sleep loss and leave others in the lurch.

Moral of the story? We all need our sleep. But apparently some of us need it more than others if we’re to function at our best.

How does a bad night’s sleep affect you the next day? If you’ve noticed any impairments—physical, emotional, mental—what are they?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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