I admire athletes for their discipline and their dedication to their sport. But this story about a long-distance ultra-cycling event conducted basically without sleep is alarming. The Race Across America — considered to be the single toughest endurance contest in existence — sends competitors riding 3,000 miles across the continental United States in a matter of days. To finish successfully, cyclists must complete the race in 12 days or less, which means they must ride a minimum of 250 miles per day.
This year’s winner finished in eight days and eight hours, and averaged 400 miles of riding per day. How did he accomplish this? He essentially gave up sleep for the duration of the race. Christoph Strasser, a 28-year-old bike messenger, averaged slightly more than a single hour of sleep per night for the eight nights he was cycling. He rode the first 24 hours of the race before stopping to rest at all, at which point he took a 10-minute nap before getting back on his bike for another day of riding.
Athletes in this race and other ultra-sport endurance competitions face any number of dangers related to accidents and injuries. It is important to acknowledge another very real danger to these competitors: lack of sleep. There’s a tendency in our culture to applaud our ability to function without sleep, but the ability to force yourself to go without sleep is really nothing to celebrate. The consequences and risks of this kind of extreme sleep deprivation are serious:
- When the body is deprived of sleep, some regions of the brain begin to shut down. This will impair a person’s ability to process information, affecting everything from their judgment and perception to their reaction time, communication, and motor skills.
- As sleep deprivation progresses, delusional thinking, panic attacks, and hallucinations set in. Race for America winner Christoph Strasser acknowledged that by the final leg of his race, he had no idea where he was or why he was riding a bicycle!
- Sleep deprivation poses an increased risk of heart attack, even in people like these cyclists, who young, athletic and fit.
Obviously this ultra-cycling race is an extreme example of sleep deprivation and the dangers that accompany it. But you don’t need to be an endurance athlete to face dangers to your physical and mental health because of a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to a wide range of health problems, including:
Obesity. There is significant evidence that sleep-deprived people consume more calories and higher amounts of fat in their daily diets.
Diabetes. One study showed that 5 hours of sleep and sedentary lifestyle habits brought people to a pre-diabetic level in a matter of two weeks.
Cardiovascular problems. Research has shown that sleeping 5 hours or less per night is associated with a 39 percent increase in heart disease.
Migraines. Lack of sleep has been associated with these headaches and also with chronic pain.
Cancer. The link between cancer and sleep loss is still being explored, but there’s evidence to indicate that sleep may play a role.
These sleep-related health problems can and do develop over time, but it doesn’t take an extended period of sleep deprivation to begin to elevate your risk. A single night of sleep loss causes the body to release toxins that increase the risks of cancer and heart disease.
Remember, chronic sleep deprivation doesn’t come only as a result of insomnia. You can shortchange yourself on sleep night after night, without being fully aware of the problem. Here are some signs that may indicate you’re not getting enough sleep:
- Your nightly sleep falls outside the recommended 7-to-8-hour-per-night range.
- You wake feeling tired and sluggish, not refreshed.
- By mid-afternoon, you’re reaching for a caffeine-packed beverage or a sugary snack to keep you going.
- You struggle with your weight.
There are a handful of super sleepers out there — and some of them may be among these endurance athletes. But for most of us, athletes included, a full night’s sleep is critical to our health, in the short term and long term.
Let’s celebrate athletes for their exceptional talents and physical accomplishments — but let’s also make sure that sleep deprivation isn’t one of them.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
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