For some time, sleep has been occupying a subordinate position in most of our lives. The assumption that it can be made up for later in the week or month is a popular belief. More often than not, sleep is being sacrificed for more important things - like performance. Top-performing athletes, however, beg to differ. They have long since realized that sleep is indeed a key for achieving superior results.
For this reason, the team behind Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport has started working together with experts on the topic of sleep and recovery. Following their collaboration with Hintsa Performance and Professor Steven Lockley, the whole team is sticking to individual sleep plans, enabling them to get the best out of their hectic schedule (often including several different time zones per week) and avoiding jet lag. Besides going to bed at fixed times, the team further pays attention to exposure to light, the use of caffeine, mealtimes and more.
Why is sleep more important than we think?
According to Prof. Lockley, nobody knows why we sleep, but the biological and psychological aspects that are linked to the recovery we experience during sleep make it highly important - a key component of wellness and ability to perform. While today's increasingly 24/7 society forces us to make time for work, family and other social pressures, getting a minimum of 7 hours of sleep should be made an absolute priority. Long work hours, chronic caffeine and exposure to the glow of computer or mobile screens late into the night are familiar to many, but only few are aware of the implications of a lack of sleep in the short and long run. Throwing off the body clock, or circadian rhythm, as is done frivolously can lead to far more than sleep problems, including an increased risk of developing diabetes, depression, obesity and even some forms of cancer.
The importance of Light
The key to controlling our circadian rhythm is light – it suppresses melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Functioning as a natural time cue, it resets the clock inside the brain on a daily basis, in order to stay synchronized with the 24-hour day. Besides our sleep and wake cycle, this clock is also involved in our mood, alertness and performance, and it influences our hormones and heart rate, among other functions. It is for this influence that light has on us that our sleep has been additionally manipulated in modern times: With the introduction of electric light, we stopped falling asleep shortly after dusk. Today's heavy use of electronic devices during the day and especially in the evening is further responsible for our lack of sleep: the blue light emitted by electronic screens suppresses the production of melatonin.
The significance of light has a different consequence to blind individuals – many of them suffer from a condition called "Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder", caused by the inability to synchronize with the natural cycle of about 24 hours. The disorder brings about difficulties to sleep, resulting in a condition that feels like a never-ending jet lag.
Fighting jet lag
The mechanism responsible for jet lag is a shift of the sleep-wake and light-dark cycle too quickly for the body clock to keep up with. There's no miracle cure for jet lag, but following a couple of rules can help a lot in minimizing the implications that changing time zones has on us. The most important thing is to plan ahead, like Mercedes-AMG Petronas does. The right planning enables the team to shift their inner clock about 3 hours a day - without the program, they would only be able to shift it 1 hour per day. Depending on the direction of the trip, again, light exposure plays an important role. And so, when travelling westward, the inner clock needs to be delayed later. To do this, it's recommended to see light later in the evening and go to bed later than usual a few days prior to departure. When travelling eastward on the other hand, the clock needs to be advanced earlier by going to bed earlier a few nights before leaving and seeing light in the morning in order to shift on to the new time.
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Dr. Steven Lockley
Dr. Steven Lockley is part of these experts. He is a Neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School.