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Healthier young athletes: Too little sleep sabotages performance

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  • Healthier athletes, part 1: Nutrition
  • Healthier athletes, part 2: Vitamin D
  • Healthier athletes, part 3: Sleep


Call it a nightmare.

Athletes could put in all the extra work — lift, practice, run and eat right — and not see any results.

It happens when athletes disregard an important but often overlooked aspect of their overall health: sleep.

Experts know teens aren't getting enough of it. 

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep (every night) for teenagers. Less than 7 hours of sleep is not recommended.

OSS Health orthopedic surgeon Brian Bixler recently addressed the subject during a presentation at Red Lion Area High School earlier this year. 

"One of the most important things for young athletes is sleep hygiene, and we're messing with it like crazy," Bixler said.

• • •

For many young athletes, bedtime can be pushed later and later as they try to cram more activities into their after-school hours — not to mention tackling their school work. But experts also point to electronic devices as a reason why teens do not get as much sleep as they need.

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There's a physiological reason for that.

Darkness causes the pineal gland in the brain to release melatonin, which signals to the body it's time to sleep. Since the brain cannot differentiate between sunlight and the light from an electronic device, like a television or cellphone, someone using those devices at night can unwittingly delay the time they fall asleep.

So when teens tell their parents they are not tired at bedtime, it could be an honest answer if the light from the computer or cellphone has stopped their body's release of melatonin.

For many, however, evening activities at home revolve around electronic devices, whether it's completing homework on a computer, unwinding in front of the TV or reading social media. 

So how can we pry ourselves away from those devices that are quite literally keeping us awake at night? 

Wellspan Health's Dr. Mark Lavallee notes parents can tell children not to use electronic mobile devices, but he wonders if that's the right answer. He likens it to a parent placing slices of cake on the dining room table at night and merely telling a teenager not to eat it, then leaving the teen in the room for hours unsupervised.

"Let’s see how much cake is there in the morning," Lavallee said.

Perhaps the only answer is taking away a phone.

While that might sound like an overreaction, Bixler says it's not a stretch. Youth athletes should understand how important sleep is to their health. 

York County runner Dalton Hengst is attempting to run a sub-4-minute mile while still in high school. Yet, a difficult aspect of his everyday life at the Maryland boarding school McDonogh was finding a roommate willing to adhere to his 9 p.m. bedtime. 

"It is 100-percent imperative (for high school and college athletes) to get nine hours of sleep or even more, every single day," Bixler said, noting it helps performance but also injury prevention.

MORE ON RUNNING: York teen chases 4-minute mile

"It is during deep sleep when we manufacture growth hormone and (other hormones)," Bixler said. "Not only do we build muscle, but we repair soft tissue damage.

"During deep sleep we also consolidate memory and learning. Everything you can get better at, you get better when you sleep."​

• • •

Sleep deprivation can cause an athlete to feel off on the big day.

But it can cause other problems, notably with nutrition. A lack of sleep can lead to an increase in appetite and food cravings.

"Just from personal experience, think of the last time you didn't get a good night's sleep, you probably didn't eat well the next day," said author Greg Wells, who teaches kinesiology at the University of Toronto and trains elite athletes.

Weeks of detail to nutrition can go out the window when an athlete is not getting enough sleep night after night. 

But athletes have options: 

• They can change the brightness on cell phones in evening hours, something that can be scheduled on iPhones under settings and night shift. The apps "Night Shift: Blue Light Filter" and "Twilight" will alter lighting for android phones. 

• If they need to use devices, they can wear blue blocker sunglasses. The eyewear limits the amount of bright light that will suppress the body's melatonin production.  

• Better yet, they can avoid electronic devices in the hour or hours leading up to bed time. While white noise, like the whir of a fan, can aid in sleep, Bixler warns against depending on any electronic device that emits light to aid in sleep. "That's a habit, that's not natural," he said.

If all that sounds too restrictive, Wells said athletes should think about the other hardships they encounter in training. Athletes attempt to be efficient in the weight room and at the dinner table, and they should do the same with their sleep.

If athletes look at electronic devices at night, they create bad sleep habits and set themselves up for a sub-par performance. They shouldn't settle for tossing for hours before falling asleep every night, just like they wouldn't settle for wandering around a weight room for hours before beginning a workout.  

"It's all about being efficient," Wells said.

About the series

In a three-part series, the York Daily Record examines how youth athletes can improve their overall health. Find the stories at

In Part 1, we examine nutrition. (Sunday)

In Part 2, we examine the importance of vitamin D. (Monday)

In Part 3, we examine the importance of sleep.