You’ve always known that sleep is beneficial to your well-being because your high school health teacher told you that it was, and the idea makes sense—the more you sleep, the less tired you feel during the day. Sounds simple, right? But sleep, and how it impacts our body, is far more essential and nuanced than we initially thought.

“The studies done have catapulted sleep into this whole new area of awareness which many of us thought was common sense,” says Brandon Marcello, Ph.D., a high-performance specialist who has worked with Olympic and professional athletes. Marcello is the former director of Sports Performance at Stanford University, and was a recent guest on the Muscle & Fitness podcast, Reps. “If your opponent is not fatigued and you are, you may be more talented, but you’re going to be at a disadvantage.”

Turns out, it’s a major disadvantage. According to a Stanford University study, which Marcello refers to as the Stanford Basketball Sleep Study, 11 basketball players were instructed to get a minimum of 10 hours of rest per night for five weeks. After five weeks of optimal rest, the ballers recorded faster sprint times, a 9% increase in free throw accuracy, and a 9.2% increase in three-pointers made. Marcello points to another study where 24-year-old men who got five hours of sleep per night had the testosterone levels of a 40-year-old after just one week.

Logging less than six hours of sleep per night also cuts your cancer-fighting cells in half, lowers your libido, and prevents your brain from clearing itself of cellular debris.

“I’m sure over time that there’s some long term damage, but to what extent? I’m not sure,” Marcello says. “What I tell my athletes is that sleep doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to have the best game of your life…but it stacks the odds in your favor.”


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Pay Your Debt

Whenever you stay late at work or watch “just one more” episode of Law & Order, your body keeps track of those lost hours of sleep and accrues what Marcello calls “sleep debt.”

If you need eight hours and you only get six, then you owe your body two hours. (Marcello notes that it’s not an exact 1:1 ratio of hours needed to hours owed, but it’s easier to understand.) The theoretical ceiling to sleep debt is 50 hours, and it takes a while to pay back. Also, there’s no surefire way to tell if you owe your body hours in the sack, but Marcello has a trick:

“If after lunch, say between noon and 3:00 pm, you start to nod off and need a stimulant to stay awake—you have a sleep debt,” he says. “The stronger the urge, the more debt you have, and it’s not your lunch that makes you sleepy. Studies have shown that up to 47 dietary combinations were not the cause of post-lunch drowsiness—sleep debt was.”

According to Marcello, there are four significant barriers preventing you from getting quality Z’s—light, sound, temperature, and pain. He’s how to conquer each.

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