Sleep Quality May Be More Important Than Duration

By Jiri Kaloc

Studies show that poor sleep increases your risk of getting ill. But what exactly does it mean to sleep poorly? Is it enough to get 7 hours of sleep a night or is the quality of your sleep the thing to focus on? A new study shines some light on that question.

Athletes often struggle with sleep

Getting good sleep as an athlete is hard. Early sessions steal the morning hours in bed and late evening training makes it harder to fall asleep. Athletes, of course, have to juggle all of the other obligations and responsibilities on top of exercise too. If there’s too much to do, sleep is usually the thing that gives. As if the time pressure wasn’t enough, hard training itself can create extra stress that impacts sleep. Unfortunately, research shows that adults who habitually get fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night are more susceptible to respiratory infections.

Sleep affects your immune health

There’s nothing worse than missing a week of training because of an illness. That’s why researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK decided to investigate the relationship between sleep and immune health. They studied more than 1,300 army recruits who went through a 12-week training programme. The recruits were asked about their sleep habits before they joined the training and the researchers then divided them into two groups.

  • Those who slept their usual number of hours during the 12-week training
  • Those who were asked to sleep at least 2 hours fewer per night than their habitual sleep

Their sleep duration was recorded over the 12-week period and they were also asked to evaluate the quality of their sleep. Their physician-diagnosed upper respiratory tract infections were recorded to see which group was more likely to get ill.

Man sleeping
We all have natural inclinations for when to fall sleep and when to wake up and they are called chronotypes. © Profimedia

Sleep quality is more important

The study found the expected result that the group that slept 2 hours fewer than normally experienced more respiratory infections. Their risk was 3x higher compared to the group that slept normally. But the study also found something new and unexpected.

  • Those recruits whose sleep was restricted and reported poor quality of sleep had a more than 2x greater chance of getting ill compared to the control group.
  • The group that was sleep restricted but reported good sleep quality, seemed to be protected and was at the same risk of getting ill as the control group.

This shows that quality of sleep was more important than sleep duration when it comes to the risk of respiratory infections. This is quite important because the general public, athletes included, worries mostly about the number of hours in bed but not so much about the quality of those hours.

5 tips for better sleep quality

The results of this study show that athletes should focus much more on improving sleep quality, not just hours of sleep. The researchers offer the following five tips that are effective at improving the quality of your sleep. If you’re struggling in one or more of these areas, you know what to work on now.

  • Consistency – Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day, even on the weekends.
  • Nutrition – Avoid large meals 2 hours before bed. Move alcohol and caffeine consumption as far away from sleep time as possible.
  • Wind-down routine – Do something relaxing just before going to bed. Avoid screen time, news, social media or anything that raises your pulse.
  • Comfort – Sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet room and make sure your mattress and pillow are comfortable.
  • Exercise – Exercise during the day to build up some healthy fatigue that will help your body get into a deeper sleep.