Sleep: The Ultimate Sports Injury Healer

Photo of a man sleeping comfortably

An old Irish proverb claims that “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” And thanks to researchers, we now have proof – at least about the sleep part. As it turns out, whether you’re suffering from a minor muscle injury, an open wound, or inflammation, sleep is the key to helping your body heal faster.

We Only Heal When We Sleep

During waking hours, your body and brain is busy dealing with immediate needs like digesting food, helping you drive/walk/talk, and processing all sorts of external stimuli, like sounds, sights, tastes, odors and sensations. There’s simply no time to work on something as complex as healing while we’re awake.

It’s only during sleep that the body can pull together enough resources to create the chemical changes needed to heal injured muscle, bone, skin and soft tissue.

Sleeping Boosts Blood Flow and Hormones

After you drift off into deep sleep, that’s when the healing magic happens. Because you’re lying still, your body doesn’t require as much energy, so it has more resources to devote to increasing blood flow and secreting hormones.

That increased blood flow brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to worn, torn muscles, helping to repair and restore the area while regenerating new, healthy cells. In fact, around 40% of the blood flow that normally goes to your brain during waking hours is actually re-routed to your muscles during deep sleep.

At the same time, beneficial healing hormones are being produced and sent traveling throughout your body to jump in where needed. The most powerful ones include:

HGH (Human Growth Hormone). In addition to building strong muscles, HGH is responsible for repairing a variety of tissues throughout the body. Growth hormones stimulate cell reproduction and cell regeneration so you can literally heal while you snooze.

Prolactin. Also released during sleep, the hormone prolactin helps reduce pain and stiffness in your joints by regulating and reducing inflammation throughout the body.

What Happens When You Skimp on Sleep

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body’s production of hormones slows down, so it can take much longer to heal from sports injuries or recover from a particularly grueling workout.

A study conducted in 2017 tested the effect of sleep on healing wounds. The researchers split participants into two groups, with one group only sleeping for three hours at night versus a second group who slept seven to nine hours throughout the multi-night study. The sleep-deprived group was given nutrient and protein supplements to determine whether nutrition was a fair substitute for sleep.

The surprising results showed that sleep deprivation leads the body to produce higher levels of inflammatory cytokines, which ultimately set back the healing speed of the sleep deprived group by nearly 24 more hours.

Tips to Ensure a Good Night’s Sleep

What you do a few hours before bedtime can greatly affect how easily you fall asleep. Here are a few tips to help you get the best rest:

  • Try to maintain a consistent sleep routine by going to bed at around the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning.
  • Avoid exercising right before bedtime, which will heighten your cortisol levels and interfere with sleep.
  • Avoid “blue light” screens like the kind output by TVs, cell phones, and tablets.
  • Try not to eat immediately before going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine or other stimulants four to six hours before sleep time.
  • Turn off TVs, cell phones, and any other devices that might wake you or disturb your REM sleep cycles.
  • When sleeping on your back, place a pillow under your knees to take pressure off your low back.
  • When sleeping on your side, place a pillow between your knees to keep the hips level, and hug a pillow to your chest to keep shoulders properly aligned.
  • If you’re in pain, utilize pain management methods such as heat, ice, stretches, breathing techniques, or prescribed pain medications to limit pain while sleeping.

Sports Injuries: When Sleep Isn’t Enough

While sleep is indeed a powerful super healer, there are times when additional care is needed. If you’ve been getting ample rest and using RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) therapy for two weeks but still not seeing results, it’s time to visit your doctor or sports therapist, who can recommend x-rays, scans and possibly rehab exercises to get you back on your way to recovery.

Looking for More Support?

Whether you’re a professional athlete or you’d just like to perform at optimal levels as a weekend warrior, Dr. Dahl’s sport-specific therapy, injury prevention and rehabilitation programs are tailored to address the specific stresses that sports place on the body. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.