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Sleep Better to Play Better: Sleep and Gaming Performance, Part 1

Welcome to our first piece in a 3-part series on sleep and gaming performance! We’ll be going over basic sleep physiology, how sleep affects performance, and how to get your best night’s sleep


Let’s start with a general “how sleep works” overview.

Your body has all kinds of settings, but for the sake of this article let’s generally divide things into “awake” and “asleep”. Over the course of roughly a 24-hour period, your body goes through “asleep” and “awake” states in a particular pattern–your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are endogenous, or built into your body, but are affected by external cues like light and temperature. The human circadian rhythm without any external cues is about 24 hours and 11 minutes long, approximately equal to one solar day.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Biological_clock_human.svg

Light is the most important “natural” external cue impacting your circadian rhythm. Light inhibits production of melatonin, a hormone involved in the series of neurochemical reactions that result in you falling asleep. The less light stimulus, the more melatonin production; the more light, the less melatonin. Eating can also impact your circadian rhythm, since blood sugar levels run on a similar cycle. 

Of course, there are other external cues that can disrupt or alter a circadian rhythm, like changing time zones, caffeine, anxiety or stress leading to cortisol production, alcohol, stimulus (like exercise or excitement) near normal bedtime, or sleep apnea. 

Most of the disruptions listed above are ones that occur primarily during the “awake” phase of things. Sleep apnea, though, occurs during the “asleep” phase and kicks you, very briefly, back into “awake.” Awakeness is, in fact, a part of the sleep phase cycle, but should only occur very briefly and at very particular points during the sleep phase cycle. So let’s have a look at the other types of sleep and what they do for you.

PhaseCharacteristicsBrainwave TypePurpose% of sleep
REMRapid eye movements, awakening causes grogginess, dreamingBeta/alpha Formation of new memories, central nervous system stimulus15-25%
NREM Stage 1Lightest NREM stage, slow eye movements, relaxed muscle tone, possible hypnic jerksAlpha Transition to deeper phases of sleep5-20%
NREM Stage 2Slow eye movements, decreased body temperature, slower heart rateTheta waves, sleep spindles, K complexesMemory consolidation, synaptic pruning40-60%
NREM Stage 3Deep/restorative, difficult to awaken, possible parasomniasDelta HGH released to repair muscles, immune system restoration5-15%

A full sleep cycle takes between 90 and 120 minutes, with REM sleep first occurring approximately 90 minutes after sleep onset and then near the end of each sleep cycle. But it’s not just REM sleep that matters! NREM sleep is key for physical and mental recovery. And if you’re planning on a nap, 90 minutes is the sweet spot, but even a short 20 minute nap can help with fatigue and performance.


That’s it for the introduction to sleep physiology! Part 2 of this series will explore the connection between sleep and gaming performance, so stay tuned!

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