Sleeping like Olympians: Dr. Amy Bender Wants to Awaken the Champion in You

This sleep scientist and elite athlete has implemented sleep optimization strategies for Canadian Olympic and pro sports teams. She's now turning her attention to the rest of us.

Sleeping like Olympians: Dr. Amy Bender Wants to Awaken the Champion in You

People often pursue their line of work for personal reasons. Mollie McGlocklin, for instance, delved into the science of sleep to try to solve her own chronic insomnia problems after experiencing a panic attack on a trip to Rome.

Amy Bender, PhD, director of Clinical Sleep Science at Cerebra Medical and an adjunct assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, has no such horrible backstory. “My sleep is generally good!” she said on a recent podcast. “Though I have 3 little kids and [when they're] away for [a] couple of nights I’ve definitely noticed a difference in my sleep. You get interrupted a lot with children, so it’s nice to get to bed early, have a solid night’s sleep, and wake up without an alarm – those would be my kids!

“Overall I haven’t really struggled with any sleep disorders or anything.”

Bender, who specializes in working with athletes (including Canadian Olympic and pro sports teams) to optimize their sleep, discovered sleep science as a kid visiting her aunt who was a sleep technologist in Portland, Oregon. At the lab she watched her aunt hook up patients with electrodes, looking at brainwave activity, monitoring muscle activity, eye activity, and how those signals translated into sleep stages. That was 15 years ago.

Back in her hometown in Spokane Washington, Bender volunteered at a sleep lab, and ended up landing a job at the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University as their lead sleep technologist, helping to run sleep deprivation studies for about 4 years.

She went on to earn her Master’s of Science and PhD in experimental psychology from Washington State University, specializing in sleep EEG and the impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive health and performance.

Because she’d been an athlete all her life — she played college basketball, nailed an Ironman in 2009 and has also done some mountaineering — she figured out that she wanted to combine her sleep expertise with her passion for sports and athletics. She helped develop the only validated sleep screening tool for athletes and has implemented sleep optimization strategies for numerous Canadian Olympic and professional teams.

Her current focus is on how to help people (like us) sleep better by improving sleep disorder treatments with more precise digital sleep metrics.

You've worked with a range of athletes from pro sports teams to Olympians. What mistakes do athletes commonly make with their sleep, and what are some strategies you suggest for fixing and optimizing their sleep?

Some athletes have a hard time seeing the value of sleep, so I try to speak their language based on how sleep can improve performance. This leads to a switch to more prioritization of sleep and finding ways to make room for more sleep. Napping is an important strategy that can not only boost alertness and mood but also lead to more sleep throughout the week.

Having athletes schedule napping as a part of their training is huge. It can start small — a couple of times a week for 20 minutes, and then build up to more frequency and potentially longer in duration.

Other ways to increase sleep time across the week would be to create a wind-down routine, starting with a "bedtime alarm" about an hour before bedtime. This provides a signal to start putting away the electronic devices and doing relaxing activities such as breathing exercises, taking a warm bath, stretching, etc. to prepare the brain and body for sleep.

During COVID there’s been a surge of mental health and sleep issues. What steps can people take to regain their sleep health or build their emotional resilience to face these challenges?

One study reported a 27% increase in insomnia symptoms, so the challenges are real. Stress can be tricky because it leads to problems falling asleep or staying asleep, which then decreases emotional resilience, making it hard to break the stress-sleep cycle. Building in stress busters during the day can be a first step at stress management — exercise, meditation, and potentially journaling (not too close to bedtime) about your worries can all be helpful.

If those strategies don’t work seeking help from a mental health professional or sleep specialist is always a good thing.

What are your own personal sleep habits that you're consistent about?

I try to get lots of light in the morning, which helps set my circadian rhythms for the day and improve sleep quality at night. Outdoor lighting can be 1,000 times brighter than some of our indoor light. It’s so important to get [natural] outdoor light and, if possible, work near a window. I also like to make sure I have an optimal sleep environment by blocking outside light with blackout blinds and curtains and then having earplugs and an eye mask to help keep my sleep environment cave-like — cool, dark, quiet.

What excites you most about what's going on in the sleep space right now? Feel free to tell us some things Cerebra Health is working on as well!

I'm really excited about new ways of looking at sleep quality and how these more sensitive measures like ORP [Odds Ratio Product, an objective sleep depth measure] can be linked with different lifestyle factors. For example, we don't believe that chronic caffeine use in the late morning/early afternoon impacts sleep quality. But is that really the case, or is it a matter of the metric not being sensitive enough? I think there will be a lot of new discoveries that will be able to personalize sleep health recommendations.

You can read more about Dr. Amy Bender on her website