UA Sleep Research Links Sleep Disturbances with Controlled, Illegal or Banned Substances Use among College Athletes

Student-athletes with sleep difficulties were 151 percent more likely to use cigarettes, 36 percent more likely to drink alcohol and 66 percent more likely to smoke marijuana.

A new study by University of Arizona sleep researchers links sleep disturbance with the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs among college athletes.  

In an analysis of survey data collected from 8,683 student-athletes at U.S. colleges and universities collected from 2011-2014 show sleep disturbance is strongly related to the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs.

Preliminary survey results show that student-athletes with sleep difficulties were 151 percent more likely to use cigarettes, 36 percent more likely to drink alcohol and 66 percent more likely to smoke marijuana. Difficulty in sleeping among student-athletes also predicted an increased use of controlled, illegal and banned substances: they were 317 percent more likely to use methamphetamine, 349 percent more likely to use cocaine and 175 percent more likely to use steroids.  

“The most surprising thing was the consistency with which sleep difficulties among student-athletes predict increased use of many substances, including illegal and banned substances,” said senior author Michael A. Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program and assistant professor of psychiatry, psychology and medicine at the University of Arizona. “Across the board, students with sleep difficulties were more likely to smoke, drink and use illegal substances.”  

The study analyzed the survey data gathered as part of the National College Health Assessment, conducted by the American College Health Association. In the survey, participants were asked whether in the past 12 months, sleep difficulties had been traumatic or very difficult to handle. They also were asked whether they had used a list of specific substances in the past 30 days.

“These results not only underscore the important link between sleep difficulties and substance use, but they show that this relationship is quite strong, even among student-athletes,” said lead author Chloe Warlick, research assistant in the Sleep and Health Research Program and an undergraduate student at the UA.

Warlick presented the findings today at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, being held June 3-7 in Boston. The meeting is a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep and the Sleep Research Society.

“Knowing this association between sleeping difficulty and substance abuse could be beneficial for coaches, physical therapists and physicians,” said Dr. Grandner. “These findings could provide important insight when treating sleep disturbances or attempting to improve athletic performance.”

The authors concluded that sleep interventions should be evaluated to determine whether they could decrease the use of psychoactive substances.

The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep.  

The study was supported by the National, Lung and Blood Institute (K23HL110216) and the National Collegiate Athletics Association.

Abstract title: Difficulty Sleeping Associated with Substance Use among Student Athletes