Athletes, Mental Health & Wellness for Everyone
Elite athletes wave from the podium with championship medals and all-star smiles.
You could almost believe that everything comes easily to them. The rigorous workouts, strict diets, endless coaching, ice and heat for injuries, and physical therapy help them maximize performance and meet their fitness goals. But there are no medals for stress management, healthy sleep, and mental health. In fact, we all have personal challenges or goals in life – whether it’s winning gold, writing a symphony, or raising a family – that can lead to wellness issues. And everyone benefits from protections.
Athletes as Examples
In recent studies, a health questionnaire was given to elite athletes, and the results showed a strong association between depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and asthma and allergies — all conditions not easily recognized, or screened for, in traditional primary care settings. In fact, between a third and one half of the athletes said they suffered from anxiety, depression, sleep issues, and/or allergies.
This was the first time the athletes had been asked about these factors, and researchers discovered that those who had sleep apnea or poor quality of sleep were also vulnerable for anxiety, depression, or allergy issues. All of these conditions can lower immune systems and make them vulnerable for other types of illness.
“Elite athletes suffer from the common ailments of society: Many of them don’t sleep enough, suffer from anxiety and depression, and their immune systems have a hard time navigating potential toxins (allergens, air pollution),” says the study’s co-author, Dustin Nabhan, DC, FACSM, VP Health & Performance at Canyon Ranch. He points out that you need to look specifically for these conditions to find them, and he recommends routine screening for anyone.
Researcher Melie Lewis, Director of Innovation at Canyon Ranch, adds, “As much as we want to view elite athletes as superhumans who are not subject to the ordinary challenges of everyday health, using these tools in practice, shows that even the strongest and most accomplished amongst us could be struggling with their mental and physical health.”
Lessons for Everyone
The bottom line from the research is that wellness needs to be assessed in holistic ways to better mitigate risk. While the top risks for physical injury are still age and history, mental health and well-being are also vital.
Which brings us back to common concerns and protective measures we can all address regarding sleep, stress, allergens, and mental health, too. Consider the main take-aways from both surveys conducted by Nabhan and Lewis:
- Sleep is essential. Sleep deprivation negatively impacts mood (it’s linked to anxiety, which is linked to depression), cognition, metabolism, and immune system health. Adults who sleep less have higher rates of infection.
- Allergy treatment. Allergies are linked with other conditions, such as sleep disturbance and asthma. Untreated allergies can have long-term consequences such as the development of chronic inflammatory conditions in the respiratory or gastro-intestinal tract.
- Better mental health. There’s a direct link between anxiety and depression, yet there’s still a stigma around seeking treatment. Increased access to and acceptance of mental health services is vital.
Talk with your health care provider about any concerns you have. Protecting yourself now puts you in a better position to receive your goals and feel your best for life.
Nabhan, J., Lewis, M., et al (2020). Protecting the World’s Finest Athletes: Periodic Health Evaluation Practices of the Top Performing National Olympic Committees from the 2016 Rio or 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Nabhan, J., Lewis, M., et al (2021). Expanding the Screening Toolbox to Promote Athlete Health: How the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee Screened for Health Problems in 940 Elite Athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, (226-230).