DOI: 10.1111/jsr.14186 ISSN: 0962-1105

Disruptions to sleep and circadian rhythms are associated with poorer athlete mental health in female, but not male, elite Australian Rules footballers

Luis Mascaro, Josh Leota, Daniel Hoffman, Shantha M. W. Rajaratnam, Sean P. A. Drummond, Elise R. Facer‐Childs
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • General Medicine


Elite athletes are vulnerable to sleep and circadian disruption and associated mental health symptoms. This study aimed to investigate sex differences in sleep, circadian rhythms, and mental health, as well as the moderating role of sex in the prediction of mental health, among male professional and female semi‐professional elite athletes. Participants were 87 elite Australian Rules football (ARF) athletes (43% female; mean [standard deviation] age 24.0 [4.1] years). Participants completed baseline questionnaires, 2 weeks of sleep/wake monitoring via actigraphy, and a circadian phase assessment (dim‐light melatonin onset [DLMO]). Cross‐sectional data were collected in training‐only Australian Football League (AFL) Men's and Women's pre‐season periods, with 53 providing data in two pre‐seasons. Female athletes, relative to males, reported poorer mental health (a higher athlete psychological strain score), had a later mid‐sleep time (by 28 min), reported a greater preference towards eveningness, and displayed a later circadian phase (by 33 min). For female athletes, lower sleep efficiency and lower sleep regularity were associated with poorer mental health. For female athletes, there were U‐shaped relationships between both morningness–eveningness and phase angle (interval between sleep onset and DLMO time) and mental health. No significant relationships were found for male athletes. In summary, elite female ARF athletes reported poorer mental health, relative to males, especially when experiencing sleep or circadian disruption. Lifestyle factors associated with sex differences in ARF professionalism (scheduling, finances, supports) may contribute to these findings. Programmes to improve sleep, circadian alignment, and mental health among female semi‐professional elite athletes should be strongly considered.

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