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Optimizing performance, safety through sleep and fatigue management

Photo shows laborer sleeping with hardhat laying across face.

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Human fatigue is a significant contributor to Air Force mishaps and off-duty accidents. As we increasingly strive to do more with less, the problem will only worsen without the proper safeguards and attention. (courtesy photo)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

When it comes to the Air Force, fatigue is characterized as "the state of tiredness associated with long hours of work, prolonged periods without sleep, physiologic stressors of the flight environment or the requirement to work at times that are out of sync with the body's circadian, or biological rhythms. 

In the last 10 years, workplace mishaps, along with vehicle accidents, have increased the focus on fatigue. 

It has become a growing concern in the Defense Department as sustained operations and deployments are stretching the force's abilities. 

Human fatigue is a significant contributor to Air Force mishaps and off-duty accidents. Ensuring everyone gets the proper amount of sleep has become a huge challenge. As we increasingly strive to do more with less, the problem will only worsen without the proper safeguards and attention.  

For the military environment, the root of the problem boils down to two issues: Sleep loss from extended duty periods and restricted sleep opportunities - jet lag and shift lag.

So what's the solution? After years of study, it has become clear that the only real answers are to understand the nature of sleep fatigue and implement scientifically proven countermeasures. 

Airmen are an integral part of all weapons systems and require the same type of life cycle support and maintenance that can only be accomplished with optimal sleep, nutrition and physical activity. 

So, let's explain why sleep is important for us to be at our best.

Sleep is important to optimal performance and good health 
It plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout our lives. By getting enough quality sleep at the right times we can help protect our mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. The way we feel while awake greatly depends on what happens while sleeping because during sleep the body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain physical health. 

Just consider the damage that can occur from sleep deficiency; it can occur in an instant (such as a car crash or on the job accident from inattentiveness) or it can harm you over time by raising your risk for chronic health problems. Sleep deficiency affects how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others. The following is a synopsis from the National Heart and Lung Institute and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention discussing why we shouldn't sleep lightly.

Sleep is important for healthy brain function and emotional well-being
While you're sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day by forming new pathways to help learn and remember information. 

A good night's sleep improves learning. So whether it's learning math, how to play the piano or how to drive a car, sleep helps enhance learning and problem-solving skills. It also helps with attention, decision making and creativity.

Sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. If you're sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. 

Sleep deficiency is also linked to depression, suicide and risky behavior.

Physical Health
Sleep plays an important role in your physical health. Proper sleep is involved in healing and repairing your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep problems are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. 

Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity. Studies have shown that with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of becoming obese go up. It helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry or full. 

Sleep affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose level. Sleep deficiency can result in higher than normal blood sugar levels, which may increase risk for diabetes.

Sleep supports healthy growth and development. Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens, boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues. 

Even the immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy to defend the body against foreign or harmful substances. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way the immune system responds and it may have trouble fighting common infections.

Daytime Performance and Safety
Getting quality sleep at the right times helps you function well throughout the day. People who are sleep deficient are less productive at work and school.  They take longer to finish tasks, have slower reaction times and make more mistakes.

After several nights of losing sleep - even a loss of one or two hours a night - your ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two.

Lack of sleep also may lead to microsleep, brief moments of sleep that occur when you're normally awake. You can't control microsleep, and you probably aren't even aware of it. Have you ever driven somewhere and then not remembered part of the trip?  If so, you may have experienced microsleep.

Even if you're not driving, microsleep can affect how you function. If you're listening to a speaker you might miss information or feel like you don't understand the point. In reality, you may have slept through part of the lecture and not been aware of it.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?
The amount of sleep you need changes over the course of your life. Although sleep needs vary from person to person, the National Heart and Lung Institute gives general recommendations for different age groups at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/ howmuch.

Write down how much you sleep each night, how alert and rested you feel in the morning, and how sleepy you feel during the day. 

If your daily routine limits your ability to get enough sleep, or if you're worried about how bad sleep habits and long-term sleep loss affects your health, try using a sleep diary for a few weeks and talk with your doctor. You should also talk with your doctor if you sleep more than 8 hours a night, but don't feel well rested as you may have a sleep disorder or other health problem.

Originally published May 13, 2016