In the trucking industry where there is a need for long periods of acute mental awareness during long stretches of physical inactivity, quality sleep is vitally important. From time to time we hear of incidents where sleep was related to a crash and we must not glaze over the seriousness of proper rest.
Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night, although some need more or less sleep to be adequately rested. And when you have not gotten the right amount for your body, “oh boy” does it let you know. Well, sorry to say that there isn’t much that can take the place of a good night’s sleep to keep you alert. So, let’s first discuss what a good night’s sleep is and along the way talk about things to keep your alert level as high as possible while you’re awake.
Located in the brain is your body’s biological clock that tells it when it’s time to sleep and when to be awake. Your clock runs on a 24 hour cycle and regulates body temperature, alertness and the daily hormone cycles which stimulate cells into action. Disruption to any of the phases of the clock can cause physical and mental-related issues.
There are two main types of sleep, rapid-eye-movement (REM), and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM). In most adults, sleep begins with the NREM phase. NREM sleep has three main stages. NREM begins with the 1st stage of gently dozing off until reaching the 3rd stage which is the “couldn’t wake you up with a bullhorn” stage of the NREM phase. In the progression from stage 1 to stage 3, brain waves slow and become more synchronized, and the eyes remain still. In the 3rd stage, the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli, blood pressure and body temperature drop and muscles relax. The 3rd stage is where scientists believe physical and mental recuperation occur like protein building and hormone release. The NREM phase then reverses stages to a more awake stage 2 then stage 1 at which point the REM phase begins.
During REM sleep (aka “active sleep” state), muscles in the arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed, the slow brain wave sleep of NREM quickens as does your heart beat and breathing. The blood pressure rises and the eyes move around in all directions. Scientists believe these eye movements are related to dreams. REM can last from 5 to 30 minutes. NREM sleep and REM sleep continue to alternate throughout the night with the length of NREM stage 3 declining during each cycle. The average length of the NREM-REM sleep cycles are between 70 and 120 minutes.
Many of us have awake times that do not match our internal sleep clock which wants to be awake during the day and asleep at night. For those that do, you’ll have to work extra hard to get the sleep your body needs.
There are a lot of factors that affect the quality and quantity of sleep which include stress, what we eat and drink, medical conditions and the medications we take, the environment in which we sleep and the times at which we finally get to sleep. Any one of these can disrupt the depth of sleep we need so badly.
STRESS: Stress can stimulate an arousal response making restful sleep more difficult to achieve. Search out ways to help decompress e.g., exercise, yoga, music, deep breathing techniques, etc.
ALCOHOL: Alcohol can cause a person to fall asleep more quickly, but the quality of sleep will be compromised. Ingesting alcohol before bedtime has shown to cause increased awakenings due to the arousal effect the alcohol has as it is metabolized throughout the night.
CAFFEINE: A chemical called adenosine, which naturally builds in the brain during awake times is believed to inhibit brain cells that promote alertness. Hence, the longer we’re awake, the more sleepy we become. Interestingly, caffeine works to block the adenosine receptors of the brain allowing nerve cells to maintain activity. However, the more caffeine we ingest the longer it will take for the affects to wear off which can interfere with sleep cycles.
LIGHT: Exposure to light in the evening tends to delay the phase of our internal clock and leads us to prefer later sleep times. Bright light bulbs and electronic devices are common examples and should be minimized before bedtime.
PAIN: Pain and discomfort limit the depth of sleep we get. Those with chronic and acute pain should limit caffeine and alcohol consumption and practice stress reliving techniques. Use of pain killers and/or sleeping pills, while effective, should only be used under the supervision of a physician.
DRUGS: Many medications contain alpha and beta blockers used to control heart rhythms and reduce blood pressure both of which affect sleep. Talk to your doctor about the affects they may cause.
SLEEP ENVIRONMENT: Increase your chances of better sleep by controlling your sleep environment. 1) Use no/low lighting such as nightlights to minimize the effects on the internal clock; 2) Reduce noise that can prevent transitions to the deeper stages of sleep, and; 3) Maintain a comfortable temperature to avoid disruptive sleep; 4) Invest in quality bedding.
Driving without the proper amount of quality sleep makes it harder to pay attention to the road and dramatically impacts your reactions. Signs of drowsy driving are trouble focusing, heavy eyelids, an inability to remember the last stretch of road that you just drove, yawning constantly, bobbing your head, and drifting from your lane. If this starts to happen while you’re driving, find a safe place to pull over and take a quick nap or stretch, breath deeply and take a short walk, or buy a cup of caffeinated coffee to help keep you alert. STAY SAFE AND GET SOME REST!