The United States Army has debuted a napping program to promote health, The New York Times reported. Fatigue can work against mission performance; so encouraging restful sleep has become a higher priority recently. Sleep deprivation shows signs quickly and clearly.
According to The New York Times, the US Army is promoting its soldiers’ health by taking a closer look at “strategic and aggressive napping” practices. “The recommendation is part of an overhaul of the Army’s physical fitness training field manual, which was rebranded this week as the FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness manual,” the article said. “No longer is the guide focused entirely on grueling physical challenges like long ruck marches and pull-ups.
“Now it has chapters on setting goals, visualizing success, ‘spiritual readiness,’ and, yes, the art of the nap.”
Aside from being a dramatic change from the usual image associated with the military, the focus on healthy rest raises questions about just how serious sleep deprivation can be.
When Catching Z’s Gets Serious
Staying up late or sleeping in an extra hour or two on the weekends doesn’t always seem like a big deal, but proper sleep matters.
“In the absence of disease, there are three basic components of a healthy lifestyle: nutrition, physical fitness, and sleep,” said Dr. H. Craig Heller, Lorry I. Lokey/Business Wire Professor of Biological Sciences and Human Biology at Stanford University. “In comparison to a lack of exercise and nutrition, however, sleep deficit leads to serious consequences much more rapidly.”
Dr. Heller said that health problems from a sedentary lifestyle can take years to develop, while people can go 21 days without food. The world record for not sleeping is just 11 days. Even staying up overnight just once can lead to major debilitations in mood, cognitive performance, and energy levels. However, the biggest concern is the sleepless person’s tendency to fall asleep at random.
“This is not a problem if you’re in front of the TV, but if you mix sleepiness with driving or operating machinery, the result is a very high incidence of injury, death, and disaster,” he said. “Yet, college students think nothing of pulling an all-nighter, and in our 24/7 society, short sleep is a common practice. What is it about sleep that makes these practices so dangerous?”
According to Dr. Heller, sleep is “homeostatically regulated,” meaning that if you don’t get the recommended amount of sleep, you incur a “sleep debt.”
“When you develop a sleep debt, your brain works very hard to force you to pay that debt back,” he said. “Furthermore, like credit card debt, the sleep debt is cumulative. You may cut back on sleep a little bit on certain days and think that you can handle it—and maybe you can with the help of a little coffee—but that little sleep debt does not magically go away.”
Dr. Heller said that sleep debts add up to the point that our bodies force us to pay them back, whether we want to or not. A thirsty person can refuse a glass of water, he said; a hungry person can refuse a meal. However, someone in a sleep debt may have no control over staying conscious. This is why sleepiness is so dangerous.
“Falling asleep at the wheel contributes to an estimated 10,000 automobile deaths a year, in the United States alone,” he said. “This is definitely an underestimate. If you ask anyone ‘What is the leading cause of automobile accidents?’ most will reply ‘drinking and driving,’ and that is where most of our public education, monitoring, and enforcement efforts are directed.
“What few people recognize, however, is that there is a very strong interaction between alcohol and sleep debt.”
Stimulating activities usually associated with drinking help stave off sleep debt, but when someone gets into their car to drive home, the environment is almost exactly the opposite. It’s calm, dark, and boring. This is a huge opportunity for sleep debt to come collect its dues.
No matter how we make our living, getting a proper amount of sleep is vital to our health. When we appreciate things like sleep debt and falling asleep at the wheel, it becomes clearer why the military is looking into strategic napping to optimize soldier health.
Dr. H. Craig Heller contributed to this article. Dr. Heller is the Lorry I. Lokey/Business Wire Professor of Biological Sciences and Human Biology at Stanford University. He earned his PhD in Biology from Yale University.