Fighting Fatigue

Health Watch

By Capt. Brian Noyes (United) and John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer

Fatigue has been a particular concern this summer as airline operational challenges have resulted in an unprecedented number of flight cancellations and delays. As pilots, we’re subject to demanding work schedules with ever-changing shifts, flights with multiple legs, early start times, nighttime operations, crossing multiple time zones, and consecutive days of being on duty. These variables along with sleep deprivation and circadian disruptions can have a major impact on our fatigue levels and fitness for duty.

The FAA defines fatigue as “a physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from lack of sleep or increased physical activity that can reduce a flightcrew member’s alertness and ability to safely operate an aircraft or perform safety-related duties.” The following actions can help you fight fatigue and increase your energy level:

Get some sleep. As science suggests, the best solution for fatigue mitigation is sleep. Our brain needs a regular pattern of sleep to be fully functional to restore our alertness, performance, and cognitive capabilities. However, we aren’t always the best evaluators of our own levels of fatigue or alertness. Studies show that we’re generally sleepier or more fatigued than we report.

The recommended hours of sleep for an average adult is between seven to eight per day. When receiving less than the recommended amount, a sleep debt begins to accumulate. When this occurs, getting additional sleep is the remedy. As schedule management isn’t always within our control, utilizing the required rest periods and sleep opportunity for recovery is essential. A conducive environment for sleep includes darkness, relatively cool temperature, and no noise or outside disruptions. A 20-minute nap can help fight fatigue by providing a feeling of refreshment, which helps improve your level of alertness. Make sure to allow sufficient time between a nap and any duty period due to sleep-inertia consequences.

Exercise. Physical activity will increase your energy level, foster a healthier body and mind, and help you sleep better at night. Even a brisk walk between flights in the terminal can result in an energy boost. If you don’t routinely exercise, start slowly and gradually increase duration until you reach at least two hours and 30 minutes of weekly aerobic activity.

Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated keeps organs functioning properly, helps your body transport nutrients to cells, regulates body temperature, keeps joints properly lubricated, and helps fight infection. It also enhances cognition, mood, and quality of sleep.

Watch what you eat. The food you eat can contribute to fatigue. Focus on lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and whole grains. Eating foods high in protein (e.g., jerky, nuts, protein bars) provides sustained energy and longer energy duration. Avoid baked goods, sugary foods, and heavily processed items. While a candy bar or a beverage with a high sugar content may provide a quick boost of energy, the result is generally a fast energy crash that lowers your level of energy in the long term. If you’re carrying excess weight, losing a few pounds will help you feel more energetic.

Monitor your alcohol and caffeine intake. Excessive consumption of either substance is unhealthy and can contribute to fatigue.

Be mindful of the effects of melatonin. While studies show that the use of melatonin may be helpful in facilitating falling asleep and aiding in circadian fatigue recovery, a number of downsides and potential adverse effects have been reported. Consuming melatonin at an incorrect time or while on duty may further desynchronize the body clock and increase circadian fatigue. Taking a 24-hour break from melatonin and flying duties is recommended. In addition, professional guidance from your aviation medical examiner should be followed.

Contact your physician if these lifestyle adjustments don’t help. Fatigue is a common symptom of many illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, anemia, thyroid issues, and sleep apnea. Medications can also contribute to fatigue so discuss what you’re experiencing with your doctor.

 

Questions?

ALPA members with fatigue-related questions are encouraged to contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician.

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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