Good Health Starts with Sufficient Sleep

Health Watch

Both the FAA and Transport Canada have updated their rest requirements in recent years to reflect a better understanding of the factors that can lead to airline pilot fatigue. Both regulatory agencies acknowledge that fatigue threatens aviation safety by increasing the risk of pilot error, which could lead to an accident. However, even with reasonable rest considerations in place, the lack of restful sleep can be equally problematic.

Much like proper nutrition and regular physical activity, sleep is one of the pillars of optimal health and general well-being. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least seven hours of sleep per night for adults. Here’s why.

When you’re asleep, a waste-cleansing mechanism in your body known as the glymphatic system runs cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and spine, washing away a protein called beta-amyloid. Researchers believe that this rinsing coincides with a temporary decrease in blood flow, also brought on by extended sleep. Less blood in the brain means more room for the fluid to remove the potentially damaging compound. If left in place, excessive amounts of beta-amyloid are believed to cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Another natural process affecting sleep involves circadian rhythm, the 24-hour biological clock that syncs your body with certain environmental cues including light and darkness. As night approaches, the body releases a hormone called melatonin that prompts you to feel drowsy in preparation for sleep.

Persistent disruptions to circadian rhythms and inadequate periods of sleep can create a host of problems. They can upset your endocrine, metabolic, and neurological functions, and, if left untreated, these disturbances can create a greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and obesity. In addition, they can impact your attention, memory, and mood, leading to diminished performance on the flight deck.

Chronic sleep deprivation leaves you more prone to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Evidence also suggests that a lack of sleep makes your body more vulnerable to the common cold.

The detrimental effects of sleep deficiency are well documented. A study published in April 2021 tracked the sleep patterns of 7,959 individuals throughout their 50s, 60s, and 70s and found that those who slept six hours or less per night had a 30 percent greater risk of developing dementia than those who slept at least seven hours. Another study published in 2019 titled “Flying on Empty—Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Pilot Performance” examined drowsy airline pilots executing their duties in simulators. The research primarily monitored pilots confronting continued wakefulness and found that they experienced impairments in judgment, diminished situational awareness, and longer reaction times.

However, too much sleep can also be harmful. Although the specific amount of sleep needed varies among individuals, researchers have found that individuals who regularly sleep more than nine hours per day sometimes develop a buildup of calcium in certain arteries.

To improve your sleep health, the CDC recommends

  • going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning;
  • keeping your bedroom dark and quiet and setting the temperature at a comfortable level;
  • removing electronic devices including TVs, computers, and smart phones from your bedroom;
  • avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol two to three hours before bedtime; and
  • routinely exercising. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.

Limit daytime naps to no more than 30 minutes and avoid the use of sleep medications except in very specific circumstances for no more than one to two days. In addition, consider using eye masks to block light and ear plugs to reduce noise, especially when on layovers, because you can’t always control your sleeping environment.

While having difficulty getting good sleep may seem like a simple annoyance, it’s important for your long-term health so seek help if you need it.

Learn More

U.S. ALPA members with questions about sleep deficiency and related disorders 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 about approved treatments and medical certification. Canadian members with questions can call Canadian Pilot Peer Support at 309-777-2572.

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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