Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

Lack of Sleep Can Cause Big Problems

Published on February 8, 2011 by   ·   No Comments

( are finding that longtime sleep deprivation can have devastating consequences, including chronic insomnia and psychological disorders.

Especially vulnerable are downrange troops on repeated deployments, experts say.

Army doctors now recognize that sleep-deprived troops can be a danger to themselves on the battlefield, with slower reaction times, fuzzy memories and impaired judgment. But as suicides continue to spike within the military and more servicemembers are diagnosed with PTSD, some researchers and doctors have focused on sleep deprivation as a possible root cause of those issues as well.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychologist who has written and lectured extensively on the psychological impact of combat, is convinced that chronic sleep loss is contributing to the rising suicide rate in the military.

Suicide “is a very complex topic,” Grossman said. “But this chronic sleep deprivation is the new factor, a major new factor.”

Concerns about sleep-deprived soldiers in combat led Army doctors to create new guidelines last year requiring soldiers to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night when downrange. The previous guidelines recommended only half that.

But proper sleep is not easy to come by in combat, no matter what the guidelines say.

Spc. Colin Strook, 25, with the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Afghanistan’s Maiwand district, said the longest he’d gone without sleep this deployment was 24 hours.

“I’ve got no problems sleeping,” he said. “I just drink a lot of energy drinks to stay awake.”

While cans of Monster and Rip-It get tucked away on convoys, with troops guzzling three or four a day, research shows that stimulants — such as caffeine, dexamphetamine and modafinil — don’t mitigate all the effects of sleep loss, said Dr. Thomas Balkin, chief of the Department of Behavioral Biology at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the military’s leading sleep research center.

Other troops turn to sleep medications, causing the number of prescriptions for Ambien and similar sleep-inducing drugs to spike. In 2004, servicemembers filled prescriptions for sleep medications nearly 70,000 times. In 2009, the number of prescriptions filled by Tricare pharmacists jumped to more than 200,000.

While these medications help troops get a good night’s rest, they are not meant for long-term use.

“None of these drugs,” Balkin said, “is as good as getting a good night’s sleep.”

Grossman, a former Army ranger, talks to troops about sleep deprivation, often peppering his message with anecdotes. World War I and World War II-era troops slept when they were away from the trenches, Grossman explains in the 2008 edition of his book “On Combat.” Other than the occasional beer with fellow soldiers, there weren’t many other ways to relax. Today’s troops, by contrast, return from patrols to well-appointed bases, where they can play video games, grab fast food, watch TV and get online.

Grossman said that he has learned from many noncommissioned officers that soldiers forgo sleep to play video games. Grossman, an occasional gamer, said he believes that games are not inherently harmful, but “all they do is create sleep deprivation and social isolation, which are a guaranteed cocktail for depression.”

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