Sleep lays the foundation for the health and well-being of Military Service Members and their families. Yet for many, it’s hard to get enough sleep to perform at their best. For example, trying to drive a vehicle on an empty tank of fuel isn’t a good idea. But many people routinely “operate” on little or no sleep. Sleep loss impacts multiple areas of people’s lives—at home, at work, or on a mission.
Sleep deprivation can compromise your ability to think, manage your emotions, handle stress and relationships, and maintain your physical conditioning and nutritional health. You might think you’re functioning just fine, but other measures of performance might suggest otherwise.
Many people believe they can overcome being tired or “get used to it.” But evidence suggests that for most people, getting only 6 hours of sleep can jeopardize their resilience, health, and well-being. As people become more sleep-deprived, they become less aware they’re impaired. When someone says, “I’m used to being tired,” they’re simply used to having impaired awareness and judgment.
When someone says, “I’m used to being tired,” they’re simply used to having impaired awareness and judgment.
5 ways lack of sleep impacts performance
Lack of sleep hurts your brain’s performance. Sleep loss seriously impacts your brain function, including decreased working memory, ability to concentrate, situational and battlefield awareness, focus, and response time. Lack of sleep is equivalent to being drunk. In fact, after being awake for 18–20 hours, you’d function as if you had a blood-alcohol content of .1% (about 4 drinks for a 150-pound person). Little or no sleep decreases your hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and multitasking abilities—and how you remember important sequences. If you’re tired, you may be able to learn skills and work well enough, but training while fatigued might impact your ability to do your best. Sleep loss also increases your tendency to be distracted or overwhelmed by emotions.
Lack of sleep can increase stress. Warfighters commonly cite stress as to why they experience sleep problems such as sleeping less, having nightmares, and insomnia. Sleep and stress are often connected in a vicious cycle: Stress causes sleep loss, making you feel more vulnerable to stress, which leads to even more sleep loss. Without enough rest and recovery, it’s more likely that your emotional and psychological coping mechanisms that help manage stress won’t be working as well as they should.
Lack of sleep can hurt your relationships. Sleep loss gets in the way of your ability to accurately interpret people’s facial expressions—specifically, if they’re happy, frustrated, or calm—making it harder to identify what they’re feeling. It also lowers your ability to interact and communicate effectively with those around you. Therefore, sleep loss can impede your ability to understand where others are coming from (that is, to empathize and comprehend what they’re expressing) and maintain healthy relationships.
Lack of sleep can impact your physical performance. Sleep is essential to physical recovery and gains in physical performance. However, sleep problems increase your risk of physical illnesses and debilitating health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and chronic pain. Sleep loss can reduce your motivation to exercise. You also might have less coordination and poor physical performance, which can compromise your physical readiness and increase injury risk.
Sleep impacts your eating habits. You’re more likely to crave junk food when you’re operating with little sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause hormonal imbalances that regulate your hunger and appetite. It can also increase your risk of getting diabetes and gaining unwanted weight. Weight gain can cause sleep apnea and other issues that hurt sleep.
Your awareness of how sleep loss affects your performance is crucial to building healthy sleep habits.
How to get better sleep
Sleep is vital for health, performance, and well-being—and the better the sleep, the greater its benefits. That’s why proper sleep “hygiene” practices that promote optimal sleep length and quality are so important.
If you’re struggling to get quality sleep, try these 10 tips from the U.S. Army Performance Triad to help build healthier sleep habits:
- Maintain a consistent, regular routine that starts with a fixed wake-up time when you get out of bed and get exposure to light each day. Pick a time you can maintain during the week and on weekends. Then adjust your bedtime so you shoot for getting 7–8 hours of sleep.
- Create a quiet, dark, comfortable sleeping environment. Cover windows with darkening drapes or shades (dark trash bags work too), or wear a sleep mask to block light. Minimize disturbance from environmental noises with foam earplugs or use a room fan to muffle noise. If you can, adjust the room temperature to suit you. If you can’t, use extra blankets to stay warm.
- Move the bedroom clock so you can’t see it. If you tend to check the clock 2 or more times during the night, or if you worry that you’re not getting enough sleep, cover or turn the clock face around so you can’t see it (or remove the clock from your bedroom entirely).
- Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. Go to bed (and stay in bed) only when you feel sleepy. Don’t try to force yourself to fall asleep—it will tend to make you more awake, making the problem worse. If you wake up in the middle of the night, give yourself about 20 minutes to return to sleep. If you don’t return to sleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing. Don’t return to bed until you feel sleepy.
- Remove the smartphone, TV, computer, laptop, etc., from your bedroom. Don’t eat or drink in bed. Keep discussions, especially arguments, out of the bedroom. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex.
- Don’t go to bed hungry. A light bedtime snack (for example, milk and crackers) can be helpful, but don’t eat a large meal close to bedtime. And empty your bladder before you go to bed so the urge to use the bathroom doesn’t disrupt your sleep.
- Don’t drink alcohol before bed. Alcohol initially makes you feel sleepy, but it disrupts and lightens your sleep several hours later. In short, alcohol reduces the recuperative value of sleep. Nicotine—and withdrawal from nicotine in the middle of the night—also disrupts sleep. If you need help to quit drinking or using nicotine products, see your healthcare provider for options.
- Stop caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime. Caffeine promotes wakefulness and disrupts sleep.
- Get your exercise in by early evening. Exercise is great—just be sure to finish at least 3 hours before bedtime so you have plenty of time to wind down.
- Nap wisely but sparingly. Napping can be a good way to make up for poor or reduced nighttime sleep, but naps can cause problems falling asleep or staying asleep at night, especially if they’re longer than 1 hour or taken late in the day (after 1500 hours). If you need to nap for safety reasons (for example, driving), try to take a short (30–60 minute) nap in the late morning or early afternoon (for example, right after lunch), just enough to take the edge off your sleepiness.
Use a sleep diary
Although these are all best practices and hold true for most people, everyone is different when it comes to sleep. It’s important to understand what works best for you to feel rested and energized each day. One way to build your sleep awareness is to use a sleep diary to track how long you sleep, things that impact your sleep (such as caffeine, medicines, and exercise), and your energy levels. What keeps you up at night? What helps you feel rested in the morning? When’s the best time for you to go to bed and wake up? Are naps helpful? The exact sleep recipe to get those results might be different for everyone.
Sleep loss causes your performance to suffer, whether you’re at a desk job, on a combat operation, or at home. Getting plenty of sleep helps you perform your best. Print HPRC’s infographic on Sleep and Performance to keep these tips top of mind. If you can’t get a good night’s rest, read HPRC’s article “Strategic napping when you get no sleep?” to learn ways to manage your sleep debt.