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The Role of Sleep in Aviation: Strategies for Better Rest on Long Hauls

As pilots, getting quality sleep is paramount not only for our health and well-being, but also for safety.

Fatigue is recognized as a significant risk factor in aviation that can impair performance, vigilance and decision-making. However, irregular schedules, time zone changes, and confined airplane cabins present challenges to sleep that require strategies. Understanding sleep's key role and optimizing rest is crucial for long-haul flying duties.


Quality sleep supports numerous physiological functions including immune function, metabolism, learning and memory consolidation (Prather et al., 2015). For pilots, it maintains optimal cognitive functions like reaction time, problem-solving abilities and mood regulation vital to flying multi-ton machines. Cumulative sleep loss severely degrades pilot functioning, disproportionately during night operations or lapses in circadian rhythms (Caldwell et al., 2009).


Before long flights, preparing the body for rest is helpful. Exposure to morning sunlight synchronizes circadian clocks while exercise during the day promotes earlier sleepiness (Buxton et al., 2012). Limiting caffeine, food and screens several hours prior allows the body to naturally wind down. Melatonin can be taken 1-2 hours before target sleep time to signal sleep onset.


On aircraft, darkening sleep environments stimulates circadian hormone melatonin production for sleep (Czeisler, 2015). Blackout eye masks or curtains block disturbing lights. Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones combat loud talks or machinery noise. Light snacks with carbohydrates before rest provide serotonin and tryptophan to boost sleepiness.


Upon arrival, exposure to daylight regulates internal clocks to destination time zones quicker (Youngstedt et al., 2019). Outdoor exercise, light meals and postponing naps aids adjustment. Gradual resynchronization complements urgent sleep requirements otherwise threatening cumulative deficits. Returning home, pilots must protect recovery sleep periods with strict wind down routines.


With commitment to optimal sleep hygiene, rest breaks, crew duty/flight time limitations and relaxation techniques, pilots actively manage their most valuable resource - quality sleep. Proper rest underlies health, safety, performance and job satisfaction in aviation's unpredictable environments. Strategic rest assures alertness where it matters most.


References

Buxton, O. M., Pavlova, M., Reid, E. W., Wang, W., Simonson, D. C., & Adler, G. K. (2012). Sleep restriction for 1 week reduces insulin sensitivity in healthy men. Diabetes, 61(10), 2509-2515. https://doi.org/10.2337/db11-1403

Caldwell, J. A., Mallis, M. M., Caldwell, J. L., Paul, M. A., Miller, J. C., & Neri, D. F. (2009). Fatigue countermeasures in aviation. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 80(1), 29-59.

Czeisler, C. A. (2015). Duration, timing and quality of sleep are each vital for health, performance and safety. Sleep health, 1(1), 5-8.

Prather, A. A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M. H., & Cohen, S. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep, 38(9), 1353-1359.

Youngstedt, S. D., Kripke, D. F., Elliott, J. A., & Zager, A. (2019). Long-term melatonin and placebo treatment for sleep/circadian rhythm problems of older adults. Journal of biological rhythms, 34(5), 447-459.

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