Up All Night: How Soldiers Deal with Sleep Deprivation

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation


Troops have no choice but to learn how to reduce the effects of fatigue.

Just like everyone else, most soldiers should, ideally, get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Previously, Army guidelines had suggested only half that amount, but Army doctors revised it in 2010 because of concerns about sleep-deprived soldiers in combat.

However, it isn't always feasible for soldiers to get that much shut-eye, and long-term sleep deprivation can lead to serious health consequences. When they’re in combat, sleep-deprived or fatigued troops could suffer from impaired judgment, delayed reaction times, and fuzzy memories. Some experts believe that sleep deprivation is even linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Even if they can't get seven to nine hours of snooze time a night, there are tricks, below, that soldiers can use to reduce the effects of sleep deprivation, stay alert and perform well on the job.

1. Nap

Even taking a 20-minute afternoon snooze once a day can hugely improve how the body performs, both physically and mentally. Since it’s hard for soldiers in combat to get a full night’s rest, they try to catch their winks at every opportunity. Just like soldiers do, get the most out of every nap by nixing excessive alcohol and nicotine pre-nap, eating carbohydrates before sleeping and protein after waking, avoiding interruptions by using the toilet first, and getting as comfortable as possible.

2. Stay Physically Fit

Of course, it's important for soldiers to be strong and fast in combat, so they can lift heavy weaponry, dodge bullets, and beat the bad guys. But there's another reason: The higher their level of fitness, the better soldiers are able to cope with fatigue. This is another reason it’s so important for troops to be fit before deploying on operations. And the rule works for civilians too—the more fit you are, the better you’ll be able to deal with not getting enough sleep after a rough night.

3. Rely on Fellow Soldiers

Teamwork, strong leadership, and high morale will keep people working longer and harder under tough conditions. Sleep deprivation can trigger moodiness and short tempers, leading to personal conflicts and lower morale, so having a strong foundation as a team is key. While you probably aren’t part of a platoon, you can build your own network by relying on your family and friends for a boost when you’re tired.

4. Experience sleep deprivation during training

The more troops understand the effects of sleep deprivation early on, the more equipped they’ll be to continue performing at a high level while suffering from it. Exposing soldiers to fatigue in a training environment teaches them how it affects them and their performance. Learning the consequences in a protected environment will help them identify the issues caused by sleep deprivation, so that they can know how deal with them before reaching combat. Likewise, understanding why you’re tired can help you power through the day.

5. Master Skills

When soldiers are sleep deprived, they need to rely on their instincts. Being able to complete tasks automatically means they can do so under stress—without having to think hard. Whether it’s being an experienced driver to stay on course behind the wheel or nailing down your tasks at the office, you can copy that tactic too.

6. Cross-Train the Unit

Next time you’re trudging through the day after a sleepless night, remember that it’s okay to ask for help. When one soldier is badly affected by sleep deprivation and can't perform his job optimally (or at all), the rest of his unit may have to pick up the slack. By training other members to do his tasks, they’ll be able to carry on without him.