Researchers have identified a clear link between truck drivers with sleep apnea and crash risks. And Dr. Raina Gupta, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist, knows it isn’t the only factor interfering with their sleep.
Twenty-one percent of U.S. truck drivers suffer from chronic sleep disturbances overall, according to Trucking Organization and Mental Health Disorders of Truck Drivers, published in 2012. Apnea — which has been found to increase crash risks by two to 11 times — is just one of the most common sleeping disorders among them, affecting between 10 and 30% of the U.S. population, Gupta says.
People with extra weight, and men, face the highest risks.
Low-quality sleep affects driver reaction times and decisions, making it harder to maintain speed and road positions, while also affecting physical and mental health, Gupta adds.
It leads to conditions such as anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, drug misuse, and more. If overlooked or neglected, lack of sleep can cause higher blood pressure and sugar levels, and increase the risks of dementia, stroke, and heart attacks.
Tips to help truck drivers sleep
But during a Truckload Carriers Association webinar, Gupta had tips for truck drivers to identify sleep disorders like obstructive apnea, and practices for better, healthier rest.
Obstructive sleep apnea features abnormal breathing in the upper airway – the nose and throat, Gupta explains.
“If the airway collapses, it causes a negative consequence to the body, such as a disturbance in sleep, or a decrease in oxygen in the blood, or both. Most people [with sleep apnea] have both events and both negative impacts.”
This is why some of the symptoms of apnea include snoring, waking up frequently at night to use the bathroom, or dry mouth. Episodes of choking, gasping or shortness of breath at night are also common. During the day, meanwhile, affected drivers can face sleepiness and fatigue, as well as morning headaches.
Drivers should ask their partners, families and friends to monitor them at home for some of these symptoms, Gupta recommends.
“It’s definitely something to speak up about, even at your regular primary care office appointment.”
Gupta says a family doctor or occupational health physicians can help assess symptoms, and most patients can complete home sleep tests to diagnose conditions.
She points out that some of the symptoms may also overlap with attention deficit disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and if a driver is previously diagnosed with either, it becomes harder to determine the source of struggles.
The link between mental health and sleep is a bidirectional relationship, Gupta says. A driver’s mood can make it harder to sleep just as much as poor sleep can impact a driver’s mood.
Lack of sleep can also cause hormonal changes, such as reduced serotonin, and further contribute to irritability, depression, anxiety, and stress.
For that reason, Gupta says drivers should attempt to create healthier sleep habits as preventative measures.
For example, any naps should be as short as possible – 30 minutes or less. And it is better to nap earlier in the day.
She recommends not eating or exercising at least two hours before bedtime. Drinking fluids should also be limited within the same time frame.
‘Set the body for the night’
Yoga, deep breathing, and meditation are some of Gupta’s personal favorite practices, because they slow down heart rates, helping create a deeper relaxation.
“Basically, what we’re trying to do is set the body for the night, so the day events are over.”
She also recommends eliminating the use of technology at least an hour before sleeping and taking in less content.
“Especially stressful content. Even watching the news can be really stressful. It’s a lot of negative, negative, impactful stuff that may be sort of running in the subconscious.”
Supplements can also help, Gupta says.
Melatonin is a common supplement used to normalize sleeping routines. She says the recommended dose is between one and three milligrams, and it is better to be taken two hours before bedtime.
As the day begins, bright light will also help trigger the brain to secrete hormones that wake drivers up.
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