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Getting ZZZZs: Military sleep clinics keep troops on their toes by shutting their eyes

An Airman is hooked up to wires and a continuous positive air pressure mask in the 673d Medical Group Sleep Disorder Clinic at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Hospital, Alaska. The equipment monitors a patient's brain function, heart rate, temperature, breath, and movement. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher R. Morales) An Airman is hooked up to wires and a continuous positive air pressure mask in the 673d Medical Group Sleep Disorder Clinic at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Hospital, Alaska. The equipment monitors a patient's brain function, heart rate, temperature, breath, and movement. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher R. Morales)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Navy Lt. Brian Holbrook knew something was wrong. He was tired all the time. Too tired, in his opinion, for the work he did during a regular duty day as the health facilities planning and project officer for Navy Medicine West in Hawaii. He felt drowsy, almost intoxicated, all the time. And then the accidents started happening.

“I’ve been driving for 20 years and never had an accident. I had two driving accidents within six months of each other,” he said. “And they were both my fault! I ran into a car and hit a parked car.”

He addressed his tiredness at the Trippler Army Hospital sleep clinic where providers confirmed he was waking up at least eight times a night. After also determining it was not sleep apnea – one of the most common sleep problems for men his age – he went to his primary doctor and was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal issue that was causing a pain in his right side and keeping him up at night. He knew about the pain, albeit not that serious in his mind, when he was awake. He didn’t realize it had been keeping him from getting good sleep. Pain conditions are known to interrupt sleep frequently, leading to fatigue.

“It was eye-opening sitting through the sleep study class,” said Holbrook. “They talked about the effects of lack of sleep on the body, something which I was naïve about.”

Dr. Christine Fukui, a sleep physician at the Trippler clinic, said beyond eliminating causes of sleep deprivation such as physical ailments and apnea, she tells her patients to get to bed earlier, especially those in their 20s who may prefer going to bed late and getting up late.

“Obviously, that’s not conducive to being in the military,” she said. “The result is, they go to bed at 1 a.m. and have to get up at 4 or 5 a.m. and are terribly sleep deprived.”

Fukui realizes military duty, such as when troops are deployed, means they’re going to have times when they don’t get enough sleep. But when they are back home and on a regular schedule, she said they need to eliminate some light exposure, including the light from computers and smartphones. “At least two hours before bedtime, they should not be using their phones. But it’s hard to get them to do that,” she said with a laugh.

“Sleep is one of those hubs in the wheel of health,” said Diana Jeffery, a health psychologist and health care research analyst with the Defense Health Agency. “Without sleep, you impair mental health, cognitive functions, and decision-making skills. There are very few health functions that don’t require sleep.”

Jeffery explained that sleep is a biological function that helps the body repair itself. In addition, it keeps the mind from racing. She likens a lack of sleep to running a car at 100 miles an hour: You can run at a high speed for short periods of time, but extended periods risk doing damage.

“Prolonged periods of stress have profound impacts on the immune system, which needs to be at its optimal level to fight disease, to repair injured cells, and to control hormones needed to regulate the body,” she said. “We need a period of rest.”

But recent health surveys show at least 10 to 20 percent of service members don’t get enough sleep, while more than half say they don’t feel they get enough sleep. Jeffery said military sleep clinics help diagnose what’s keeping troops and their families up all night, but practicing good sleep hygiene is important:

  • Avoid screen time near bedtime such as TVs, monitors, and smartphones
  • Sleep in a darkened environment
  • Use relaxation techniques the half-hour before bedtime
  • Have regular, consistent bedtime hours

Another promising idea that might help people sleep is a new, blue-light-blocking lens being developed by Military Health System researchers. The lenses filter out the type of blue light from TVs, computers, and smartphones that suppresses production of melatonin (an important chemical that helps people sleep). A preliminary study on the tinted lenses showed that when worn two hours before going to bed, the wearers fell asleep about 30 percent faster than those who didn’t use them.

Jeffery recommended going to a military sleep clinic to eliminate some of the common causes of insomnia, such as sleep apnea or poor sleep habits.

Holbrook, who did just that, will get treatment for his issue, which he thinks will help him get some more shut-eye. He also encourages others who are feeling more tired than they think they should to get it checked out.

“Sleep is a big issue in your life,” said Holbrook. “And until you realize it, it could be affecting you.”

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