Over the past several months, there has been a lot of discussion concerning sleep and truckers. In June, AmericanTrucker.com posted an article covering the 10 signs a trucker needs to look for indicating that he/she needs a sleep break.
In our sister publication, Fleet Owner, Executive Editor Sean Kilcarr wrote “Sleep tight: Helping drivers rest,” an article that listed many of the ailments that develop over time due to the lack of a good night’s rest. The loss of cognitive thinking, obesity, an increase in the effects of heart disease, chronic pain, and diabetes are all made worse by nonrestorative sleep.
Fatigue is one of the leading causes of many commercial motor vehicle traffic mishaps. There can never be too much information and knowledge provided on the subject. Sleep is important, not just to the safe operation of a truck, but to the health and well-being of every human on this little blue orb we call home. As Kilcarr stated, “The human need for sleep is simply not optional. It is as important as the air we breathe.”
‘Cleaning’ the brain
Is your brain receiving enough shut-eye to rid itself of neurotoxins? Say what? What are neurotoxins?
According to Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine, University of Rochester Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry, toxins collect in the brain each and every hour of the day when the body is awake. And the brain is just like other organs in the body: It requires time to flush out waste products.
Researchers have known for a long time that sleep is important for restoring and strengthening specific functions in the brain linked to memory, regulating emotions, decision-making, and even creativity. Scientists have discovered that sleep also cleans the brain. This research increased awareness of the brain’s sophisticated internal cleansing mechanism, adding one more reason to get the correct amount of sleep.
Previously, scientists thought the brain only cleansed itself by removing toxins through a slow and methodical process throughout the day; however, they now think these toxins are discarded more like flushing a toilet, while you’re sleeping, rather than in a slow dribble.
In her research, Nedergaard called the brain cleansing system “the glymphatic system,” similar to the lymph system, which filters toxic waste products out of the body.
Now here’s where the amount and quality of sleep you get becomes vitally important. Over time, if left in your brain because you don’t get the sleep required to clean them out, these toxins will increase the likelihood that you will develop neurological illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Nedergaard’s research was followed up by a 2013 study that discovered “hidden caves” open up in the brain while we sleep, letting cerebrospinal fluid flush neurotoxins through the spinal column in voluminous amounts.
Quality and quantity
What is the length of time necessary to flush these neurotoxins from the brain? According to Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT specializing in sleep and the brain, “The whole process takes six to eight hours.”
The study targeted specifically the neurotoxin beta-amyloid, which has been found in clusters in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. When the glymphatic system can’t function properly due to lack of that crucial six to eight hours of sleep, harmful toxins, like beta-amyloid, are allowed to grow in quantity.
It’s not a question of how much sleep you think you need. Truckers have long said they can go with short sleep periods and still be at the top of their driving game; however, Swart says this type of bragging misses the fact that even if you don’t think you need sleep, your brain needs those six to eight hours to flush out the neurotoxins. Miss those sleep hours and you may feel fine today, but by the time you’re a senior citizen, those beta-amyloid clusters will have accumulated in your brain to the point where you don’t even know your spouse or your children.
Is this a risk you’re willing to take just to prove you’ve got the bravado to sleep less and accomplish more? Past sleep research proves a rested brain performs better across the board. You’re more creative, you’re able to control your emotions, and your short- and long-term memory function far better. You’re less fatigued and safer in everything you do, as you’re able to think more clearly.
But we truckers all know there are times when catching enough shut-eye and meeting deadlines are in conflict. Swart suggests naps. Taking even 20 minutes of shut-eye is comparable to plugging in your phone battery, according to Swart. “For 30 minutes of downtime, your brain will experience improved learning and memory,” she continued. “For those fortunate enough to snag 60 to 90 minutes of rest, new connections can form, which can unleash creativity in the brain.”
Outside influences (radio, TV or other interruptions) can prevent full REM sleep. According to neurotoxin researchers, a deeper sleep improves the toxin flush. One researcher said, “The more beta-amyloid you have in certain parts of your brain, the less deep sleep you get and, consequently, the worse your memory. Additionally, the less deep sleep you have, the less effective you are at clearing out this bad protein.”
As a final note, this not only applies to truckers, but to every human being—even those who think they are invincible and those who own the trucking companies and businesses that service the industry.
While in a year or two you may not remember this article or who wrote it, here’s to you in your golden years, enjoying all the memories of a fruitful and prosperous life. Sweet dreams.
Contact Tim Brady at tbrady@writeuptheroad. com or call 731-749-8567 Join Brady in the Trucking Business Community at www.truckersu.com