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Fighting fatigue through prevention

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- It is getting late in the evening and you are trying to decide if you should watch a movie or go to bed. The movie looks interesting, but you will only get five hours sleep before you need to get up in the morning for work. You are working night shifts, but it is your weekend and you want to go fishing with a group during the day. What will you do?

One-third of Eielson military personnel get inadequate sleep on one of every three days. Fatigue effects performance, causing forgetfulness, poor decisions, poor communication, reduced vigilance, slow reaction time, apathetic attitude, physically lethargic, irritability and nodding off during meetings or while driving. The results are very similar to those caused by drinking alcohol. In fact, individual driving ability is reduced to the level of legal intoxication after 18 hours of wakefulness. Reduced ability to this level is not compatible with any military duty. Numerous aircraft and ground mishaps can be directly attributed to fatigue.

Fatigue is a result of inadequate sleep; however, there are a multitude of causes of poor sleep. There are many factors that are important causes of sleep deficiency, which can be categorized as environmental, family responsibilities, work responsibilities, poor choices, physical illness and emotional distress.

Alaska has many environmental factors that can also affect sleep. The long daylight hours of summer make sleep difficult for many people. The light makes it attractive to continue with outside activities such as fishing, softball and ATV riding. Room-darkening shades and self discipline are often required. Additionally, a lack of air conditioning during the hot summer days makes it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. A room fan can often help. Summer brings late-night outdoor activities that can violate the quiet hours and make it difficult for your neighbor to sleep, and in the wintertime, dark days often reduce motivation and physical activity levels, making it more difficult to fall asleep.

Family responsibilities can also make sleep difficult. Babies may not sleep through the night and interrupt sleep as well as young children who may not understand why a parent on night shifts needs to sleep during the day. While some sleep disturbance is unavoidable, spouses and alternate caregivers can reduce the amount of sleep loss and allow the military member to perform their best at work.

Physical illness such as back pain or thyroid disease and emotional distress like depression or anxiety are also associated with very poor sleep quality. The 354th Medical Group Clinic has a multitude of resources to help with these issues. Use of some over-the-counter medications and supplements are also associated with poor sleep and fatigue, and diet medication, energy boosters and decongestant medications are associated with significant sleep disruptions.

The most important causes of fatigue; however, are personal choices. Make sleep a priority and do not allow it to be encroached by entertainment and activities. Establish a comfortable, quiet, dark environment for sleep. Adequate exercise is also important -- one hour of vigorous aerobic exercise is just as effective as a sleeping pill. Also, ensure you keep the same sleep schedule on weekends as you do through the week and if you are having sleep problems, do not take energy boosters, diet supplements or decongestants.

If you are having sleep problems or would like more information, the Eielson Medical Group offers many sources for help. The Health and Wellness Center offers a class on fatigue prevention, "Sleepless in Alaska," on June 28 at 9 a.m. Please call 377-9355 to register so adequate hand-outs can be prepared. Registration is not required, but encouraged. You can also contact the Eielson Mental Health Clinic at 377-3071 for personnel counseling and advice on managing sleep issues or your Eielson Family Health Team at 377-1847.