Optimizing sleep as a Soldier: The science, challenges and significance

Soldier

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Sustained mental health is critical to establishing and maintaining a medically ready force, and sleep can play a part in protecting that readiness. 

“We can do better for the next generation of Soldiers and address more components of readiness to improve the long-term health and resilience of Soldiers after they get out of the military,” said Dr. Janna Mantua, lead scientist of Operational Research at the Center for Military Psychiatry (CMPN) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. “They have an important job and we have to make sure they are taken care of.” 

 If a Soldier is suffering from burnout and mental exhaustion, they are more likely to leave the Army earlier and seek more health treatment while on active duty, both of which can financially strain the Army. Those negative feelings can be caused – or exacerbated – by poor sleep habits. In fact, researchers at the Defense Health Agency’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence, who treat some of the most serious causes of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, first work to ensure their patients sleep schedules are well-adjusted, as symptoms of sleep loss look a lot like symptoms of those conditions.  

“Things like morale can be impacted and it doesn’t really matter how physically ready you are, if your morale is poor, if your mood is poor, if you’re stressed out or feeling low, your holistic readiness is going to be lower,” Mantua said. “It is important for the commander to consider sleep an item of logistical resupply just as they would with ammunition or food and makes sure that his Soldiers get it,” said Dr. Thomas Balkin, CMPN senior scientist. 

Mantua and Balkin said our brain works in comparisons and contrasts, so if you are getting a great night’s sleep and a full eight hours one night followed by a night with only two hours of sleep and feel terrible, you’re going to compare it to the previous night’s sleep when you felt good. If you continue to sleep poorly, you’re going to compare yourself from a period of not being rested to a night where you still weren’t fully rested but might feel slightly better. 

“People think they have gotten used to sleep loss, but really they can’t remember what feeling good feels like,” Mantua said. “It’s hard to remember when you were last maximally alert, which is probably when you were twelve,” Balkin said. 

Although prioritizing Soldiers’ sleep, mental health and holistic readiness are challenges that extend beyond the Army, advocates of all three are making strides forward at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to better understand their interrelationships.

 “We do this research because the Army cares about its Soldiers, and we know that sleep loss is bad for performance and puts missions in peril,” Balkin said. “We also know sleep is something that sustains Soldiers - their success, their mental health and their physical health.”

 

This article is the third and last of a series that explored the relationship between sleep and mental health and how this correlation affects Soldier and unit readiness.