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

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.”

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

A Soldier sleeps as he readies to deploy.

Sleep in the deployed environment and historical military attitudes

SILVER SPRING, Md. - Deployed Soldiers who may get only four to five hours of sleep per night do not receive as much of the end-of-night rapid eye movement sleep as someone who is getting seven to eight hours of sleep, which can affect daily performance and have a negative impact over time.

Nonlinear sleep-wake schedules are common in a deployed environment, which can be challenging to manage.

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

A Soldier from Walter Reed Army Institute of Reseach demonstrates the use inside of the sleep suite facility.

The Science

SILVER SPRING, Md. - Imagine you start the day with your phone charged to 80%. However, there won’t be any outlets to recharge until the end of the day. Phone calls, text messages, social media breaks — it adds up. Will 80% be enough to last the average work day?

That is essentially how people function with even mild sleep debt, which is something most of us suffer from. A third of US adults report that they usually get less than the recommended amount of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention.

Sleep Resources

Soldiers receive night fire missions in support of operations
Sleep is ammunition for the brain. All Soldiers need to be physically and psychologically strong and resilient. This is especially true of those Soldiers who operate at the “tip of the spear” as members of small teams in far-forward environments where the OPTEMPO is high, the margin for error is small, and the ability to access support functions (e.g., air support, evacuations, reinforcements) is lacking. The necessity for Soldier performance during nocturnal operations introduces an additional challenges for maintaining Soldier lethality. Ironically, although sleep is critical for sustaining military performance and effectiveness under such conditions, sleep loss is all but inevitable under such conditions. Sleep is also armor for the brain. Research shows that the more sleep that military personnel obtain, the better they perform and the less vulnerable they are to development of mental disorders like PTSD and depression. An emerging body of research also suggests that good sleep is linked to the body's ability to prevent and overcome infectious disease, further underscoring its importance to overall health.

Behavioral Health Resources for COVID-19

Army medical staff having a staff meeting in an ICU
As research at WRAIR progresses to prevent, detect and treat COVID-19 infection, it is also important to recognize the significant behavioral health toll brought upon by this crisis. WRAIR is working in concert with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command as part of the whole of United States government response to overcome the disease. This impact can be felt in a wide range of diverse groups: medical care providers on the front lines, struggling to cope with the influx of new cases; leaders trying to maintain morale and productivity in dispersed teams; workers struggling to adapt to the new realities of teleworking from home or individuals concerned about the health and safety of themselves and their families amidst the outbreak. Building on decades of experience in the field of sleep and performance, psychiatry, neuroscience and more, WRAIR scientists developed a range of checklists and other resources to help support behavioral health and well-being.

Alone, Together: Coping with Isolation and COVID-19

Service Member working from home on their couch
The bonds we build between co-workers, family and friends are critical to high-performing teams. Yet working closely with others conflicts with the central tenet of preventing the COVID-19 pandemic: the concept of “social distancing.” Steps like keeping connected, looking out for others, using more than email or more can help preserve mental health as we take steps like social distancing, regularly washing hands for twenty seconds and getting a full night’s sleep to stay safe from COVID-19.

Phone Application, 2B-Alert, Helps Plan Sleep for Maximum Performance

Soldiers receive night fire missions in support of operations
The high-quality, mentally tough Soldiers the Army requires must be able to operate in small, highly effective teams in far-forward environments, often without access to air support, evacuation and other capabilities. They must be able to remain lethal for extended periods of time otherwise they risk becoming a liability to themselves and their teammates. One of the most critical components of a maximized human performance is sleep—but fighting cannot reasonably be expected to stop to accommodate a full night’s sleep. The 2B-Alert app makes rapid, personalized recommendations around their sleep habits to support the far-forward Soldier and minimize the danger of sleep loss to themselves and their teammates.