One of the largest health and safety problems within the trucking industry is sleep apnea. Truck drivers have to stay on the road for long periods of time and a lack of sleep or constant fatigue can create a very unsafe situation. With so much research going into understanding how sleep apnea affects people, there are bound to be some breakthroughs.
Many tuckers believe they can pull many hours on the road, but for some people, missing just a few hours of sleep can turn some people into walking zombies. Of course, some people are able to function well on little sleep, but truck drivers should think twice before taking unnecessary chances.
In fact, new research does show that the natural variation in individual biomarkers can identify people most at risk for sleep apnea or excessive fatigue. Researchers uncovered that people who went without sleep for at least 39 hours showed altered levels of microRNAs in their blood. They could then catalog how much sleep loss impacted individual cognitive performance.
But what are microRNAs? Otherwise referred to as MiRNAs, these are small bits of genetic material that govern and regulate genetic expression. MiRNAs work by preventing messenger RNAs from converting genetic information into proteins. By conducting studies that allow researchers to peer into how the MiRNA prevents genetic changes, they can identify who is most susceptible to apnea, drifting and fatigue.
The groundbreaking research study tracked 32 healthy adults over a five-day period. The adults received two evenings of regular 8 hours of sleep followed by a full 39-hour period with no sleep. Not sleeping for a full 30 hours is considered total sleep deprivation.
After the full 39 hours with no sleep, participants were allowed two nights of recovery, which included another 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. During the alternating sleep periods researchers took blood samples and administered cognitive tests. By determining the levels of miRNA in the blood during specific periods of cognitive testing, researchers were able to isolate who suffered the most from the 39 hours of sleep deprivation.
If an owner-operator or a trucking company can determine ahead of time how likely a truck driver is to succumb to fatigue, they can better plan road times or setup operators running in teams. It could also mean the difference between having an extra cup of coffee or taking a nap.
Could Be Anyone
Even more, this kind of research bodes well for more than just truck drivers. Everyone from first responders to healthcare professionals and others who work overnight or long hours. It is important to remember, however, that coffee and other forms of stimulation are no substitute for quality sleep.
It should also be noted that although this study only followed people who underwent 39 hours of sleep deprivation, similar side effects would occur to people who just did not get a consistent amount of sleep per evening.
As an example, someone working through the night and then only sleeping for a few hours when they can, would experience the same type of cognitive impacts as individuals who hadn’t slept for 39 hours. This study shows that not only is getting enough sleep important, but specific genetic tests can help researchers learn who is more at risk for the negative effects of sleep deprivation. And since blood tests are relatively simple to administer, advances in screening can give new options to medical examiners who certify truck drivers.
Hopefully continued research will shed light on the issue of sleep deprivation and how it impacts performance. Everyone stands to benefit from improvements.