Sleep an essential element.

Truckers’ unique obstacles to getting proper sleep can affect their health

By Siphiwe Baleka on March


Whenever there is a conversation about truck drivers and sleep, the talk always turns to driver fatigue and sleep apnea. The concern has led to studies of how those conditions relate to accidents in trucking. Some people outside of the industry point to the long hours of driving without a break as a factor. But there is more to it than that.

Long haul commercial drivers often have irregular schedules — sometimes they are driving during the day, sometimes they are driving at night, and it is always changing based on the freight and the money. This irregular schedule throws off the body’s circadian rhythms and natural processes and contributes to sleep deprivation.

Interrupted sleep also creates problems. I drove in Prime Inc.’s refrigerated division. If I wasn’t being asked to walk my bills of lading into a shipper or receiver at 3 a.m., I was getting up to check reefer alarms or QUALCOMM messages, or to use the bathroom. Then there’s the guy who parks next to you, idling his truck, playing his music too loud or causing some other commotion. Worst of all was that “bump” — “Hey, did somebody just hit me?”

Sleep matters

The National Sleep Foundation 2012 Sleep in America poll states that the average hours slept on workdays for truck drivers was 6 hours and 50 minutes. That survey, however, is flawed because it relies on drivers’ self-reporting their sleep habits. Drivers’ perception of the amount of sleep they are getting may not match up to the actual amount of sleep they get.

For example, one study tracked a driver’s sleep patterns for 15 weeks and found his average amount of sleep was 5.24 hours with a sleep efficiency, measuring the quality of rest, of 73 percent. That driver had 21 days with less than four hours of sleep and just six days with more than eight hours of sleep.

In another study’s survey, drivers reported having fallen asleep while driving — 3.9 percent within the past month, 7.1 percent within the past six months and 11 percent within the past 12 months.

What those studies don’t tell you is that some important hormone production happens during sleep. Serum leptin and serum ghrelin are two of the main substances which help you regulate hunger and they are part of what is called “metabolic endocrinology.” When you are deprived of sleep, or your sleep is interrupted, the production of these hormones does not occur at the proper rate. After weeks, months and years of sleep deprivation and driver fatigue, you simply can’t regulate hunger properly. One of two things happens as a result: You don’t get the signal that you are full, so you overeat. Or you don’t get the signal that you are hungry, so you don’t bother to eat.

Food and energy

In working with more than 200 drivers at Prime in the past year, I found that the vast majority of drivers don’t eat enough. They have one or two meals a day. Most of them are running a calorie deficit, meaning they burn more calories than they consume. So why are these drivers overweight or obese?

Skipping meals deprives the body of nutrition it needs to function. An undernourished body tries to hold on to every ounce of fat (stored energy) by slowing down metabolism. This is the fatigue that drivers feel — your body doesn’t want you to move and use this precious stored energy.

Drivers who don’t get the signal to stop eating end up snacking throughout the day to fight boredom. When they sit down for lunch or dinner, they habitually overeat. These drivers have a calorie surplus, and the extra calories get stored as more and more fat. Contrary to popular truck driver stereotypes, these overweight and obese drivers are not lazy. It’s not a lack of willpower or personality flaw that is the reason for their condition, it’s hormonal. This is the main reason that 86 percent of truck drivers are overweight and 57 percent are obese. It has everything to do with sleep!

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