A s part of a major public health campaign called the “performance triad,” the Army wants its soldiers to have healthy exercise, nutrition and sleep routines.
But interestingly, it’s the sleep part of the “triad” that’s most worrisome to Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon general. Speaking with a small group of reporters at the Pentagon Friday, she noted with concern that the average soldier gets about six hours a sleep each night compared with eight hours 30 years ago, and pointed to medical studies that indicate a sustained six-hour sleep schedule dulls an average person’s cognitive functions by 20 percent, and is roughly equivalent to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration.
So Horoho said she’s been working to persuade the Army’s senior leadership of the importance of sleep, and leaders up to and including Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff have gotten the message started changing their behavior.
“I brief all of our new general officers, brigade commanders and battalion commanders, and what I tell them is, ‘The Army selected you to be a strategic leader. If you are cognitively impaired by 20 percent, you may be a decent manager, but you’re not a strategic leader,'” she said. “This is a culture change we need to make. It’s going to take a while to get away from the idea that sleep is something we can give up and start critically asking ourselves whether it’s worth the health outcomes.”
Horoho argued it’s also the Army’s business to make sure the sure the rank-and- file get enough rest, not just because of the physical health consequences of inadequate sleep. She thinks better sleep would also help mitigate behavioral health issues like post-traumatic stress and reduce domestic violence.
“And we would never allow an intoxicated soldier in our formations,” she said. “Why would we let a soldier in our formations with sleep deprivation? Why would we have bus drivers driving our children that are sleep deprived? Why would you have someone practicing surgery if they’re sleep deprived? I think focusing on sleep is the most important thing our nation can do right now, so that’s why we’re tackling it.”
Specifically, the service is building “sleep hygiene” into its Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program, using some methods that are, shall we say, unorthodox for a military culture: alternative medicine, yoga, acupuncture and mindfulness training.
“We’re also teaching the importance of things like looking around your bedroom to see how many blinking lights are around to interrupt your sleep — the average American has six to seven,” she said. “We’re educating our soldiers and family members about the importance of a cool dark room, and going to bed and waking up at a set time so you have a consistent pattern, decreasing caffeine and other stimulants before you go to sleep.”
In some corners of the Army, the sleep campaign is more than a mere suggestion. Horoho pointed to one battalion commander in Alaska who has implemented sleep hygiene for his entire battalion to help mitigate the health effects of a dark northern winter.
Also, the Army has built sleep hygiene practices into its free Performance Triad app for the iPhone and Android. It gives tailored sleep suggestions for people who perform various roles in the Army, including ways to “bank” sleep ahead of time if a soldier knows his or her duties are going to get in the way of a decent night’s rest.
“We shared the research with our soldiers that your brain is more active when you’re asleep than when you’re awake, and you need to clean out those toxins,” Horoho said.