Despite the allure of floating in a weightless environment, outer space may not be the best place to take a snooze, according to new research.
Over the course of a 10-year study of astronauts’ sleeping patterns, researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Colorado found the astronauts “suffer considerable sleep deficiency in the weeks leading up to and during space flight.”
“Sleep deficiency is pervasive among crew members,” stated Laura K. Barger, PhD, associate physiologist in the BWH Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, and lead study author in a statement. “It’s clear that more effective measures are needed to promote adequate sleep in crew members, both during training and space flight, as sleep deficiency has been associated with performance decrements in numerous laboratory and field-based studies.”
Researchers tallied the sleeping patterns of 85 astronauts over more than 4,000 nights on Earth and more than 4,200 nights in space during 80 space shuttle missions and missions to the International Space Station.
The conclusion of the research was that “more effective countermeasures to promote sleep during space flight are needed in order to optimize human performance.”
While the U.S. space agency NASA allocates 8.5 hours of sleep per night during missions, the study revealed astronauts were only sleeping an average of less than 6 hours on shuttle missions and just over 6 hours in ISS missions.
Very few space sleep sessions lasted over 7 hours, researchers found.
But it wasn’t just in space where the astronauts slept poorly. Sleep deficiency began as much as three months before launch, with astronauts sleeping just 6.5 hours a night during pre-mission training.
The study revealed that astronauts were aware of being sleep deprived and turned to sleeping pills for help.
Three out of four ISS crew members reported using medication at some point during the mission, while roughly the same amount of shuttle crew members reported using medication more than half the nights they were in space.
Barger called the high rate of sleeping pill use concerning.
“The ability for a crew member to optimally perform if awakened from sleep by an emergency alarm may be jeopardized by the use of sleep-promoting pharmaceuticals,” said Barger, adding that most sleeping pills come with warnings about engaging in hazardous occupations while under the influence.
“This consideration is especially important because all crew members on a given mission may be under the influence of a sleep promoting medication at the same time,” she said.