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The impact of sleep loss on performance

Sleep is a basic building block of health. Learn how not getting enough sleep is likely to compromise performance optimization and impede your total fitness.

Sleep lays the foundation for the health and well-being of service members and their families, but for many, it’s hard to get enough sleep to maintain optimal performance. Sleep loss impacts many domains of optimal functioning—whether you’re at home, at work, or on a mission. For example, trying to drive a vehicle on an empty tank of fuel isn’t a good idea, but many people routinely “operate” themselves on little or no sleep. In general, sleep deprivation can compromise your cognitive function, ability to manage emotions and handle stress, relationships with others, and physical and nutritional conditioning.

Cognitive function

Sleep loss seriously impacts your brain function, including decreased working memory, ability to concentrate, situational and battlefield awareness, focus, and response time. Sleep loss also reduces your ability to make good decisions and solve problems, and it increases your tendency to be distracted or overwhelmed by emotions. And little or no sleep can reduce your flexibility, preventing you from seeing situations accurately, and increase your likelihood of falling into thinking traps.

Stress management

Warfighters commonly cite stress as to why they experience sleep problems, including short sleep duration, nightmares, and insomnia. Sleep and stress are often connected in a vicious cycle: Stress causes sleep loss, making you feel more vulnerable to stress, which leads to even more sleep loss. Without adequate rest and recovery, it’s more likely that your emotional and psychological coping mechanisms that help manage stress won’t operate at full potential. 

Relationships

Sleep loss hinders your ability to accurately interpret others’ emotions and facial expressions—specifically, if they’re happy or angry—making it harder to identify what they’re feeling. It also lowers your ability to interact and communicate effectively with those around you. Therefore, sleep loss can impede your ability to understand where others are coming from (that is, to empathize and comprehend what they’re expressing) and maintain healthy relationships.

Physical health

Sleep is critical to physical recovery and gains in physical performance. However, sleep problems increase your risk of physical illnesses and debilitating health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and chronic pain. Sleep loss can reduce your motivation to engage in physical exercise as well. You also might experience decreased coordination and poor physical performance, which can compromise your physical readiness and affect injury risk.

Nutrition

Sleep impacts your eating habits too. You’re more likely to crave unhealthy foods when you’re operating in a sleep deficit. Sleep deprivation can increase your risk of diabetes, higher body mass index (BMI), and hormonal imbalances that regulate your hunger and appetite. Weight gain can give rise to sleep apnea and other issues that further negatively impact sleep. Check out HPRC’s suggestions for how to eat for better sleep.

Debrief

An important final note on sleep and performance loss: You might think you’re functioning just fine, but other objective measures of performance might suggest otherwise. Within the Warfighter community (and even within society as a whole), many are conditioned to believe that sleep is a luxury. In fact, it’s a basic building block of health and well-being. Your awareness of how sleep loss affects your performance is critical to building healthy sleep habits.

Posted 09 March 2017