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The dangers of sleep deprivation

Farmers are famous for working around the clock, but the risk of injuries goes way up when fatigue sets in.

Farming is dangerous business, but when combined with sleep deprivation, the risk of injury or death is even greater. Unfortunately, since timing is so crucial when planting, harvesting, calving, or milking, getting a full night’s sleep during these busy seasons is tough.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Side effects of sleep deprivation include lack of concentration, attention deficits, longer reaction times, distractibility, lack of coordination, poor decision making, increased errors, and forgetfulness. When working around machinery or livestock, any of these can lead to injury.

Lack of sleep can also contribute to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart attack, obesity, and diabetes.

Charlotte Halverson is a certified occupational health nurse and the clinical director for AgriSafe, a nonprofit organization of health professionals in the agriculture industry. “Your ability to get deep sleep has a huge impact on your immune system, organ function, metabolism, brain function, and overall energy level,” she says. “That’s important when you’re working around equipment, with large animals, or with chemicals. If you’re sleep deprived, it really makes a difference in your ability to function and have the awareness level you need.”

Increased Risk

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center conducted a study that tracked the sleeping patterns of farmers and how lack of sleep affected balance.

The study found that as net sleep decreased, farmers became less stable, even when standing on both feet with their eyes open. In fact, the odds of having reduced balance stability were 7.4 times higher when farmers slept fewer hours than normal the night before. “These results suggest that acute sleep loss impacts balance stability that may lead to falls,” the report states.

Another study from the NIH monitored sleep among Iowa farmers. It found that farmers who slept fewer than 7.5 hours per night increased their risk for injuries by 61% compared to those who slept 7.5 to 8.5 hours. Consuming alcohol – even one drink per day – increased the risk of injuries among those not getting enough sleep.

Chasing Sleep

Even if farmers are able to adjust their schedules to allow for eight hours of sleep at night, that doesn’t mean sleep will come easily. The seasons with the longest hours are generally the most stressful, and it’s not unusual to spend hours lying awake worrying.

“Sometimes the only time we have to sit and process and make decisions is when we don’t have activity going on around us, and unfortunately that’s often late in the evening,” Halverson says.

In order to get enough sleep, Halverson suggests developing a routine, starting as soon as you wake up. Being outside in the morning sunshine helps establish your body’s circadian rhythm. While coffee helps many people feel more awake, she warns against drinking it late in the day.

In the evening, Halverson recommends establishing a pattern like going for a walk after dinner, taking a shower before bed, and reading. She says yoga is another great way to relax.

Going to bed at roughly the same time every night and limiting screen time is helpful. “Agree to turn off the TV after the news and go to bed without looking at your phone,” she says. It’s also a good idea to eliminate LED lights from your bedroom. Lights from clocks, computers, televisions, watches, and phones may glow all night.

Halverson says phones should be turned off or left outside the bedroom. “We’ve become so dependent on 24-7 accessibility, but we aren’t doing anybody any favors if we aren’t taking care of ourselves by getting deep, restorative sleep,” she says.

It’s also important for parents to pay attention to the amount of sleep children are getting, especially teenagers. “Kids’ brains don’t finish maturing until they’re in their 20s, and those developing brains need healthy rest,” she says. “We depend on teens and young adults to do a lot of farmwork, so we need their brains to be as alert as possible.”

Kids are two to three times more likely to be injured when they don’t get eight to nine hours of sleep per night, Halverson says. “They need sleep. Their circadian rhythms are different, plus they’re highly impacted by blue light and screens.”

Settling the Mind

If sleep is hard to come by, one thing that should be left out of the nighttime routine is alcohol. “It may seem like it would help you sleep, but it actually deters deep sleep,” she says.

Some people like the white noise of a fan, listening to a white noise machine, or aromatherapy. Halverson suggests trying different methods to find the best fit.

If insomnia persists, Halverson recommends seeing a doctor, who may recommend melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep aid. Blood tests may also be run to check iron and other levels. “Sleep is a good thing to discuss with your doctor,” she says.

There will be times when it’s impossible to get eight hours of sleep. “In agriculture, there are going to be nights and even weeks like that,” she says. “You need a plan for when things happen, so you can get back into your routine.”

It’s important to realize your lack of sleep affects not only your health, but the safety of your family and coworkers, and the bottom line of your business. “When you’re operating equipment and taking care of animals when you’re sleep deprived, you’re putting not only your own life in danger, but other peoples’ lives, as well,” she says.

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