The Power of Rest

Why sleep alone is not enough–and how to reset your body

Energy Drinks and "Terrorism" - Running Amok in a Truck

Can caffeine make you drive unconscious?


Some stories you can't make up. Truck driver Beant Singh Gill speaks more Punjabi than English. Which didn't help the British Columbian when Wisconsin State Police found his semi-trailer flying down the rural road to Sparta.

Gill did not respond to their signals, or to pretty much anything. He was finally stopped when the state police laid down a long series of tire spikes, according to the Minneapolis City News.
When accosted in the truck's cab, he managed to get out. Soon thereafter, the state police, perhaps confused by his lack of English, fired a series of non-lethal bullets, and Gill scooted back to the cab.
Terrorist? Who knew? Something smelled fishy on the sensors, so the highway was blocked as bomb sniffing dogs and the Madison (Mad City to its aficionados) bomb squad moved in.
The back of the truck was opened. What was inside? Large heaps of Monster energy drink. Police chalked up Gill's wild ride into nowhere (he was supposed to be heading for Canada) to sleep deprivation. Many wagged he should have been drinking the energy drink, not hauling it.
Maybe he was.

Driving While Unconscious

Truck driving is hard, and dangerous. When the National Transportation Safety Board looked at nighttime driving in the 70's, they found driving from midnight to six increased accident rates about seven fold, with six times the number of fatalities per accident. In other words, a forty-two time increase in fatal accidents for night driving truckers.
Lots of attempts have since been made to make truck driving safer. Now there are supposed controls on the number of hours driven. GPS systems let companies track their drivers, and recommend quicker routes. However, with economic pressures, truck drivers still:
1. Use illegal stimulants. Despite drug testing, some drivers know no other way than using amphetamines and "uppers" to get their job done
2. Text or call on cell phones. When the Secretary of Transportation saw evidence that texting increased truck accidents 23 fold, he banned it. However, when you're out on the road, cell phones get used a lot - though they may only increase accidents four fold
3. Have lots of sleep disorders, particularly high rates of sleep apnea, which often creates daytime sleepiness. And since having sleep apnea can legally disqualify you from driving, despite being eminently treatable, many truck drivers make sure they don't get tested
4. Use lots of "normal" stimulants like caffeine. Low dose caffeine can improve performance. High dose caffeine can make you irritable, headachy, and wired while exhausted. It can also whack your sleep.


Legal Stimulants and Sleep

Monster "energy" drinks are now very popular, and their dose of caffeine is truly monstrous. Many drinks, including high dose caffeinated brews from Starbucks, pack 200-300 mg of caffeine.
Take one of those drinks in the evening and it can keep you up all night.
But plenty of people take more than one such drink, and have no idea how long caffeine lasts in their system. With a half life of five to ten hours, and much individual variation, caffeine effects can last more than a day. My colleague Quentin Regestein, when teaching at Harvard, found two young women diagnosed with narcolepsy whose daytime sleepiness disappeared when their coffee was taken away.

Teenagers, Stimulants and Sleep

There has been an apparent large increase in ER admissions by teenagers addicted to or overdosing on caffeinated drinks. No wonder the National Institutes of Health has deemed caffeine a potentially "poisonous ingredient." Yet there is little idea of how this highly popular use of "normal" stimulants is killing people's ability to rest.
If you care about your teenager's health; grades; appearance; weight; mood, it's a serious matter. Yet it's an equally important issue for shift workers, particularly in transport.
Sometimes you're so sleepy the caffeine doesn't work. And when it doesn't, you may not know. You'll just fall asleep and not have the slightest clue - whether you're sitting at a desk, or driving a semi-trailer filled with energy drinks.
The take home - use caffeine in small doses at the right times of day. You don't want to take one of the most useful drugs on earth and turn it into an addiction.

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew Edlund, M.D. researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health; he is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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