Many people have taken sleeping pills before. We all know the warnings. May cause drowsiness (duh), decreased mental alertness and don’t drive or operate machinery.

Looks like astronauts are ignoring these warnings as they try to get some sleep during space shuttle flights and on the International Space Station.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the University of Colorado conducted a study on the sleeping habits of astronauts during missions.

What they found isn’t that surprising given the high pressure nature of space missions. “Crew members attempted and obtained significantly less sleep per night” during space missions compared to normal conditions.

NASA recommends eight hours of sleep for astronauts, but the study found that astronauts typically got less than six hours on shuttle missions and just over six hours on the ISS.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 4,200 nights in space by 64 astronauts on 80 shuttle missions. Data from 21 astronauts onboard the ISS was also analyzed. 75% of the astronauts used sleeping medication to help them get to sleep. Researchers found “widespread use of sleeping medications such as zolpidem and zaleplon during space flight” according to a press release.

“Three-quarters of ISS crew members reported taking sleep medication at some point during their time on the space station, and more than three-quarters (78 percent) of shuttle-mission crew members used medication on more than half (52 percent) of nights in space.”

Lead study author Laura Barger talked about the problems associated with taking sleep medications. “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.”

It works both ways. Astronauts also won’t optimally perform if they can’t get any sleep either.

Senior study author Charles Czeisler discussed this problem in the press release.

“Future exploration spaceflight missions to the moon, Mars or beyond will require development of more effective countermeasures to promote sleep during spaceflight in order to optimize human performance. These measures may include scheduling modifications, strategically timed exposure to specific wavelengths of light, and behavioral strategies to ensure adequate sleep, which is essential for maintaining health, performance and safety.”


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