What is microsleep and how does it affect professional drivers?

It may come as a shock, but today’s scientists have no idea why humans sleep. Experts in biology and medicine have made hundreds of groundbreaking discoveries about the human body, and yet there are still mysteries up for debate. On the matter of sleep, scientists agree one thing is certain: sleep is essential to live, and if you don’t sleep enough, Mother Nature will make sure you do.

Adults need 7 to 9 nine hours of sleep per night, and the side effects are scary if you skimp on sleep. Not only can you feel drowsy, but your alertness also decreases while your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes increase. Your immune system suffers, making you more susceptible to catching a cold, and your memory, creativity, and brain health suffers.

To combat this, the body demands sleep—even if it’s inconvenient. And often, microsleep occurs in those inopportune moments. Generally defined as sleep episodes that last for 15 seconds or less, microsleep is a short period where people lose conscious control of their brains.

Fifteen seconds can seem harmless, unless, of course, you are operating heavy machinery when you lose consciousness. Then that 15 seconds can be the difference between life and death.

Spotting the start of microsleep can be as obvious as your head nodding to inconspicuous signs like slightly decreased heart rate or pupil dilation. Then, despite the best efforts of your will, the body takes over, and you doze off.

Other symptoms include excessive yawning or blinking. For some, microsleep even happens with eyes open.

Then, as if re-realizing your surroundings and the task at hand, your brain wakes you back up just seconds later.

The most common time of day for microsleep to occur, according to the Sleep Foundation, is in the afternoon. The most common scenario for someone to experience microsleep is during a monotonous task, like staring at a computer screen or driving along the highway. Unfortunately, individuals who perform shift work are most likely to struggle with microsleep or insomnia. Shift work is “any work schedule that can fall outside 7 am to 6 pm”. 

Microsleep, if spotted, is not a sign to “power through” tiredness. It’s a telltale sign to take a break, and more importantly, nap. Researchers say a 20 to 30-minute nap can “recharge” your body’s battery (although too long of a nap can be counter-productive, making you sleepier). 

With almost every professional driver regularly on the road during the “shift work” hours, it’s not only critical to remedy signs of microsleep with power naps but get quality sleep each night. 

The Cleveland Clinic suggests treating nightly sleep as high of a priority as taking medication. In the case of professional drivers, sleeping can be thought of as having the same importance to your safety as buckling your seatbelt or checking your mirrors.