Majority of Sleep-Deprived Astronauts Take Sleeping Pills

By Victoria Kim 08/13/14

Whether aboard the Space Shuttle or International Space Station, astronauts use a variety of pills to stave off sleep deprivation and boost performance.

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Drifiting off... Shutterstock

New research published in the Friday edition of The Lancet Neurology has found that NASA astronauts experience a significant decrease in sleep while in space, leading to a majority taking sleeping pills to cope with the problem.

Sleep deprivation is common among astronauts. In space, they are scheduled for 8.5 hours of sleep each “night,” but on average sleep only 5.96 hours on shuttle missions and just minutes more aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

This is a safety concern, said lead author Laura K. Barger, associate physiologist in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, because sleeping less than six hours is associated with performance detriments.

The 10-year study, which was partially funded by NASA, recorded data of over 4,200 sleep episodes in space and over 4,000 nights of sleep on Earth. The sleep problems typically begin before the astronauts even lift off. But once they've landed back on Earth, they tend to sleep more, Barger explained, just like many sleep-deprived workers do on weekends.

To manage their sleep deficiencies, 75% of crew members on space shuttle missions and 25% of crew members aboard the ISS use prescription drugs like Zapelon, also known as Sonata or Andante, and Zolpidem, or Stilnox and Ambien. The study found that either drug was used for more than half of the “nights” on space missions.

Barger warned against the use of sleeping pills in space, saying that the drugs could keep affected astronauts from optimal performance. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that “the use of sleeping pills should be avoided by people involved in hazardous occupations requiring complete mental alertness or motor coordination,” which Barger included in her argument.

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