By Sgt. Ernie Stephens | September 1, 2004
Shift work can be torture when your eyelids get heavier than a cement retaining wall. You fall asleep while telling yourself not to fall asleep. Then, somewhere around 3 o’clock in the morning, you realize why sleep deprivation has been used throughout history to torture political prisoners.
Most police hangars have places for a crew to take a nap during their shift, but a large number of aviators are reluctant to use them. They worry that if they fall asleep, they won’t be able to wake up. Others say they don’t have trouble waking up, but it takes so long to clear the cobwebs from their heads, they can’t just jump into the aircraft and go flying.
When all else fails, most pilots turn to a hot cup of coffee or a bottle of Mountain Dew. But in the past couple of years, a "cup of Joe" and "a Dew" have been replaced by the latest stay-awake concoction: The Energy Drink!
Initially popularized at the nightclub scene where young revelers "slammed" these beverages in order to party longer and harder, the drinks soon found their way into the hands of college students and shift workers, including helicopter pilots.
Energy drinks come in a variety of catchy names, such as Amp, Monster, and the very popular Red Bull, all claiming to boost alertness–quickly and efficiently. According to Shark, a major supplier of energy drinks, "The most significant feature of an energy drink is its ability to help extend the duration during which the body is able to efficiently engage in specific mental or physical activity."
So, on the one hand we have the occasional aviator who sometimes can’t keep his eyes open; and on the other hand, a cooler full of drinks that promise to boost your attention levels faster than an engine-out warning light. A match made in heaven, right? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.
A study conducted at Brown University discovered that energy drinks have a caffeine content that typically runs between 80 and 88 mg per can; a much greater kick in the rear than the 30-45 mg found in an equal amount of most soft drinks or the 30-70 mg in tea. At the other end of the spectrum are caffeine pills; one of which can have a whopping 200 mg of caffeine!
Coffee, the time honored favorite, weighs in at about the same level as an energy drink, but Red Bull contains a tremendous amount of sugar and glucuronolactone. (Try saying that three times at 4:00 a.m.!)
Dr. Linda Whitby, a Maryland-based commercial pilot and former senior aviation medical examiner physician, is not a big fan of energy drinks. She suggests that the consumer be label-aware and self-aware. "With over 150 energy beverages crowding the shelves with varying sugar and caffeine contents, product familiarity prior to use as an on-the-job energy boost is a must." Products with high sugar content can provide a startlingly brief energy buzz, with a resounding fall into dangerously low blood glucose levels. She also warns that caffeine can cause increased heart, respiratory, and metabolic rates, often along with obvious signs of increased urine and stomach acid production. Excessive amounts of caffeine, or an enhanced sensitivity to caffeine, can cause excessive nervousness, inattention and other temporarily disabling factors.
While energy drinks offer that immediate jolt to the body, health and fitness experts lean heavily toward other methods for getting through a long late shift.
Marshina Baker, a physical education professor at Bowie State University, is adamant when it comes to her feelings about caffeine. "I don’t recommend energy drinks at all." Her advice is simple. "You need adequate sleep and rest, a balanced diet, and regular exercise in order to stay alert." If all else fails, Baker says that a pilot should take a catnap, or just refuse to fly.
Aviators tend to have their own way of dealing with fatigue. Greg Love, chief pilot for the Polk Co. (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, said, "I usually get a cup of coffee. It helps quite a bit."
Michael Gartland, a Maryland State Police pilot, said that, "I make sure I have adequate sleep before I come in. We can’t afford to get sleepy in this line of work."
Joseph Rollo, an Arlington, Va. based clinical psychologist who works with law enforcement officers, believes that fatigue is more common among people whose work hours change weekly. "There is more stuff written on shift work than there is on bedwetting," he says. In his opinion, "the worst thing for the body is to go from a midnight shift to a day shift." He believes that high-stress work done by pilots requires 6 to 7-1/2 hours of sleep before a shift begins, along with some "mental down time" between flights. And permanent shifts work best, allowing the body to settle into a sleep pattern more conducive to late night duty.
All in all, the healthcare community prefers sleep to the consumption of caffeine. Skip the coffee and pass on the energy drinks. Their advice is to eat properly, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. That seems to the most efficient and effective way to recharge the human battery for the late shift.