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Back on the Road

A Blog by TA & Petro Stopping Centers

The Vicious Cycle: Understanding the Effect of Sleep Deprivation and the Functioning of Metabolism

Photo of Siphewe Baleka in truck parking lot

My father told me that to truly solve a problem, you must go to the root, otherwise, the problem will continue to grow. It is critical, therefore, to understand the root of the driver health and wellness epidemic.

Ask most people the question, “Why are truck drivers overweight or obese?” and the typical response is that truck drivers eat too much, and they sit all day. However, that is not the root of the problem. The industry’s health crisis starts from what I call The Vicious Cycle.

For most drivers, the goal is to make money driving the truck, and to maximize the profits, drivers drive when the freight dictates. Drivers don’t tell the carriers, shippers or receivers when they are going to drive, the carriers, shippers and receivers tell the drivers when they are going to drive based on the requirements of the freight and the contracts. That means that sometimes we drive at night, sometimes we drive during the day, and sometimes we are waiting for a load and not driving at all. The result is that our schedule is always changing, and when that happens, it disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms are based on the interconnection of the universe and the body’s relationship with the cyclical changes caused by planetary movement. Whether we realize it or not, we are in constant communication with the environment around us. When the sun sets and the light cycle changes, it sends a signal to the pineal gland. When the temperature changes and the atmospheric pressure changes, it sends signals to the body through the skin. These signals communicate that the environment is changing and therefore the body needs to adjust and change right along with it in order to stay in harmony with the environment. In this case, the light is decreasing, the temperature is decreasing, entropy in the environment is decreasing. Therefore, our bodies receive the instruction that physiological activity needs to decrease, too. The body secretes messengers called hormones to carry these instructions to every cell in the body. The pineal gland secretes the hormone melatonin and nerve cells, primarily in the digestive system, secrete the hormone serotonin. Melatonin binds to receptors in the brain to reduce nerve activity. It also works in the eyes to reduce dopamine levels so that you feel relaxed. Serotonin works in the brain to reduce anxiety and regulate mood and happiness. Whether you wake or sleep depends on which area of the brain is stimulated and which serotonin receptor is used.

The vicious cycle begins when the driver begins to ignore and over-ride the signals that are designed to keep the body healthy and in harmony with the environment. When a driver gets a load that delivers at 6:00 a.m. and he is still two hundred miles away and it is only midnight, the low light levels and change to the environment have caused melatonin and serotonin to take effect. Instead of shutting down and going to sleep, the driver does whatever he can to ignore and over-ride the signals. The driver rolls down the window, taps the feet, talks on the headset, turns on the CB, turns on the radio, listens to talk radio, listens to music, starts eating, starts smoking, starts drinking everything from coffee to energy drinks. The driver does whatever he can to fight off sleep and deliver that load. Within a year of repeatedly doing this, the driver’s circadian rhythms become dysfunctional. The production of and response to serotonin and melatonin becomes so disrupted that they no longer work.

Add to that the fact that most drivers are not getting six hours of uninterrupted sleep. You may get six or more hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period, but there are constant interruptions. Appointment calls, walk in your bills, pay a lumper…. You could be asleep in the sleeper getting loaded or unloaded and the trailer is bouncing up and down which wakes you up. Alarms in the truck can wake you up. One of the most frequent causes of interrupted sleep is the need to use the bathroom. All of these interruptions, when combined with the disruption to the circadian rhythms, creates sleep deprivation that accumulates every day, every week, every month and every year that you drive.

The accumulated sleep deprivation affects the production of two other hormones that regulate metabolism – leptin and ghrelin. Leptin and ghrelin signal when to start and stop eating. Just like the circadian rhythms, within a year, most driver’s metabolism also becomes dysfunction. Drivers no longer get the signal to eat and therefore they skip meals. In fact, my research shows that most drivers only eat once or twice a day. Since they are skipping meals and not giving their metabolism any work to do, the body goes into starvation mode and the driver simply stores fat while driving. Conversely, some drivers don’t get the signal to stop eating and as a result, they overeat. Both conditions lead to fat storage and weight gain. Finally, when a driver is stressed, another hormone is secreted called cortisol. Its function is to ensure survival by preparing a person for fight or flight. In such a situation, you will need to use your arms and legs. Thus, cortisol causes the blood to be diverted from the internal organs to the arms and legs, thereby starving the vital organs of the blood, oxygen and nutrition they need. 

Once a driver becomes obese, the fat in the abdominal cavity surrounds the vital organs and squeezes them, putting pressure on them. Gravity creates more force, more pressure. The vibrations and jostling from bouncing around in the driver’s seat causes these vital organs to become bruised and damaged. Finally, the diverted blood flow from the stress hormone cortisol starves the vital organs and weakens them, all of which creates the conditions known as metabolic syndrome. Meanwhile, the excess weight leads to poor posture and musculoskeletal disorders. This is the vicious cycle that creates Truckers Gut – the industry’s own form of obesity. The root of the driver wellness epidemic is the hormonal changes that are the result of the accumulated sleep deprivation which is simply an occupational hazard.

In the next blog, we will discuss how to solve this problem.

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