A new decade-long study found that astronauts frequently rely on sleeping pills, such as Ambien, to get to sleep.
The study, which is the longest sleep study ever to be conducted in space, found that astronauts usually get less than six hours of sleep a night during their missions, despite NASA scheduling in 8.5 hours a night for sleep. On top of that, most of them take sleeping pills on over half of the nights they spend in space.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, University of Colorado, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital recorded data on 85 astronauts during 4,000 nights of sleep on Earth and 4,20o nights of sleep in space. 64 of the astronauts worked in shuttles, while 21 of them worked in the International Space Station (ISS).
The study found that the astronauts only get around six hours of sleep a night, and 78 percent of the astronauts rely on sleeping pills like Ambien. This could potentially put the astronauts in danger, warned the researchers.
“The concern is if there’s an emergency situation and crew members have just taken hypnotics, they might not perform as well. You have to weigh the benefits of hypnotics against those risks,” said Dr. Laura K. Barger, lead author and associate physiologist in the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. “We need to have better countermeasures to improve sleep.”
NASA, which funded the study, said the astronauts work in difficult environments and are subjected to high levels of stress. They noted that “the agency works hard to identify and implement countermeasures that can ensure astronauts are able to get the same quality and quantity of sleep in space as they do on Earth.”
According to the researchers, NASA needs to find a way to improve sleeping conditions before they send astronauts off on a long mission, such as the upcoming mission to Mars.
“If people are having problems sleeping, that’s a risk to mission success,” explained astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman, who is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If something goes wrong, you want people to be at their peak in order to deal with it.”
The study was published in the August issue of The Lancet Neurology.