Sleep. Eat. Work. Repeat: keep your body and brain working well through busy season

Fluid level? Check. Tire pressure? Check. No leaking or damaged hoses? Check. How about healthy snacks? Still in the fridge. Water bottle? Left in the shop. Enough sleep? Hah!

Farmers who know exactly what to do when it comes to daily equipment checks often fail to take care of their business’s two most important machines: their own brain and body, says Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, AB.

He’s based in the city now, but Samuels started his medical career in Vulcan, a rural community located in the heart of southern Alberta’s grain and cattle country. There, he saw farmer after farmer with a litany of health problems such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (including hypertension and stroke), all solidly linked to lifestyle choices.

He also saw a lot of tired farmers. “And when it comes to farm safety, that’s a big issue,” he says. “Farmers accept a level of cognitive functioning that is far below normal. If you showed them how impaired they were, they would be shocked,” says Samuels, who now helps Canada’s Olympic athletes learn to use sleep as a tool for performance recovery and excellence.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults (whether farmers or elite athletes) need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. But that doesn’t mean going to bed at midnight and getting up at 7 a.m. To prepare the body to sleep, adults need at least an hour of wind-down time. These days, that includes time away from computer screens and hand-held devices. Indeed, Samuels likes to see those off by 8 o’clock every night. He says TV is okay, but it shouldn’t be in the bedroom.

“As adults, we expect to wake up once or twice a night,” says Samuels. “But we should be able to fall back to sleep without difficulty. And within an hour of waking up in the morning, we should feel fully alert. I would venture to guess that a lot of farmers do not feel that way.”

Plan to sleep

Backed by North American research about the health consequences of shift work for law enforcement officers, Samuels wants farmers to approach the growing season as if they were shift workers. That means aiming for 50 to 60 hours of sleep a week (7 to 8.5 hours/ night) before a busy season begins. Once the season starts, farmers should look for ways to reduce sleep debt. That includes getting at least five hours of sleep a night, not including a pre-bed wind-down period of one to two hours.

Strategic naps of at least 30 minutes will augment those five hours of sleep. If you have the time to nap longer, great. But keep in mind that 30-minute increments are critical, says Samuels, or you wake up in the wrong stage of sleep and will be less alert.

He’d also like to see farmers who aren’t working alone, set up schedules that allow workers to take turns catching up on their sleep. This gives everyone a better chance to manage their sleep deficits.

Eat well, live longer

If sleep is restorative, food is fuel, says Laurel Leuschen, a registered dietitian with Saskatchewan’s LiveWell Diabetes Program. “If you don’t feed your body well, you won’t have the ability to concentrate and that puts you at risk for accidents to occur in the same way a sleep deficit does.”

While most farmers and farm families probably know what they should eat, planning makes healthy choices easier. That means stocking the fridge with ready-to-go fruits and vegetables and packing coolers and ice packs the night before they’re needed. Leuschen also recommends what she calls a “clean environment.”

“If you tend to reach for something salty or sweet when you’re tired, get those choices out of there,” she says. Beyond that, look for ways to replace less healthy options with more nutritional choices. Mini yogurts are better than mini puddings. Apples, oranges, carrots and celery travel well and easily beat cookies and chips in the nutrition department.

Next, improve your snacks by ensuring they contain two of the four food groups: vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives. Fruit and nuts are more satisfying than fruit alone. Cheese on bread is better than cheese by itself. Yogurt is fine. Yogurt and an apple is even better.

When it comes to reading food labels, focus on the Percentage Daily Value (% DV ), adds Leuschen. This information is a guide to the nutrients (ie: sodium, fat, fibre) found in a single serving of the food. Health Canada says for any particular nutrient, a 5 per cent daily value is “a little” and a 15 per cent daily value is “a lot.”

Now look at the serving size. A prepackaged granola bar with 7 per cent of your daily fat allowance looks good — but how many do you eat?

Beware of refined sugar, too, especially in beverages. A can of pop holds 10 teaspoons of sugar and fruit juices are close behind. “There are better selections and remember, of course, that water is the ultimate choice,” says Leuschen.