Two days. That’s how long the average person can make it without sleep.
After that, oh brother, everything goes in the toilet. The brain demands a little time off. The body involuntarily shuts down. Go without even a catnap for 48 hours straight, and you’ll look like an extra from “Night of the Living Dead.”
Unless you add a little something. Probably caffeine, the favorite of sentries and all-nighters the world over. Army researchers have discovered that adding caffeine at precise intervals extends that magic number to, oh, 68 hours.
Chewing instant coffee packets yet? Odds are good that you have before, or watched someone else do it. When you’re out but not down, those little coffee rations can be a lifesaver.
Because after 48 consecutive sleepless hours, stick a fork in ’em. Those troops are done.
“They are combat-ineffective,” said Gary Kamimori, a research physiologist at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, whose latest, still-unpublished study includes the dramatic numbers for sleepless soldiers operating with and without caffeine.
After 48 hours, the test subjects often were out cold, and researchers had to continually wake them even to get responses to questions.
But all is not lost. Years of chasing zombies around laboratory battlefields have brought Kamimori and his fellow scientists to a breakthrough in the war against sleep deprivation: the first tactical chewing gum, designed to keep you going and going, like a little camouflaged Energizer bunny.
Hey, Bazooka Joe, chew on this.
Known as military spec caffeine gum, the cinnamon-flavored packs hit Kamimori’s desk in 1998 as a new product from Wrigley’s, maker of such checkout-lane staples as Big Red and Juicy Fruit. The first gum capable of masking the bitter taste of caffeine, military spec caffeine gum had a short-lived test run on public shelves, with limited success.
But the novel approach for delivering caffeine to the user piqued the military’s interest. Congress offered $250,000 in 1999 for an initial study into the effects the gum could have on troops, a move that researchers say validated an interesting notion.
Normally, caffeine is delivered to the body through a pill or beverage and travels through the stomach, where it later is absorbed through the intestines’ lining. The whole process can take 45 to 90 minutes, Kamimori said.
Research showed that with military spec caffeine gum — which has a 100 milligram dose of caffeine, similar to 6 ounces of brewed coffee — the stimulant is absorbed through the tissues of the mouth. In five minutes of chewing, 85 percent of the caffeine has already hit.
After 10 minutes, it goes up to 99 percent, Kamimori said.
“It’s absorbed four to five times faster,” Kamimori said. “All of the caffeine is now in your body. Caffeine is caffeine, but this works fast.”
It was enough to get the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command to launch a program to develop and test military spec caffeine gum for use in sustained or continuous military operations where soldiers are unable to get enough sleep.
It conducted six more tests — three in the lab and three in the field — for a little less than $1 million, working with Wrigley’s (which offered free test samples) as well as military researchers from Canada and New Zealand.
What they discovered was a wake-up call for the operating forces.
In the studies, using multiple doses of rapidly absorbed caffeine in the military spec caffeine gum, the researchers reported that “alertness, marksmanship (both simulated and live fire), vigilance on observation and reconnaissance tasks, and physical performance during simulated operations was either maintained or improved as compared to those soldiers receiving a placebo chewing gum,” according to a soon-to-be released update from the Walter Reed Institute of Research obtained by Air Force Times.
Among the findings was the discovery of the magical 68-hour mark, after which even caffeine can’t help. Researchers also discovered the optimal dosing of military spec caffeine gum: 200mg every two hours, for up to eight hours straight.
“The gum has been well-received,” Kamimori said. “The only thing is, the taste is like crap. That’s why we say ‘chew five, then spit.'”
During tests, researchers found caffeinated gum-chewing troops suffered side effects no worse than those experienced by many who chewed the placebo. Nausea, dizziness and headaches were common in both groups.
The results were so conclusive that researchers from the Combat Feeding Program at the Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts taste-tested the gum for inclusion in its prototype First Strike Rations, still in testing. Designed for highly mobile troops, the compact rations likely will replace Meals, Ready-to-Eat for feeding troops on the move in the coming years.
In May, Natick officials (who referred comments on the gum to Kamimori) approved giving the gum a supply number so it could be placed in the system and easily ordered by commanders.
Marketright Inc., whose president, Ron Ream, originally designed the gum, obtained exclusive military marketing rights from Wrigley’s in 2005 and changed it from a stick to a candy-coated form, increasing the product’s shelf life and resistance to heat and improving its taste.
While military spec caffeine gum is available only to members of the military and emergency and law enforcement personnel, the caffeine business has skyrocketed since the gum was created.
Now, hundreds of highly caffeinated energy drinks, mints and candies are on the market. An upstart company called GumRunners launched a similar caffeine gum in 2002 called “Jolt Gum” and was promptly sued by Wrigley’s for patent infringement.
Those claims have been worked out, officials from GumRunners said, and Jolt Gum is available in more than 35,000 stores nationwide and in military exchanges and combat outposts. As such, the response from members of the military has been overwhelming, said Matt Gearhart, marketing director for GumRunners.
This sets up a looming battle of sorts for the two companies. Although military spec caffeine gum is the preferred choice among researchers, leading to its inclusion in the First Strike Rations and military supply system, Jolt Gum also was taste-tested by troops — and it outscored military spec caffeine gum.
In fact, GumRunners was unaware that military spec caffeine gum had been selected for the rations until contacted by Air Force Times.
“We are all pretty stunned,” Gearhart said. “Despite having provided test samples to the Army for inclusion in the Special Forces packs, we were not given the opportunity to place a bid on the contract. If there’s a public space to learn about and place such a bid, we’ve never been told of it.”
Kamimori said the selection took taste into account, but also considered dosing and performance.
Jolt Gum “tasted better, but didn’t work as well,” he said. “That’s why military spec caffeine gum works so well. The patent was for hiding the caffeine into the gum. They hide it differently.”
As a result, some of the caffeine in Jolt Gum is lost to the digestive tract through saliva, he said, which means it’s absorbed more slowly.
“The problem is, we’re not sure where the caffeine is going in many of those products,” Kamimori said. “How much of it is going in through the lining of the mouth, and how much is going through the stomach?”
The two products are priced similarly, with military spec caffeine tum ranging between $1 and $1.20 for a five-piece, 500mg pack, and Jolt Gum retailing for $1.49 for a 12-piece, 540mg pack.
But dosing was a consideration, as Jolt Gum has only 45mg of caffeine per piece, less than half of military spec caffeine gum. An adequate 200mg dose would require chewing a wad of more than four pieces, compared to two pieces of 100mg military spec caffeine gum.
Still, Gearhart said GumRunners could have made a more competitive product that tasted better, had it been afforded the chance.
“We certainly could make a 100mg-per-piece caffeine gum, and we told our Natick contact that we’d be happy to provide a sample of that gum upon request,” Gearhart said. “They never responded.”
Ultimately, Gearhart said he knows troops are chewing Jolt Gum because of the feedback he receives from them.
While military spec caffeine gum prepares to push into the military market, Jolt Gum has a dedicated following. In Army and Air Force Exchange System shops worldwide, for instance, sales of Jolt Gum topped 221,000 packs in 2005, according to figures provided by AAFES. The gum was most popular at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, where nearly 4,100 packs were sold.
In fact, combat exchanges accounted for eight of the 10 best-selling locations for Jolt Gum; more than 64,000 packs were sold in war zones in one year. That’s still a far cry from sales of the preferred combat zone pick-me-up, Red Bull energy drink, which easily moves more than 30,000 cans at contingency exchanges each week.
“We really do, both individually and as a company, support the men and women of the armed forces, and we take enormous pride in our ability to assist them, even in a small way, with their heroic undertaking,” Gearhart said. “If nothing else, we wish to express that support.”
Troops who find themselves with only Jolt Gum on hand shouldn’t dismiss the product right away. While it hasn’t been performance-tested the way military spec caffeine gum has, it’s better than nothing.
“It should work in a similar fashion,” Kamimori said.
Still, he recommends commanders purchase military spec caffeine gum for their troops, through the supply chain, NSN 8970-01-530-1219
“To date, there really hasn’t been much sold,” Kamimori said. “They’re just starting to see the first orders.”
Unit commanders will thank themselves later, he said.
“It’s been like gold for them,” Kamimori said of the units that have field-tested military spec caffeine gum in Afghanistan and Iraq. “This is something that’s going to help the average soldier. It’s not always very glamorous.”