Why Sleep Matters and Other Tips for First Responders
Between night shifts and on-call duty, home and family demands (many first responders are also parents), and the go-getter temperament found in so many first responders, sleep can be
hard to come by. As many as thirty seven percent of firefighters—over a third—may not only be sleep-deprived but have an actual sleep disorder. 1
For anyone who is concerned about their health (everyone, in other words) this is a serious cause for alarm. The effects of short-term sleep deprivation include poor concentration, anxiety, fatigue, and decreased performance. Any one of these can pose a serious hazard when working as an emergency responder, where quick thinking and high-intensity performance carry high stakes—both for emergency workers, and those they are helping.
The effects of long term sleep deprivation are even more alarming. Poor sleep over an extended period of time can cause serious health problems, including increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attack or heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and certain types of cancer, in addition to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, confusion, and stress. While some level of sleep deprivation may be inevitable in emergency services, first responders can take several steps to improve their quality of sleep.
1. Prioritize Sleep. Simply making sleep a priority goes a long way. No one knows better than you what times you will be able to get long, uninterrupted stretches of sleep. This
isn’t always intuitive for some first responders, who are often have highly motivated and active personalities. But the better sleep you get, the better you will be able to be active
and alert when you are awake.
2. Sleep in Long Stretches. Not all sleep is created equal. While it may be hard to come by uninterrupted stretches of sleep, getting these stretches, with complete REM cycles
(at least four to five hours) is more beneficial than getting a high amount of sleep in shorter segments. Power naps can go a long way in restoring temporary alertness and
energy, but they don’t offer the restorative benefits of deep sleep. 2
3. Create a Sleep-Friendly Environment. Whether you are taking a nap on a shift or at home, your environment can contribute greatly to your quality of sleep. Power down
lights, especially from screens such as laptops and cell phones or bright lights such as digital clocks. Aim for a cooler ambient temperature, around sixty-eight degrees.
Consider installing a fan or white noise machine, which may help you sleep more quickly and more deeply.
4. Exercise. Engaging in aerobic exercise during the day can promote more healthful sleep. However, avoid intense exercise shortly before bed, which can make falling
asleep more difficult.
5. Avoid Stimulants Before Bed. Caffeine, alcohol, tyrosine-rich foods or other stimulants can disrupt sleep when taken in the evening or later, and are best reserved for earlier
times of day or when needed on night shifts. Look for these ingredients in body building supplements or other dietary aids to help determine when they will be most effective
without impacting your sleep.
6. Get adequate nutrition! Nutrition and sleep both have a powerful impact on health, but adequate nutrition can also improve your sleep. Nutrition for firefighters, EMTs,
Paramedics and other first responders is especially vital given the demanding nature of emergency services. Be sure that you are receiving adequate amounts of magnesium
and zinc, as well as other micro- and macro- nutritional needs. Taking melatonin may also help induce quicker sleep. If you are experiencing the effects of chronic sleep deprivation, don’t hesitate to consult with a doctor or sleep specialist. High quality sleep is an important part of your health and plays a vital role in performance and recovery.
For more information, look at David Peterson’s Article, “The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation for
Emergency Workers” at firehouse.com 3 .