7 Tips For First Responders to Get Better Sleep
I’ve said this before and I’ll likely say it again: I don’t think there’s anyone that loves this job more than me. There may be some out there that love it as much, but no one loves it more than I do.
Because I love it, I’m willing to deal with the tough side of the job that we all collectively agree to sign up for. Like a higher risk of cancer than the average Joe, the potential to die or become severely injured on any given shift, and all of the sleep deprivation that I’ll sustain over my 30 years (God willing, at least 30) on the fire department.
People needing help and calling 911 at night is something I’ll never be able to control.
I can eat healthier, I can try to train so that I’m safer on the job, but I can’t stop calls from coming in after midnight.
This means my sleep at home usually sucks. This is what I signed up for and I’ll sacrifice my sleep to help others every shift for the rest of my career.
But, I will also take steps at home to sleep better so that I can recover, live healthier and help offset some of the physical damage being done to my mind and body when I’m on shift.
Our circadian rhythm is so important in maintaining our normal sleep cycles. It tells us when to wake up, when to go to sleep and how long we should stay asleep for.
The circadian rhythm is programmable to a certain extent. The amount of sunlight during the day and how long you normally sleep for make a pattern or memory in this rhythm. It’s like rolling up a garden hose, it wants to roll up a certain way every time and if you try to change it once it has its memory, it’s kind of tough.
You can reset your circadian rhythm
To “reset” your circadian rhythm, you need a routine. This routine needs to promote good sleep, decrease anxiety at night and cue your body into getting ready for bed. Doing this consistently means you’ll reduce the amount of cortisol in your blood (the stress hormone). I’m not a sleep pathologist, but I can say what I’ve received from training in my department and what I’ve researched from professionals in this industry.
Please see the bottom of this post for good references to exactly what I’m talking about here
1- Limit screen time 1 hour before bed
Just a few generations ago we didn’t have screens to look at of any kind. This means that our sleep cues were set by the daylight outside. And so that went for thousands of years before the invention of screens (or even the light bulb).
One could argue that our circadian rhythm has been getting screwed up ever since the TV was invented. Our bodies have adapted to getting tired when natural lights start going away.
So, doesn’t it make sense that our bodies are getting tricked into thinking that we should stay awake if we’re still looking into lights? Watching TV, looking at your phone, even reading on a kindle produces white/blue lights that the brain thinks are sunlight. And the brain does not want to shut off when there is sunlight. Maybe for the occasional nap, but surely not for 8 hours straight.
TIP: Cutting out your phone time before bed can be as easy as leaving it outside your bedroom to charge at night. Whenever I say this someone always responds: “But I use it as my alarm!” An alarm costs like 10 bucks on Amazon. You can get it delivered tomorrow if you ordered it today. You could make it happen if you wanted to.
2- Set up a routine before bed with a hot shower. Caffeine-free tea (or another light, warm drink before bed helps)
Warm showers and/or hot beverages can be a good cue for the brain to shut off and for the body to prepare for sleep. Relaxing tension, reducing stress, slowing down your heart rate, and just getting comfortable will tell your mind that the day is winding down before sleep. You’re telling your primitive brain that you’re not trying to go on a hunt for food, you’ve stopped your day’s journey and you’re setting up camp by the fireside before bed.
3- Read a book (a real one)
This is a pleasant distraction. Most firefighters are trying to cram in the house work, chores and every other personal matter into their days off since they spent 24 hours at a firehouse. Because of this, we tend to make long to-do lists or plans and if we don’t get them done, we stress about them. I think our stress kicks up as soon as we lay in bed, too. It’s like our mind knows we’re about to lay down and it flips a switch to tell us to get jacked up. Almost exactly like the tones dropping in the firehouse when you get in the shower or when you’re about to eat. Can’t help it!
Reading a book helps completely direct your focus at something. Once you distract yourself by focusing on something that’s NOT stressful, and you’re laying down, you will start to feel more tired. Some people try this with TV, which definitely works as a distraction but you’re breaking rule #1, remember?
Try not to resort to an e-book either. E books are great, I read them frequently. But, if you’re looking at a screen, you’re breaking rule #1 again! I know most screens have a “night time mode” and this turns your screen into more of a brown-tinted sepia color but it’s still artificial light. Studies have shown that a soft-white or yellow bulb in the lamp next to your bed is better for you than an e book when it comes to getting good sleep.
4- Eat healthy
The link between healthy diet and good sleep is interesting. You wouldn’t think too much about what you eat affecting your sleep, but it does. This excerpt is from sleep.org:
“A diet low in fiber and high in saturated fats could take a toll on your shuteye by decreasing the amount of deep, slow-wave sleep that you get during the night. Meanwhile, eating too much sugar could result in more midnight wake-ups. On the other hand, a healthy balanced diet that’s high in fiber and low in added sugars could help you to drift off faster, and log as many as two extra hours of sleep a week. For your best night’s sleep, strive to eat a balanced diet that emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat proteins that are rich in B vitamins, like fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy. B vitamins may help to regulate melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep cycles.”
5- Try to get a workout in earlier
Working out close to bed not only cues the brain into thinking your trying to still keep the day going but it releases cortisol. Cortisol has its purpose, but it is a stress hormone and it keeps us awake. Cortisol should be at its peak during the morning and at its lowest at night. It has an opposite effect of melatonin (which helps us sleep). Workout earlier and let that cortisol wear off by the time you have to go to bed.
A 2011 study showed that this wasn’t true for everyone, that most people can finish a workout and go to bed 30 minutes later without any effect on their sleep cycle. However, there was a category of people in that study that proved to have issues “turning their brains off” at night to fall asleep. If that sounds like you, then I would stay away from a workout before bed. The general consensus from what I’ve read is 2 hours, but feel free to experiment and see what works for you! Exercising at all is better for sleep than doing nothing according to WebMd and the chief sleep doc at Harvard.
6- Sleep recovery practices
If you haven’t checked out firstrespondersleeprecovery.com I strongly suggest you do. I have no affiliation with this brand, they probably don’t even know I exist, but I’ve read everything they’ve put out and I love their ideology and practices. I firmly believe in meditation and breathing techniques before bed, and these guys and girls know a ton about it. Sleep recovery practices (in their definition) are a mix of a type of yoga (more along the lines of breathing) and meditation along with some of the tips I wrote about above.
Slow, rhythmic breathing and focusing properly on sleep can do a TON for naturally balancing your hormones and slowing heart rate. These practices have been endorsed by the Dept. of Defense and are being taught at fire departments all over the country, it’s pretty cool stuff.
A natural compound that can reduce cortisol, balance serotonin which in turn reduces anxiety and increases REM sleep is CBD. Your endocannabinoid system (what CBD works on) is massive. It’s woven into almost every facet of your body and can have big effects on homeostasis. But, it can only be stimulated with cannabinoids (like CBD). Studies have shown that the majority of people taking CBD will have improved sleep throughout the night. This includes quality REM sleep, and for firefighters, that’s extremely important since we’re robbed of REM sleep most of the time we’re on shift. There’s no way to get 100% quality sleep when you’re working. I understand all the questions and concerns regarding taking CBD.
If you haven’t seen our post about CBD for firefighters, check it out. It answers all of your questions regarding passing drug tests, legality and if it’s safe for us to use.
7 Tips For First Responders to Get Better Sleep: The bottom line
Sleep deprivation is a complex problem for first responders.
- You should try to combat it with a multi-faceted approach. Doing just one thing is not going to solve the problem, it’s about creating a habit of committing to better sleep through several practices and sticking to them.
- Invest in yourself so you can stay healthy on and off the job and be there for the citizens we swore to protect.
- Eat properly
- Exercise earlier in the day
- Avoid screen time and consider getting an actual alarm clock so you don’t have to have your phone in your bedroom
- CBD’s many benefits for hormone regulation promotes good sleep in the majority of people that take it. Ours is drug-test friendly at 0.000% THC
If you found this helpful, share with the guys and girls at the firehouse and post it on social!
About the Author:
Jon Vought is a firefighter/paramedic in south Florida with 11 years on the job. He’s a fire service instructor and the lead advisor for the local firefighter youth program. He has a passion for instruction, the outdoors and bringing CBD into the fire service.
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