Who doesn’t want better sleep in 2020?
What is it about modern-day society that is lacking from what our ancestors had?
Fewer distractions, and better-quality sleep. We have to work to remove distractions, and sleep is such a hot commodity we have to strive to be able to achieve what our ancestors naturally reaped the rewards from sufficient quality sleep. With shift work, first responder sleep has become increasingly more complex and elusive. While many of us can nod off and drift into slumber, others, (as much as 40%) have disordered sleep and struggle to receive adequate, restful sleep and recovery. There is good news, you have the power to optimize your sleep, but it takes a committed intention and effort. there’s no better time than now! A new year, a new decade, and a new you!
Sleep is one of the hot topics in the fire and emergency services world, yet sometimes, in certain places, the topic is shied away from. Why? Because there is a concern around evidence being presented for a schedule change. First things first, let’s take the stress off: in reality, it takes a lot of measures for most departments to change policy and structure, and to be honest, we have no interest in addressing schedules. Besides, no matter how many ways a scheduled is manipulated, you can never change the fact that people need first responders, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Someone has to be there to answer the call in the middle of the night. We are exclusively focused on solutions that can be implemented that are practical, proven, and effective to improve sleep quality for first responders, regardless of schedules and call volumes. We are advocates for your long term health and wellness.
Here are the top 3 questions we receive in our First Responder Sleep Recovery Training:
- Why do I randomly wake between midnight and 4 am when I am not on shift?
- How do I shut off a busy mind to sleep?
- How do I fall asleep faster after running a call in the middle of the night?
These questions recur in every class, in every department, nationwide. Good news, there are easy, actionable things within your power that are practical and effective at resolving your disturbances and improving your sleep.
#1. Timing to Level Up Your Sleep Hygiene
You likely have an alarm clock to wake you for your shift, to take the kids to school, or for your day-off gig. For some time, the magic sleep number has been 7-8 hours, but firefighters and other first responders on shift schedules need to look at sleep timing differently. It is more important to look at how many sleep cycles you receive in one night, versus total cumulative sleep time, because not all sleep is created equal.
What is a sleep cycle? A sleep cycle is a pattern of brain waves and internal body activities that occur on average every 90 minutes through the night. There are 5 stages, and each stage is associated with varying brain waves, heart rates and functions. If your sleep cycle is interrupted early on, say 30 minutes in, it may be easier for you to be alert and ready to work, rather than if you are interrupted mid deep sleep, i.e. Delta brain waves that may be occurring 70 minutes in. The objective is to get in 5 sleep cycles per night. Or, if your days are extra loaded, you work out a lot, or your body is just wired for it, your ideal total should be 6 sleep cycles. Because sleep is so frequently interrupted our target focus should be how to maximize a first responder’s ability to ensure sufficient time in the deeply restorative physiological and psychological repair stages of sleep, which are Stage 4 (Delta) and Stage 5 (Rapid Eye Movement, REM). We will review how diet and physical practices influence the brain’s neurochemistry to access to these highly important and critically restorative aspects of sleep.
Sleep Hack & Sleep Recovery TIP: Time your sleep cycles based off the time you should
go to bed rather than just when you need to wake up. Calculate 5 cycles backwards. For example: I need to wake up at 6:30 am, so in order for me to receive 6 full sleep cycles, I need to go to bed at 9:30 pm. If you do not receive 4 full cycles in one night, prioritize a sleep cycle during the day. Yes, that means a 90-minute nap or a 30-minute Sleep Recovery Practice!
#2. Intermittent Feeding and Fasting
Have you ever tried to turn off a computer and you get a notification that the machine can’t power off because of programs and apps that are running? Consider your body’s ability to sleep deep the same. If you load up with high-calorie foods within the last hour or two of waking, your body is tasked with digestive processes, which take resources away from more important functions of sleep recovery, such as heart repair, rebuilding the population of our natural killer cells (our immune defense against cancer growth) and healing the neuroplasticity of the brain for emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Sleep Hack & Sleep Recovery TIP: Give your body a breather from food, and stop eating 2-3 hours before your sleep time. If your bedtime is 9:30, take your last bites of food between 6:30pm or 7:30pm. When you wake, give your body an hour period to adjust to day time. Your hormones for daytime activity are priming upon waking, so better to hold on breakfast rather than rushing it. If you wake at 6:30, wait to eat until 7:30am or later. Use caution with your timing of alcohol, and caffeine. Both of these substances will stunt your brain’s natural ability to receiving ample healing time in REM and Delta, deep brainwave sleep.
Sleep promoting nightcaps (alcohol-free) can be an enjoyable addition to your nighttime routine. One of our favorites is a tea derived from Eastern cultures, it is known as Kava tea. It has been used for centuries for its anti-anxiety enhancing properties.
#3. Work the “Buffer Zone”
There are special light-sensitive ganglionic cells in the eyes that are in constant communication with the master clock of our brains that regulate our wake and sleep cycle. Simply put, when you are exposed to real sunlight, or artificial light, your brain will cue the body to produce awake hormones, such as cortisol. In the absence of light, these cells receive darkness and the master clock will communicate with the pineal gland of the brain to produce melatonin, your sleep hormone. Ensuring that you receive adequate sunlight in the day, especially morning, and darkness at night is critically important for strengthening the circadian rhythm for shift workers.
Individuals who live in geographic regions that receive an abundance of sunlight in the day, and people who tend to do recreation outdoors, will exhibit stronger circadian rhythms and experience deeper, more restorative sleep than people who spend more of their time indoors, or who live in dark, cloudy regions.
Our society goes from 0-100mph, rarely without any mode in between. This creates a stress on the endocrine system, and the ripple effect impairs how much energy we are capable of feeling on a good day, as well as how capable our mind and bodies are at accessing the highly important deep sleep. The “buffer zone” is what we call the transition time between sleep and waking, and time from waking to sleeping. It can be used to mindfully to prepare for a good day and as an effective tool to access restorative sleep, if done correctly.
Sleep Hack & Sleep Recovery TIP: Consider your morning and evening buffer zones your personal time. Dedicate time to prepare and unwind for your day. During the B.Z. you do things that feel good and effortless. Each person has different preferences. Think of a mindful morning routine that you can effortlessly implement, even if it is only for a few minutes. Think of it like a slow rev to the day. It can be a mellow walk outside, opening up the senses of the day noticing nature around you, sounds, sights, smells (phone on silent), a few minutes of slow stretching, something to set the tone of your day, getting exposed to natural sunlight and drinking some hot water with lemon or tea, or mushroom coffee (yep, we are on that bandwagon!– email us if you want to know why we think it’s great firstname.lastname@example.org).
A nighttime routine is to totally unwind and let go of the day. This is not scrolling social media or screen time. Ideas for this buffer zone to decelerate from the day are to enjoy some chill music, read, or practice any mindfulness activities that bring the heart rate down. Some recommended activities are old fashioned quality time with loved ones (get out those board games!), other activities include the ancient martial arts known as Qi Gong, yoga, breathing techniques and the Sleep Recovery Practice (SRP). The SRP is a short integrative progressive muscular relaxation and guided sleep-based relaxation we teach that has been studied and shown to improve sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep after running a call) and deep sleep quality (Delta brainwaves).
These buffer zone practices are so important because they physiologically shift gears so your neurochemistry is primed for sleep. As the body and mind unwind, the nervous system is given the opportunity to shift out of the sympathetic mode, known as fight or flight, and the parasympathetic nervous system response engages; this is your “rest, digest and heal” response. When the
parasympathetic nervous system is activated, neurotransmitters like serotonin are produced. This specific neurotransmitter, serotonin, is an important precursor to the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Practicing these daily activities mindfully are truly transformative and life-changing. As Arvada Firefighter Ryan Bender states, “After the Sleep Recovery Practice I feel amazing! Been practicing every day and night and so far I feel great! Thank you. I finally feel like my head is clear and not in a fog anymore. Haven’t felt this way in about five years.”
4.) Cold Dark Caveman Sleeping
Do you regard your night space as a clutter closet or a sleep sanctuary? There is research that provides evidence that the environment you sleep in will influence your quality of rest. In a study of out Europe, researchers found that individuals that slept in clean, well filtrated and ventilated air and that had less indoor air pollutants woke feeling more rested and energized.
Sleep Hack & Sleep Recovery TIP: Upgrade your space by clearing out piles of paperwork, old junk and laundry. Your space should be minimal, cool, dark and comfortable. You don’t have to get rid of all bedroom decorations, in fact a couple of sentimental items to look at before lying down, like a family vacation photo or a family keepsake are good to keep on a mantle. These items help the mind decompress by inspiring positive memories and shifting the thoughts out of the days’ events to prepare for total relaxation and slumber. We love blackout curtains, fresh cotton sheets and getting a new non-toxic mattress every 5-7 years. Aim for 65-68*F for nice, cooling sleep.
Perception defines your reality, so this sleep hack may be most important of them all. How do you perceive your sleep? Do you perceive your sleep as difficult, stressful, a struggle to get enough, a battle to calm the mind or frustrated by not being able to sleep through the night? One, you are not alone, and two, don’t beat yourself up too much. Try to ease up and shift your perception. It’s normal and natural to have sleep disturbances from time to time. And when it becomes consistent, a little effort can go a long way to fix the problem. Trust in your body’s innate ability to restore and recovery properly. Perceive your sleep as a nighttime visit to your internal pharmacy, where you can refill your natural prescription of feel-good chemicals, anti-inflammatories, and the ability to promote overall heart and immune health. Set your sleep quality up for success, and your body will do the rest (pun intended!). If your sleep issue is a result of a diagnosed sleep disorder or a side effect of Post-Traumatic Stress, the trajectory toward sleep restoration may take more time, but there are now new, viable options for healing. The Sleep Recovery Practice has been studied and proven effective for minor and major sleep disturbances, including post-traumatic stress and insomnia. It promotes the body’s natural ability to fall asleep and sleep soundly.
We hope to have inspired some new sleep-promoting practices for your new year. Stay positive, and sleep better, you will regain control over your mental, physical health and quality of wellbeing in 2020.
Jacqueline Toomey co-created the First Responder Sleep Recovery Program with her firefighter husband, Sean Toomey. She received her B.A. from Regis University, completed masters-level coursework in education at Metro State University, and trained in Nutrition Therapy. As a four-time Yoga Alliance certified instructor, Jacqueline integrates various modalities for mind-body healing in an accessible and effective way for first responders. The Toomeys are honored to teach at departments, conferences, and locals across the United States and Canada. Learn more about this sleep training for first responders at www.firstrespondersleeprecovery.com/contact .