When I read Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, a 400-page ode to the importance of sleep, I quickly saw the importance of his message for first responders. Dr. Stephanie Conn wrote an excellent article earlier in the year on the science and importance of sleep, also citing the tome. While I would strongly urge you to read the book yourself, below, I provide practical suggestions that can be used as a starting point to help improve your sleep.
What are you putting in your body? If you are having trouble sleeping, the first place to check is whether any of the substances you are using (hopefully limited to coffee, alcohol and/or tobacco) are impacting your sleep. Caffeine can create a vicious cycle: drinking coffee or energy drinks to keep you awake, having difficulty sleeping, being tired and drinking more caffeine to keep you awake. Keep in mind that the “half-life” of caffeine is about 8 hours. This means that even if you have a coffee in the early afternoon, half of the caffeine will still be in your system eight hours later.
Experiment with reducing your caffeine intake to see if your sleep improves or limit the caffeine to the very start of your day. While you may rely on caffeine to help you wake up, many officers also rely on alcohol to fall asleep. Unknown to many is that alcohol induces sedation, not sleep. This is more akin to being put under anesthesia than natural sleep. While it may look the same on the surface (i.e., “I am no longer conscious, does it matter why?”), alcohol actually fragments your sleep and suppresses REM phases, which means that you will not wake up rested. If you think you can’t fall asleep with alcohol, it is definitely time to address your insomnia. Lastly, tobacco
is another substance to be mindful of. Nicotine is a stimulant that wakes up your brain. Many smokers wake up earlier because nicotine withdrawal can occur within several hours of going
What is the environment telling your body? Light and temperature are two key variables that impact your circadian rhythm. Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool and gadget-free. If you are working the night shift, install some light-blocking shades or curtains or invest in a sleep mask to cover your eyes. Light triggers are why you may feel exhausted during your night shift, but as you’re headed home and glimpse the sunrise, you suddenly start to feel very awake. If you’re having trouble falling asleep at night and waking up rested in the morning, try to keep your sunlight (and light-emitting electronics) to the morning and turn down the lights before bed. You can also try using a light alarm to wake you up. Core temperature is another important variable. Generally, cooler temperatures are conducive to good sleep, so make sure your bedroom is cool. With that in mind, don’t exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise helps burn through stress chemicals, which is important when you are trying to sleep better. However, if you exercise too close to bedtime, you will raise your core temperature, which will make it more difficult to fall asleep. On the other hand, taking a hot bath will ironically help your temperature drop once you are out of the bath.
What habits do you need to build or break? The exhausting cycle of not feeling rested may mean that you’re prone to taking a nap on the couch. However, if you’re having trouble sleeping when you go to bed, don’t take naps after 3 p.m. (or at least seven hours before bedtime). As we stay awake, a sleep chemical called adenosine builds up in our system. This chemical induces what is called “sleep pressure.” When you take a nap, you reduce the sleep pressure and your body’s desire to sleep, making it less likely that you will be able to fall asleep at bedtime. Secondly, don’t lie awake in bed. Lying awake in bed creates an association between your bed and anxiety. Over time, your brain will start to view the bed as a signal for worry. This is why you are able to fall asleep immediately in your favorite chair yet feel alert as soon as you come to bed. If you are feeling restless, do not stay in bed. Leave the bedroom and engage in another relaxing activity until you feel tired. If you tend to ruminate on a task list while you are lying in bed, start making a written to-do list before you lay down.
Lastly, stick to a sleep schedule. If you follow just one tip from this article, this is the one to follow! This is the best way to create a healthy functioning circadian rhythm. If you need to, set an alarm to remind you to get to bed at the same time. Try to stick to the same schedule during your on and off days.
While many of the suggestions may seem impractical, they are small sacrifices to make when seen in comparison to how detrimental the effects of poor sleep truly are. If you are struggling with insomnia, find a provider trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). CBT-I has been shown to be the most effective and safe way to improve sleep in the long term. If practiced over time, this method is even more effective than sleeping medication.