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10 ways police officers can get better sleep

How safe do you feel knowing your backup officer hasn’t had a restful night’s sleep in weeks and is struggling to stay awake?

Sleep is important because it is the body’s way of recharging and rejuvenating. Once sleep is lost, it cannot be made up. Many first responders suffer from sleep-related issues, “…due in-part to odd shifts and long hours without adequate rest between shifts” (Johnson, 2013).

Sleep deprivation has numerous health and safety concerns (i.e., increased blood pressure, accident prone, weight gain, depression, increased cancer risks, etc.). How safe do you feel knowing your backup officer hasn’t had a restful night’s sleep in weeks and is struggling to stay awake?

Sleep — or the lack thereof — is everyone’s concern. The following may improve the quantity and quality of your sleep.

1. Reduce or eliminate use of chemicals like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Caffeine and nicotine over stimulate the brain, keeping sleep at bay (Division of Sleep Medicine Harvard Medical School, 2007; Huffington Post, 2014). A 2013 study from the University of Rochester Medical Center showed “… smoking leads to changes of the lung’s circadian clock — suggesting smoking can negatively affect sleep” (Huffington Post, 2014).

Other forms of nicotine (chewing and vaping) also contribute to sleep issues, as nicotine is a stimulant and does not allow the brain to shut off naturally. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant and can help one fall asleep when small doses are consumed. However, once the alcohol wears off, the ability to stay asleep is more difficult as alcohol inhibits the brain’s ability to progress into REM or rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep is the restful sleep that helps the body recharge. Even a few nights without adequate REM sleep can be detrimental.

2. Reduce activity and mental stimulation prior to bedtime (i.e., exercise, electronics, work). Any type of activity or stimulation to the body or brain has the opposite effect of helping the body to relax. Neurons begin to fire, revving up the brain’s electrical activity. This activity causes the release of chemicals associated with the “fight or flight” response, resulting in sleep issues (Hatfield, 2008).

3. Eat smaller meals and consume fewer liquids toward bedtime. This will prevent frequent nighttime bathroom trips. Certain foods bring on drowsiness, and other foods (spicy, greasy, etc.) can cause indigestion issues and digestive issues (National Sleep Foundation, 2016a).

4. Keep the bedroom for sex and sleep only. The National Sleep Foundation (2016a) refers to good sleep habits as “sleep hygiene.” By keeping the bedroom strictly for sleep and sex, a correlation is made between the bedroom and appropriate activities. This prepares the mind and body to wind down within the bedroom environment, thus eliminating the anxiety often associated with trying to fall and stay asleep.

5. Keep bedroom temps cool and reduce or eliminate all forms of light. A study regarding insomnia and body temperature found, “Sleepiness and sleep propensity are strongly influenced by our circadian clock as indicated by many circadian rhythms, most commonly by that of core body temperature” (Lack, Gradisar, Van Someren, Wright, & Lushington, 2008, p. 307).

Many studies show that light, especially blue wavelength light found in many electronics, “…suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms…” (Harvard Medical School, n.d.). Cover up lights or move them out of the room.

6. Learn to let go. Research indicates women suffer from more sleep-related issues than men, but men claim to get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. This is in part because women tend to worry and may go to bed thinking about things they need to get done.

Try making a to-do list and categorize the items by importance. Then learn to let go of the racing thoughts and know that getting a good night’s sleep will help you accomplish what you need to tomorrow.

7. Set a specific bedtime. Being able to set a specific bedtime will allow your body to get into a routine of shutting down, relaxing, and ultimately falling asleep. The idea of going to sleep about the same time each day is to get circadian rhythms back in check.

8. Body alignment and comfort are important. Joint, neck, and back pain can lead to sleep issues because of the inability to get comfortable and waking up in pain. Choose a mattress and pillows that provide comfort and support to all areas of the body.

9. Replace the mattress every five to seven years. Mattresses lose support and should be replaced every five years for those over 40 and every seven years for those under 40. As we age, the body experiences more pressure and a less than supportive mattress may do more harm than good (The Better Sleep Council, n.d.).

Mattresses that have visible signs of damage should also be replaced. In addition, mattresses collect dead skin cells, dust mites, and other allergens, which can lead to sneezing, wheezing, and asthma-related issues, all of which disrupt sleep.

10. Wash and replace pillows. Dr. Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, suggests washing pillow covers every few weeks and washing the actual pillow every few months. Oexman says pillows should be replaced at least every three years. Just like mattresses, pillows collect allergens that can disrupt sleep and the lose firmness over time (as cited in Klein & Strutner, 2015).

Many things can be done to get a better night’s sleep. However, if sleep problems persist, see your physician. Make sure to advise your physician before you use any type of sleep medication or sleep aids, as some have addictive properties. Sleep is vital to every aspect of our lives and should not be underestimated in our overall health. 

Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. (2007). Twelve simple tips to 
          improve your sleep. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from: 
Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Health Publications. 
          Retrieved January 6, 2016, from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-
Huffington Post. (2014, Jan 6). Smoking affects circadian rhythm, study finds. Retrieved 
          January 6, 2016, from:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/06/smoking-
Johnson, O. (2013, Spring). Sleep deprivation in first responders. ILEETA Journal, 19-
Klein, S., & Strutner, S. (2015). The gross truth about how often you should clean (and  
          replace) your pillow. Retrieved January 8, 2016, from: 
Lack, L.C., Gradisar, M., Van Someren, E.J., Wright, H.R., & Lushington, K. (2008, 
          August). The relationship between insomnia and body temperature. Sleep Medical 
          Review, 12(4), 307-17. 
National Sleep Foundation. (2016). Taste: What you eat and drink can affect your sleep. 
          Retrieved January 6, 2016, from: https://sleepfoundation.org/bedroom/taste.php
National Sleep Foundation. (2016a). Taste: What you eat and drink can affect 
The Better Sleep Council. (n.d.). Replacing a mattress. Retrieved January 7, 2016, from: 

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