It’s a known fact that there are simply never enough hours in the day, but whereas for some, this just means limiting a Netflix binge session, for others, it could signal the difference between life and death.
Of course, we’re talking about First Responders and the very real – very serious effects – that a lack of sleep can have – both on job performance and their own well-being. And with over two million reported First Responders in the US – over half of these being firefighters (significant as studies continue to show that they are most affected by lack of sleep due to the grueling nature of firefighters’ schedules) – this is not something to be taken lightly.
In fact, one study of nearly 7,000 firefighters by the International Fire Chiefs Association found a whopping 37% screened positive for a sleep disorder, and they were more likely to report a car crash, falling asleep at the wheel, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety than those who didn’t. Firefighter sleep deprivation, therefore, is not to be ignored.
With any type of shift work, however, comes the potential for sleep disorder – it’s just the nature of the beast, unfortunately, with police shift scheduling not far behind in terms of potential health implications. Usually, it manifests itself in one of two ways: Insomnia or excessive tiredness.
It’s no secret that sleep is essential for optimal everything. So, what exactly are we looking at when the First Responders we so heavily rely on in this country are not getting anywhere close to the recommended seven hours a night?
First Responders and sleep
According to sleep researcher Susan L. Koen, as featured in a Firehouse article, sleep deprivation is defined as “insufficient deep sleep or restorative sleep for the brain” … causing “cognitive or brain fatigue that can result in slowed reaction time, decreased vigilance and impairment in complex reasoning skills.”
A lack of regular sleep is continually associated with less-than-favorable health effects, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, with the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute prescribing sleep to help repair heart and blood vessels. In fact, according to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, more than 60% of firefighter deaths are caused by cardiovascular problems.
Furthermore, as adequate sleep has also been linked to maintaining a healthy balance of the body’s hormones that regulate hunger, it will not only fend off excessive weight gain but also, in turn, sleep apnea – thus ensuring some quality shut-eye in the process.
Alzheimer’s Disease was also linked to a lack of sleep when a research team at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that the brain has a unique waste management system – ridding itself of various proteins associated with the disease - which kicks into action while we’re asleep. Long periods of being awake, therefore, can lead to an excessive build-up of the bad stuff.
Unfortunately, First Responder’s mental health statistics speak for themselves - you can read more about it in our blog about why a proper diet is so important to First Responder mental health and wellness here. And taking the lack of sleep among First Responders into consideration may well help to explain why so many First Responders suffer from things like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, with Harvard Mental Health just one source suggesting that sleeping issues are associated with mental health disorders. Stanford University School of Medicine also published a 10-year study that found a positive relationship between poor sleep quality and suicide, concluding that a sleep-deprived adult is 1.4 times more likely to kill themselves. Quite simply, there can never be enough First Responder mental health resources available to help our heroes.
It should come as no great revelation that sleep deprivation leads to increased errors and a greater risk of accidents. Some fire department sleep studies even suggest that being awake for 18 hours straight has the same effect on cognitive abilities as a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, while being awake for 24 hours equates to 0.096% alcohol concentration levels – the same as being legally intoxicated.
Solutions for shift work sleep disorders
So, what can be done?
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