Substance abuse, marital relationship issues, depression, suicide, chronic degenerative disease (Aging faster than you normally would), and body fat are ever increasing amongst our brothers and sisters. Recalls, reduced staffing leading to higher strain per resource per day, less downtime to decompress and/or sleep are all negative contributors to the silent suffering we as first responders deal with.
While there are many traditions that are important to maintain and a high standard of service to provide our communities, the fire service is evolving. Some things need to change. Be honest and ask if you’re not taking care of yourself how can you take care of anybody else? Understanding that taking care of yourself doesn’t make you any less of a “tough” man, woman, firefighter. Having situational awareness can mean the difference between life and death. That’s true on the fire ground, and that’s true for ourselves.
What better place to start than with the bedrock of wellness: sleep. Ironically, sleep is what most people have at the bottom of their priority list. In a profession where it’s hard enough to come by, lack of sleep in some circles is a nonsensical badge of honor. Thankfully this appears to be changing. Although as a new member it’s important to get your reps in, sleep debt does come with a price.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, a tenured neuroscientist associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and host of the popular podcast “Huberman Lab,” explains the results of recent studies on sleep in his December 8th, 2022 episode. Some of the information discussed in this episode is summarized below.
Throughout the night we experience three stages of sleep. Deep Sleep/Slow Wave sleep occurs primarily in the first half of your sleep night (8 p.m. – 2 a.m.). Light Sleep occurs in the “middle” of your sleep night, and finally Rapid Eye Movement (REM) the second half/end of your sleep night (5 a.m. – 8 a.m.).
These different stages of sleep have profound effects on our health. Deep Sleep (8 p.m. – 2 a.m.) is vitally important. It is responsible for releasing growth hormone which affect testosterone and estrogen levels respectively. Deep Sleep helps with muscle repair. Deep Sleep is also involved in metabolism and regulating insulin. Most importantly though are the benefits associated with brain tissue. High quality Deep Sleep leads to a “wash out of debris” (Beta Amyloid) in the brain known to lead to dementia. Actionable steps to improve the quality of your Deep Sleep include avoiding caffeine and alcohol at least eight hours before bedtime. Follow the “3-2-1” rule: no food three hours before bed, no fluids two hours before bed, and no screens (iphone, tv, etc.) one hour before bed. At night during calls or “holding the wall” at the emergency room wear long sleeve shirts, hats, and/or blue-blocking glasses. Your skin is an organ, and as such you will absorb light through your skin/eyes. The blue light used in brightly-lit facilities and on your smart phone will decrease your body’s melatonin levels causing you difficulty falling back to sleep/achieving high quality sleep (Deep Sleep/REM).
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (5 a.m. – 8 a.m.) has its own unique benefits when we get adequate amounts during our night. REM is normally a period when we have highly emotional dreams also known as a “trauma release.” This is thought to be important for emotional repair. Studies have shown that those deprived of REM sleep decrease their ability to manage emotions during the day. In other words, lack of REM can lead to you becoming depressed, and moody with family, coworkers, or patients.
Aside from being awake due to increased call volumes, a majority of first responders have trouble falling asleep due to “hypervigilance.” Hypervigilance is defined by WebMD as “the elevated state of constantly assessing potential threats around you. People who have been in combat, have survived abuse, or have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can exhibit hypervigilance.” The United States military realized the issue of hypervigilance with soldiers returning from Afghanistan; and in 2006 the U.S. Department of Defense conducted research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the efficacy of “iRest.” iRest is an adapted form of Yoga Nidra, “yogi-sleep,” developed by Richard Miller, PhD, to help service members returning from the Global War on Terror better manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress which include issues sleeping. iRest Meditation has historically been endorsed by the U.S. Army Surgeon General and recognized by the Defense Centers of Excellence For Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury as a form of complementary and alternative medicine. You can learn more about iRest and their work with our veterans/military at www.irest.org/projects/veterans. Additionally, a great resource I have found helpful via social media on Instagram is the “Bio-Hacked Firefighter.” Coach Christina Dizon is a fellow firefighter whose passion is assisting fellow first responders in upgrading their sleep, recovery, and lifestyle through wellness and bio-hacking strategies. She has informative posts I’ve found very helpful that are aligned with the iRest protocols.
Work relief and a decrease in call volume do not appear to be coming anytime soon. It’s up to you to not only look out for your fellow brothers and sisters, but also yourself. If you are not looking out for your own well-being how can you take care of others? Old School traditions meet New School realities. Keep your word, have integrity, work hard and work smart. When you work hard, you need to rest and recover hard. We have the best job in the world. We also want to live long enough to enjoy the benefits of the job with our families for many years after retirement. Change starts today.
By Jason Villeggiante