As though getting a solid night sleep wasn’t challenging enough for you while on shift, now we have proof that firefighters are at greater risk of suffering from some type of sleep disorders that makes it even worse. The result of a study on 7,000 firefighters nationwide was released in 2015 reporting that 37% of firefighters suffer from some sleep disorders such as Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder, sleep apnea and chronic sleep restriction (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2015).
Let’s look at what some of these sleep disorders look like for your body. Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder means your body clock is constantly out of whack because your sleep/awake cycle is forever changing as the calls come in and as your work shift changes. Your body lives in this constant cycle where it knows that it needs to be alert the second that a call comes in, even if you are sleeping.
Sleep apnea is where your breath is pausing while you are sleeping, this can happen for seconds or minutes at a time. You stop breathing while you are sleeping and then your body recognizes what is happening and jolts you out of it through a loud snort or choking sound, so you start breathing again. After that, you continue to breathe as normal until the next time it happens throughout the course of your sleep cycle. Even though this can occur on average of 30 times a night, you generally don’t even register that you’re choked into breathing again. If you are sharing a bed or sleeping space with someone, they are probably more aware that it is happening than you are.
Just as someone in your sleeping space is probably aware if you suffer from sleep apnea, they are also probably very aware if you are snoring. Snoring is actually a sign that you might be suffering from sleep apnea because snoring can indicate that there is an obstruction of the airway and the air has to squeeze by to get in and out. The 2015 study mentioned above identified that 28.4% of firefighters have sleep apnea. That is a pretty high number compared to the 5% of the US population that has it (Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2016). It’s pretty safe to say that some attention needs to be given in this area for firefighters.
Chronic sleep restriction is just as it sounds; your sleep is restricted due to the nature of the job. You tend not to get the full amount of sleep needed in one stint of time for your body to go through the process of repair because you are consistently being awoken to respond to an emergency. Adults need on average of 8 hours of sleep a day to fully repair the body. How often does it happen that you get 8 hours of solid sleep, without interruption?
So how do you know if you have a sleep disorder?
It might be time to figure out if you have a sleep disorder. Do you wake up feeling groggy or with a sore throat like you were snoring all night long? Maybe you suffer from a sleep disorder and don’t even know it. You can take this self-assessment here and see what your results are: http://www.usc.edu/programs/cwfl/assets/pdf/sleep_test.pdf or you could just ask anyone at the station, and they will probably tell you just how badly you snore, that is if they can hear you over their snoring.
What do I do about it?
Just because you might suffer from one of these sleep disorders, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to have to sleep with one of those machines over your mouth and nose that makes you sound like Darth Vader when he is breathing, there are other treatments available and some you can even do on your own. I am going to give you a few options to try, but you should still see a doctor to dig a little deeper into the problem.
If you have a few extra pounds hanging around from the winter, or maybe even last winter, work on losing them. Not only does that help with your sleep apnea but it reduces your risk for heart disease too. So try just 30 minutes of exercise a day, this exercise does not include throwing on your gear and blazing your way into a burning building. You need actual planned cardio; your body will thank you.
Another option can be to change the position you sleep, try not to sleep on your back. There are plenty of new memory foam pillows out there now that can help you sleep in positions to support your head and neck for better breathing. So get online and order one, well maybe order two, one for the station and one for those occasional nights at home in your bed.
Sometimes your mind can get in the way of letting you fall asleep and stay asleep, and this can lead to sleep disorders. Meditation can help; I’m not saying you need to sit on a pillow with your legs crossed chanting umms. Meditation is as simple as finding a quiet space for 10-15 minutes and focusing on your breathing. Once you are in a space, find a comfortable way to sit. Close your eyes and take deep breaths in and out, focus on each breath you take. Focus on the feeling of the air coming into your lungs and out of your lungs. Breathe in for a count of ten and then exhale for a count of ten, emptying your mind of any thoughts except for the feeling of air entering and exiting your lungs. Just try it for 5 minutes and work your way up to more time. Once you are getting the hang of it, there are so many resources online if you search for Meditation or Mindfulness that can guide you even further.
If you think that you might have a sleep disorder, you should still schedule an appointment with your doctor to make sure there isn’t something worse going on. They can also help offer other methods of treatment. Failing to sleep soundly can be the beginning of even greater issues such as heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, memory loss and increased risk of death. You owe it to yourself, the firefighters at your station and your loved ones to take care of yourself.