12 May Five ways to optimize your sleep
Getting quality sleep when you work long hours or on rotating shifts is a complex task. I hope you are up for the task though because inadequate or irregular sleep puts you at risk for mental and physical health problems (Khoshakhlagh et al 2023) as well as problems with digestion, food choices, cognition, and performance. Below are 5 ways to improve your sleep today.
- Smart Napping
Naps are a great way to recharge and maintain endurance through a long work shift (e.g. 24-48 hrs). The duration of your workshift might help you decide how long your nap will be. For example, if you’re working a nightshift, you might consider a 30-minute nap in the few hours before your shift begins. This will decrease the sleep drive (sleep drive is akin to hunger) that has been building up in your system during the waking hours. A short nap of about 30 minutes may help you sustain your attention and performance while on the nightshift.
Longer naps are beneficial if you’re on an extended shift (>24 hours). Try to sleep in an area that is cool, dark, and quiet in the morning hours of the shift. When you’ve completed your shift, napping to make up for that sleep loss can be longer, e.g. 90-150 minutes. This may prove beneficial to replenish and get you back in action.
If you typically work a day shift and are having difficulty falling or staying asleep at nighttime, try to either eliminate naps completely or limit to 20-30 minutes. Take them in the first part of the day. You might need to experiment with different durations of naps to see what works best for you.
- Light up your life
Exposure to light, especially at a time when your body clock wants to sleep (e.g nighttime) affects almost every aspect of our physiology (Meyer et al 2022). Exposure to light signals at consistent time is important to set or “entrain” our body’s natural circadian rhythm. It’s important to minimize light before and during the sleep episode and to maximize light upon the end of a sleep episode. There are now many options of how we can minimize light exposure at night, ranging from the “Night Shift” function on the iPhone to programs that will dim your computer screen like f.lux. These programs typically turn the screen a red /orange color which block the blue wavelengths from the screen. You could also wear blue blocking goggles or install red light bulbs in your home to block the influence of white full spectrum lights. Light boxes are also helpful to use upon awakening if you do not have access to bright light in the morning.
- Worry and be happy
We all have a lot on our minds lately and the bed is often where we bring our thoughts. In order to break this cycle, we must actually do the thing we are avoiding all day: worry! So, at least two hours before you go to bed, take out a piece of paper (or on computer or phone note, but paper is better) and write down all the concerns/problems that might keep you awake. On the other side of the piece of paper, write down possible solutions/next steps. Continue this for no more than 15 minutes. This will provide the brain an opportunity to at least acknowledge these concerns even if you don’t have a solution right away. Put the piece of paper in the bedroom and if you wake up in the night, remind yourself that you’ve already dealt with this at a time that you were better at problem solving than you may be during the night.
When we are keyed up or on edge this often negatively affects our sleep. This can show up in the form of “my mind won’t shut down” or “my body just feels tense.” If your body has a tough time relaxing try cardiovascular exercise, any form of yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, body scans and others.
- Sleep to be alive
Where does sleep fall in your list of health-related priorities? It is sometimes said, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Getting enough sleep can be a challenge especially if you need to work a second job have caretaking responsibilities that require sustained periods of wakefulness. Ask yourself if you can limit this practice or occasionally delegate. Science has shown us that sleep deprivation can take a toll on mental and physical health. The money or pride earned from putting off sleep might be at the expense of your health and ultimately the health of the ones for whom you are caring. Prioritize health by allowing adequate opportunity for sleep.
Khoshakhlagh AH, Al Sulaie S, Yazdanirad S, Orr RM, Dehdarirad H, Milajerdi A. Global prevalence and associated factors of sleep disorders and poor sleep quality among firefighters: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Heliyon. 2023 Jan 27;9(2):e13250. doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2023.e13250. PMID: 36798763; PMCID: PMC9925976.
Meyer N, Harvey AG, Lockley SW, Dijk DJ. Circadian rhythms and disorders of the timing of sleep. Lancet. 2022 Sep 24;400(10357):1061-1078. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(22)00877-7. Epub 2022 Sep 14. PMID: 36115370.