Shift work, it goes in partnership with public safety work schedules.  There is no way to avoid it, the safety of our citizens requires someone will always be there to answer 9-1-1 and someone will always respond to the emergency 24×7, 365 days a year.  It’s on nearly every job announcement posting, included in all job descriptions. “Ability to work shifts and overtime shifts, weekends and holidays”.

Roughly 30 years ago the stress of working all night, coming home and caring for two preschool-aged children, and trying to make ends meet as a single mom sent me to the doctor’s office.  I was working until 7 am, going home and being up with the kids, a quick nap for me during their naps, waking up with the kids, fixing dinner, putting them to bed, getting a 2 to 3-hour nap, and back to work.  Roughly 4 hours of sleep a night on good days.

The doctor wrote a “script” telling my employer I needed to work a day shift.  My supervisor looked at me and explained that my (low) seniority did not allow me to work days yet and if I needed days, I would need to look for another job.  I decided to stick it out because I enjoyed my job and I was determined to find a way to get better sleep so that I could function at a higher level. This career in public safety, as I have said multiple times, has been an amazing career and although it’s a different capacity for me now, it continues to be fun, exciting, and I continue to learn.  But shift work, what a challenge, and what does that do to our body?

It’s no secret that shift work is hard to get used to but what about the night makes sleeping the best.  The Circadian rhythm is a natural process of response, primarily to light and dark and it affects most living things, plants, animals, and even microbes. Natural factors in your body produce circadian rhythms. The Period and Cryptochrome genes build up proteins in cells at night and lessen during the days.  The proteins help activate feelings of wakefulness, alertness, and sleepiness.

Exposure to light at different times of the day can reset and change when the genes are turned on.  Of course, the average teen has a different circadian cycle than most adults.  It isn’t until about 11 pm that the sleep hormone, Melatonin, rises and a teen starts getting sleep.  Studies suggest that the blue light from electronic devices suppresses melatonin production, making this time even later.  Between 3 to 7 am, the energy is low, for teams not rising back up until 9 or 10 am. Between 10 am to 1 pm, temperatures are up and alertness is at its best.

An afternoon slump for a teen is a good time for a snack, for an adult, it’s a good time to start moving.  For children and teens, scientists believe growth occurs mostly at night, while youths are off their feet and sleeping or resting. Even plants such as corn need the dark as corn does most of its growing at night, (in this interesting but unrelated sidebar… if you sleep outside on a warm summer night, you can actually hear the corn grow).  So, what do we do about this challenge when working shifts is a must at one time or another in the career of any public safety employee?

The Circadian rhythms and different genes and proteins work with Melatonin.  The production of melatonin is extremely sensitive to light and is inhibited as soon as the retina detects light. Super you may be thinking.  Seniority will dictate that you are on the midnight shift for the next X number of years.  What can be done to help you get through it?  There are a few helpful tips, however, when faced with a schedule that cannot be adjusted so that you can get the  7 to 8 hours of sleep a day that most adults need, my suggestion is to do as many of these things as possible.

One of the tips is to limit sleep deterrents such as blue light.  Great!  How do you do that in public safety you may ask?  Blue light is emitted from our mobile phones, computers, TVs, etc. all tools of our trade. Blue light glasses are very popular to reduce the glare and eye strain caused by blue light.  Since they block or reduce the blue light, the production of melatonin is able to occur. For those short moon-lite nights followed by early days of bright sunshine, blue light-blocking glasses are helpful for the drive home.  Blackout curtains or a sleep mask will help reduce the light as well.

Nicotine, when used within four hours of bedtime has been known to disrupt the quality of sleep for many people. Another deterrent is food.  For those people who say caffeine has no effect on their sleep, that may be very true for those who sleep when it’s dark.  For those who are already battling against the light, caffeine can impact you more than you realize.

Mocha, chocolate, coffee, and tea, all contain caffeine. The food we eat throughout the day can impact our energy levels for several hours.  Caffeine can stay in the bloodstream for up to 8 hours and an energy drink can take up to 12 hours to fully leave the bloodstream.  Plan your last food intake before sleep to exclude sugars or heavy, greasy foods.

For many of these items, you may be saying, “That xxx doesn’t affect me”.  I have said the same, caffeine doesn’t affect me was a statement I made for years.  Then one year I took a challenge to eliminate certain food groups and caffeine for 2 months. At the end of the 2 months, I had my first cup of caffeinated coffee and to my surprise, it wired me up.  This led me to understand that caffeine had always affected me, I was just so used to it that I didn’t notice how significant the impact was.

Having discussed all the things you shouldn’t do, here are a few things to help improve sleep.  Warm milk (sounds terrible to me, but I honestly have never tried it), contains sleep-promoting nutrients and chemicals.  Almonds are a good source of melatonin, bananas have vitamins and protein that work together to produce melatonin and serotonin.  Chamomile tea has plant qualities that act as a sedative.

Lastly, we can’t discuss this topic without adding the benefits of exercise.  Moderate to vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep.  Although the experts aren’t sure what it is about exercise that improves sleep, they all agree that getting into a habit of 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily will translate to better sleep.  Yoga, although not considered a vigorous exercise, is one of the best to improve sleep, reduce stress, and create a state of deep relaxation to help you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep.

Each person has their favorite shift.  Days, afternoons, nights, and a variety of different versions of these shifts.  Many people are on shifts that they struggle with for the duration of their time on the shifts.  Even after three years on midnights, I was unable to adjust to working all night so the first chance I had to work afternoons I jumped at it.  The ability to adjust to your shift takes focused attention and changes, changes that I was not aware of all those years ago.  With all of the information available, implementing as many of these changes as possible will help you obtain the amount of sleep you need to have a highly productive and happier day.