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The First Responder's Ultimate Guide to Sleep

One-third of firefighters suffer from a sleep disorder. Poor sleep habits are to blame for a multitude of health conditions. Aside from heart disease, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in U.S. firefighters.


According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, those who screened positive for a sleep disorder were more likely to self-report a motor vehicle crash and were more likely to report having cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and anxiety. In 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified shift work with circadian disruption (chronodisruption) as a probable human carcinogen. In lay terms, the body repairs itself during sleep and clears out garbage in the brain. Adequate sleep is essential for robust health.


“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?”
― Ernest Hemingway


As a full-time firefighter/paramedic, I am not advising we do away with 24-hour shifts. I am not here to change tradition. Having two days off in between shifts is a great time for me to recover and to spend time with loved ones.


However, if you’re like me and you want to live long and avoid spending your retirement with one or more chronic diseases, I would like to offer up some solutions to control the damage caused by shift work and the circadian misalignment.


  • Get 7–8 hours of sleep on your off days to help combat the negative effects of poor sleep on duty.
  • Regularity is key. Go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Time-restricted feeding (TRF): By restricting your feeding time to certain hours of the day, allowing the daily fasting period to last more than 12 hours, you impart numerous benefits including the possible prevention and reversal of chronic disease.
  • Eliminate Standard American Diet foods (SAD). Follow a paleo/primal diet (plants and animals) and eliminate grains, sugars, and industrial vegetable/seed oils.
  • Stop eating 2–3 hours before bed to give your body time to digest your last meal and to prevent spikes in cortisol.
  • Create a cool (65 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal), dark sleep environment.
  • Take a daily nap. Naps can, in fact, make up for some of the sleep deprivation that comes with the job. I use Binaural beats theta-wave tracks and a sleep mask to help me doze off in the afternoon.
  • Reduce artificial light after sundown to align your circadian rhythm. Blue light from electronics suppresses melatonin and causes the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. Download on computers and MDCs to reduce blue light. Apple iOS (Night Shift) and Android (Night Light) let you set a schedule for reducing blue light emissions. Philips Hue light bulbs allow you to alternate between night and day, reducing blue light at night. Blue light blocking glasses are another great option (Swanwick Sleep Swannies).
  • Glycine and creatine. Research shows three grams of glycine and five grams of creatine taken before a night of poor sleep can help combat the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Remember—the name of the game is damage control.
  • Eat broccoli sprouts. Amyloid-beta in the brain after a lack of sleep has been linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Broccoli sprouts have been shown to help clear these amyloid beta plaques, reduce cancer risk, and even kill cancer cells. I add them to my green shakes and pile them high on my burgers!
  • High-intensity interval training. Sleep deprivation has been linked to insulin resistance, which eventually leads to pre-diabetes. HIIT can help to improve insulin sensitivity and normalize hormone levels.
  • The number of runs you take after midnight is out of your control.  

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” —Epictetus


Although you cannot control or prevent interrupted sleep, you can control your actions and your attitude. No need to let negative emotions arise when your sleep is disrupted. We signed up for this job; it wasn’t forced on us.


In order to serve our community well we must “put our mask on first.” Prioritize your health so that you can be fit to help others. Your health, your hands. Sleep well my friends.


Nick Holderbaum is founder of Primalosophy, a health coaching business based on ancestral health principles and scientifically validated research. He is a full-time firefighter and paramedic in Columbus, Ohio.


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