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Well-being: 6 ways firefighters can get better sleep

Poor sleep is bad news for firefighters. After combing through the latest research on sleep deprivation, poor sleep and insomnia, I decided to write this column on sleep and review some sleep-improving strategies for firefighters.

November 9, 2017 
By Elias Markou

Over time, the nature of fire fighting conditions people to become light sleepers, with the ability to wake up at any time of day to respond to a call immediately.

This process has put the health of many firefighters at risk.

In a landmark 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital interviewed 7, 000 firefighters from 66 fire departments across the United States. The researchers found about 37 per cent of those firefighters had an undiagnosed sleep disorder, including obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, shift work disorders, and insomnia.

According to the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research, people who sleep less than seven hours a night for 30 days have increased rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, anxiety symptoms, depression and alcohol use.


Sleep is vital and we need to bring awareness to this issue by giving firefighters the tools to get better rest between responses. To simplify the process, here are some suggestions for improving your sleep.

1. Monitor your sleep
There are ways to self-monitor your sleep. Many of you may have a smart watch like a FitBit, an Android watch or the Apple iWatch. There are many apps that can help track sleep. Apps like Sleep Watch, Sleep Cycle and Sleep++ collect comprehensive data about your sleep. Monitor the quality and quantity of your sleep over 30 days.

2. Get a diagnosis
After your monitoring has determined your sleep to be poor, have your doctor refer you to a sleep clinic to get a proper diagnosis. A sleep specialist will conduct an overnight sleep study, called a polysomnogram, recording data for brain activity, eye movements, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and body movement. With a proper diagnosis you can look at the best treatment options for you.

3. Develop better sleep habits
Try to improve your sleep at home when you aren’t on a shift or on-call. Turn off your television and put your phone away before bedtime. Avoid doing stimulating things and get to bed early. Avoid eating heavy meals before bed and, more importantly, avoid alcohol. Alcohol creates a false sense of relaxation, disrupting sleep and sometimes leads to increased snoring.

4. Relaxing bedtime rituals
A warm shower or an Epsom salt bath before bedtime is a great way to relax your muscles and stimulate sleep. I recommend a warm beverage like a chamomile or passionflower tea an hour before bedtime.

5. Sleep supplements
I recommend speaking with a physician to assess what is best for you and your condition. Firefighters with sleep issues should consider taking magnesium at bedtime, which regulates melatonin levels and helps to control sleep cycles. Along with magnesium you can explore taking 5-HTP and GABA supplements. Both 5-HTP and GABA help the brain to relax, triggering a deeper sleep.

6. Activity, yoga and mental preparation
Studies have shown that having an active lifestyle and practicing yoga regularly can help improve sleep quality. Adjusting your mindset, and placing an increased importance on healthy sleep habits, will help improve your overall sleep.

Sleep is vital to a long career as a firefighter. Make getting a better night’s rest a priority, and try out different strategies and techniques to help improve your sleep. You will quickly see what a world of difference it can make to your overall health.

Dr. Elias Markou is a naturopathic doctor in Mississauga, Ont. He is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Contact him at

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