Surviving Shift Work - by Suresh Madhavan, CEO 221B Tactical
People who work the night-shift have abnormally high rates of heart disease, bone fractures, cancer, diabetes and obesity! If you want to beat the odds, you MUST do things differently. If you don’t, be prepared to deal with one or more of the aforementioned conditions. If you say, “that’s not gonna happen to me”….. good luck! I chose to not suffer and do something. To fight. I formulated a plan…a routine over the course of many years that I feel has ultimately saved my life. I have shared this with younger officers and senior officers. The response I get from those that ACTUALLY follow my plan….. “HOLY $%@#….I can’t believe how much better I feel!”
One thing which I found many people are not aware of is the absolute torture your body goes through while doing shift-work. Having worked 8 and 12 hour shifts during my career I had pretty good exposure to the worst of the worst. And although many people (civilians) would say, “I don’t know how you work those night shifts. They must be brutal on your body” they truly had NO IDEA just how brutal it actually is.
My mother was a Registered Nurse for over 40 years. During that time she too worked various shifts (times and lengths). I remember as a child growing up just how off her sleep schedule was. Even on days off she would find herself up in the middle of the night and falling asleep at the kitchen table in the middle of the afternoon. It wasn’t until I became a police officer many years later that I TRULY felt her pain. Having seen what my mom went through, I knew from Day 1 on the job I had to go above and beyond in taking care of my mind and body if I was going to make it through 25 years of shift work. So I created a system…yes a system. It was not perfect at first and took years of tweaking. But in the end, I had a system down that not only worked great for me, but also many of my friends in law enforcement who were struggling with the rigors of shift-work.
Is it easy? NO. Is it fun? NO. But once you get used to it you will absolutely never go back. I liken the plan to how many parents operate with their children. They have strict schedules when it comes to eating, bathing and bedtime. They create a routine and STICK TO IT. They know that if they deviate from the routine they’d better be prepared to deal with a little monster. Getting the child on the routine is NOT easy. But once you do and you realize how amazing it works and how bad things go when you deviate from it, you never want to break from it.
So here is the plan which ultimately came about through much trial and error, that I (and MANY of my cop buddies) swore by. Some who are still on the job are still swearing by it. When it comes to day-shift (0700 - 1500, 1500 - 2300 or 0700 - 1900) many of the principles still remain. That’s right! One of the most important parts of my plan was how I operated while on day-shift. If you can train your body during the day (when it feels normal) it will be that much easier to train it when the night shift (2300 - 0700 or 1900 - 0700) comes around.
The name of the game is STICK TO THE ROUTINE….ALWAYS!
DISCLAIMER: This was the plan/routine which ultimately worked GREAT for me and many of my friends/co-workers. You may want to tweak it a bit…but I don’t recommend it. I’ve tried every tweak there is. That being said, this worked for ME (and many others). Will it work for you? I don’t know. I hope it does. I am NOT a doctor and this is by no means medical advice. This is simply the plan/routine I followed that worked amazing for me….and I’m simply sharing it with you. Follow (or don’t follow) it at your own risk. (There…now the lawyers are happy.)
1. SLEEP MARK Many people (not just cops) who work the night shift report sleeping only 4-5 hours. Why? Because we’re busy and we have $#%@ to do. Right? Well, no matter who you are, you need to rest your body. I found that the magic number for me was 7 hours while working nights and 6 hours while working days. Personally, 8 hours of sleep never worked well for me. I didn’t care what was going on. I made it my mission to get to bed and not get out until time was up and I hit my mark. AND…no matter how I felt, I never stayed in bed for more than 20 minutes past my sleep mark. But the length wasn’t as important to me as the QUALITY of the sleep. This brings us to….
2. SLEEP PREP One of the key mistakes I made (especially while working the night shift) was not properly preparing for sleep. Most times I would come home, eat something, brush my teeth, maybe watch the news for a bit, lay in bed on my phone and then eventually fall asleep. Sound familiar? Well guess what….that was the worst possible thing I could have ever done (besides slugging a Red Bull before bed). I found that I needed to put my body into the proper state before getting into bad. I liken it to the soothing bath we give children before we put them to bed.
So here’s my sleep-prep routine while on nights (i’ll go over my dayshift routine too).
Don’t Eat: 60-90 minutes before bed time. This is CRITICAL. I did not like to eat or drink anything withn this window. This kept my body in a better state before sleep. Eating and going right to bed was the worst thing to do (I found).
Tea: As soon as I would get home I found making a cup of Chamomile Tea (I found a really good one that’s called “Sleepy Time”….yes…that’s what it’s called). I hardly ever drank the entire cup….typically half. This not only helped me wind down and put me in a better mood, the Chamomile also has a calming effect which helps you fall asleep.
No Bright Screens: This is HUGE!! It’s also one of the TOUGHEST parts of my plan. Not looking at my iPhone, iPad or TV for 30 minutes before you go to bed was nearly impossible for me at first. However, this is one of the most CRITICAL aspects of my plan and is so important to getting “good” sleep. Once I got into my routine I would NOT turn on the TV when I got home to watch the news or SportsCenter. I would putz around on my phone for a few but, 30 minutes before I crawled into bed I would set my alarm on it, put it into “Do Not Disturb” mode, put it on vibrate (just in case) and put it down. I would not touch it again until I woke up.
I found that thumbing through a magazine (always had an issue of Men's Health or ESPN The Magazine or INC. lying around) would easily occupy my 30 minutes before sleep. I also found writing my To Do list for when I woke up was also very beneficial. It took away the anxiety of potentially forgetting to do something and helped keep me organized and on track once I woke up. Try it. It truly helped me sleep better to get those concerns down on paper before I closed my eyes. I feel like it kept me from subconsciously thinking about it while I slept.
Room-Darkening Shades: Light is the enemy of good sleep. Whether you know it or not…it affects your sleep. Your body’s natural Circadian Rhythm tells you to be “awake” during the day and tells it you should be “sleeping” between 0000 hours and 0600 hours (so say the scientists). Therefore you have to battle biology every time you close your eyes while trying to get to sleep in the AM. I invested way more than I’d like to admit on room-darkening shades in my bedroom. But ya know what….I have ZERO regrets. They work awesome (way better than the bath towel I tried to pin up using duct tape and thumb tacks). I tried to do it the cheap way for years and paid the price. Don’t be like me. Get your room DARK!
3. SLEEP SCHEDULE One of the toughest things about working the night-shift are the nights when you’re NOT WORKING. If you’re young and single you’re probably up half the night anyway (for various reasons). But if you have a spouse and/or a family, staying up all night on your nights off can be very tough. But you MUST do it. (Hey…I told you it’s not an easy plan to stick to. But I also told you that if you do, you’ll be thanking me…profusely!) Part of successfully altering your Circadian Rhythm is to train you body and KEEP THE ROUTINE. Remember, it’s like putting a child on a nap schedule. What happens when your child misses that afternoon nap or goes to bed 2 hours later than usual? Most people will have to deal with a little cranky monster! But it’s not their fault. Like I said, one of the secrets to the success of a well-rested, well-behaved, healthy child is to KEEP THEIR ROUTINE. The same goes for you. As much as it sucks, you gotta keep the same sleep hours on your nights off. This was VERY TOUGH for me! However, when weighed against how awful I felt when I slept on my nights off…it wasn’t even close. Let me tell you, working night became a completely different experience once I became committed to maintaining my same sleep schedule…EVERY DAY! If you’re serious about taking care of your body and living a longer, healthier life, you’ll do it. But if you’re not committed to doing what it takes to have it…you don’t truly want it. You can “say” you want it. But the proof is in the BEING not the SPEAKING.
4. CAFFEINE Ok. Ok. I know. Coffee, Red Bull, Monster Energy…they have all been part of my “surviving midnights” gear. And I’m NOT gonna say you shouldn’t have caffeine during the course of the night shift. However, I did find that my sleep was EXPONENTIALLY BETTER when I stopped caffeine intake 5 hours before sleep time. Not the end of the shift….sleep time. So since my shift ended at 0645 and I knew I’d be getting into bed at 0800, I stopped all caffeine intake at 0300. Trust me…it was note easy at first. But once I found how well I slept if I followed this rule, I never broke it! I know at 0400 hours when you’re fighting to keep your eyelids open (and fighting to keep your patrol car on the road) it’s tough not to take a swig on that delicious Monster Energy or Dunkin Donuts sitting in the cup holder. So I found some “wake-up” alternatives! Here are a few: -Mixed nuts (I stuck with almonds and pistachios) -Water with fresh lemon juice squeezed in (I would ONLY break this out at 0300…no earlier) -A piece of cold, fresh fruit (I preferred apples) -Dark Chocolate (I preferred the little Hershey Special Dark squares. Not a dozen…one or two squares per night…tops) -Movement (I literally get out of the patrol car and do 25 air squats or get out of the patrol car and walk for 7 minutes around a strip mall or parking lot. Trust me…it works.) One last note on Caffeine… I actually changed how I used coffee in my life while on night shift. I, like many, simply enjoyed the taste of coffee and would drink it just to drink it. At times I would grab a cup with the guys right out of (or even during) line-up just to have something to sip on while we sat and BS’d. However I found that my body soon grew a tolerance to it and after a while it wasn’t doing anything for me. So I decided to be a bit more strategic with my coffee intake. I would drink decaf early in the shift (when I wasn’t tired and just drinking to be social and for the taste) and as the night went on and I felt myself fading, I switched to Full Octane coffee. I found that having a cup of Full Octane coffee around 0100 or 0200 (and finishing it by 0300) worked amazing for me….and resulted in better sleep!
5. CARBS, CARBS, CARBS (and SUGAR) This one is simple and MOST people know it already. Carbs cause insulin spikes after ingestion which result in the infamous “crash” a short time later. They also don’t keep you satiated (feeling full/satisfied) and you thus have the urge to eat more, sooner. I found that a low-to-zero carb diet combined with a low-to-zero processed sugar diet is the single most important thing to keeping my waist size the EXACT SAME from the day I graduated the police academy until today. (More on this later)
My secret while working the night-shift was zero carbs after midnight. This had multiple effects and benefits. First, no crash. Second, prevented the urge to eat, eat, eat. Trust me, I found myself digging into my lunch bag at times simply because I was bored! Not good! Third, it’s better for your waistline. After midnight you’re on the downward slide toward the end of your “work day.” There’s no longer any need to intake carbs for energy that your body is not going to use…rather it’s going to STORE IT! Not ok! Remember, think of your body like a car with 2 gas tanks. One tank takes fuel that burns clean and makes your car run like a dream. The other tank takes fuel that burns badly and makes the car slow, heavy and run like crap (somehow it even makes the paint look bad…humor me here). And running on this bad fuel from the bad tank for extended periods of time eventually leads to a breakdown and will eventually blow your engine. Now, if there’s fuel in the “bad tank” the car will “automatically” go to that tank first. However, if that tank is empty, it diverts to the “good tank.” Now…the car needs just a little bit of fuel from the “bad tank” to get warmed up at the start of the day…but that’s all! If it continues to run on that tank things go south VERY quickly. So….the trick is what? Put the absolute MINIMUM amount of fuel in the “bad tank”…just enough to get the car warmed up. And then have the car, when the “bad tank” runs dry, automatically switch over to the “good tank” and run clean, strong and powerful the rest of the day! CARBS AND SUGARS are the bad fuel that go in the “bad tank.” Proteins, good fats, fruits, nuts and veggies are the good fuel that go in the “good tank!” How do you want your car to run??
6. EXERCISE There a million reasons why people should exercise daily. And there are 2 million reasons why COPS should exercise daily. When it comes to keeping your body in a better state of preparedness, better physical condition, a state of less illness and yourself in a better mental condition, exercising for at least 30 minutes EVERY DAY cannot be replaced. I personally lift weights 5 days a week, swim/box one day a week and rest on the seventh day! I don’t care who you are, how busy you are, how many kids you have, how many wives or girlfriends you have. Even The President has 30 minutes to exercise daily! He has the same 24 hours as us. Are you busier than The President?
7. MEDITATION Alright. Alright. I know! Cops and meditation go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. Listen, I didn’t say Yoga! Meditation is something I was introduced to a few years into the job. And at first I was like, “yeah ok…I’ll get right on that.” But I soon discovered that on the days that I forced myself to meditate for 15 minutes, I was more focused on the job, less fatigued, less stressed and slept like a baby!! Don’t believe me? Try it! If it doesn’t work…then knock it. To this day I still meditate at least 4-5 times per week. Currently I use “Smile Guided Meditation” by Tara Brach (thank you Tim Ferriss). It’s simple, quick and is something that some of the smartest, wealthiest people on the planet do EVERY DAY! I like to do it right when I wake up or immediately following my workout. Like I said, I used to be a naysayer and thought meditation was for weirdos. Man was I wrong!
8. SUPPLEMENTS (BONUS SECTION) I don’t care how old you are. What gender you are. What you do for a living. You need to give you body the vitamins and minerals it needs to thrive. Of course getting them through eating natural (non-processed) foods is best. However, most of us are constantly on the go and we need help in this department. I have a completely separate paper on my full nutrition plan, but for the sake of giving you guys a little something extra, here’s what I have as part of my daily supplement routine: -Apple Cider Vinegar (2 teaspoons in 24 oz. of water EVERY MORNING) -Multi-Vitamin (just watch out for ones with too much iron…) -Fish Oil (2-3 grams twice a day) -Liquid BioCell (2 oz. in the morning and 2 oz. in the evening. This stuff is AMAZING. Too many benefits to even list here. Has changed my life. Enough said.) -Whey Protein (2 scoops after every workout. Helps in recovery and muscle regeneration. I mix with unsweetened almond milk.) -120 oz. of water a day. You won’t believe the difference you will see and feel once you start doing this.
Now….what about when you’re NOT working the night-shift? Well, that’s simpler….somewhat! Working 0700 - 1900 you feel like a normal human being. Nothing too crazy to deal with. But, you still have to have a routine to be successful! I follow the same nutrition and exercise guidelines. I follow the same sleep guidelines….with a little twist. This is something that a friend of mine who follows a trainer named Craig Ballantyne shared with me:
NO CAFFEINE 10 HOURS BEFORE BED
NO FOOD OR ALCOHOL 3 HOURS BEFORE BED
NO WORK RELATED WORK, TALK, ETC. 2 HOURS BEFORE BED
NO TV, IPHONE, IPAD 1 HOUR BEFORE BED
**AIM FOR A MINIMUM OF 6 HOURS OF SLEEP Tough, right? Well I promise you that if you (if only for the heck of it) do this just ONCE….you’ll be blown away! Your alarm will go off and you will feel like a million bucks. Now…I’ve had a few people tell me, “Yeah bro, I tried it. Didn’t work.” And then I’ll ask their wives what he was doing before bed last night and I’ll get…. checking Instagram, sipping on a glass of wine, tiny bowl of ice cream….. Listen, if you are serious about taking care of your body and being healthier and getting a good sleep…just do it. But don’t BS yourself and say you want something when you’re really not willing to make the sacrifice. Enough people BS you and lie to you…don’t add to it by lying to yourself. If you want it…DO IT. If not, don’t…it’s ok. Clean living is not for everyone. For some it is. For many it’s not. Are you IN or IN THE WAY?
-- Suresh Madhavan
Founder and CEO 221B Tactical
"Eliminate The Impossible"