Sleep is good. Work is good. Working without sleep…not so good

Sleep and work. We spend more time doing these two activities than anything else in life.

The need for a good night’s sleep is evident in the number of medications, therapies and sleep aids that promulgate the market. But we do not need advertising to tell us what we already know – a bad night’s sleep makes us miserable the next day, less efficient, moody and irritable. No sleep at all makes us dangerous at the wheel and to our patients.

For years I saw medical and surgical residents come through my ICU, sleep deprived, complete with bed-head and stumbling gait, reaching for a cup of coffee to jolt their nervous system. I never understood how being on call for 24-36 hours was a good thing for anyone but the attendings who were getting a good night’s sleep. It certainly wasn’t necessary to prepare students for being in private practice, and it occasionally put patients’ welfare in danger.

I could relate. I alternated between (3) shifts every two weeks. The coveted morning shift was bustling with activity, diagnostic studies, lab draws, ventilator weaning, PT, OT, breakfast and lunch. No way was I falling asleep on that shift. The afternoon shift was quieter, family more present, bedside and surgical procedures occurring when they could not wait until the next day, but never scheduled for 8pm. It was a time, with any luck, of relative respite for patients and staff.

But those night shifts. I well remember charting at 5am, standing up because I was trying to stay alert and literally sleeping on my feet. The circadian rhythm of my brain was not attuned to working at night. I could not sleep during the day for more than two hours, and felt like a zombie the rest of the time. Oh yes – I fell asleep at the morning wheel on more than one occasion. Thank goodness for that part of the brain that never truly sleeps.

“The stream of information (to the brain during sleep) is considerably reduced, but the brain is not fully disconnected from the environment. An inspection of the environment takes place to optimize safety during sleep. Stimuli…signaling danger are recognized, and may enter awareness, leading to a wake-up call, which allows the individual to react. This subconscious stimulus evaluation is regarded as having a guardian function for sleep.”

It’s no wonder that we spend so much time thinking about our work and worrying about our sleep. When either or both are out of balance, we are miserable and unable to enjoy everything that happens between these two activities – like family and friends, recreation and exercise.

Bones grow during sleep, brains recharge, and unless we have nightmares, a good night’s sleep cures many ills. Let sleeping dogs lie. Sleeping like a baby. Shhh! the baby (nurse, patient, doctor) is sleeping.

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