How sleep deprivation affects officer safety and performance

“The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep.” — W. C. Fields

By Kendra Nunes
Police1 Special Contributor

Sleep deprivation is not unique to law enforcement, but the consequences of sleep deprivation are amplified by the unique stressors that come with police work.

Many of our officers (and dispatchers) are working some — or all — of their days off to make ends meet, or just to earn extra cash. For some, it’s about financial survival. For others it’s about priorities. 

Those of us who can, should make sleep a higher priority. Here’s why. 

Maintenance and Repair
Sleep is essential for basic maintenance and repair of the neurological, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal, and digestive systems. Melatonin, a hormone produced during the natural circadian rhythm while you’re sleeping, increases immune cytokine function and helps protect us against infection. 

When working shift work, melatonin production is adversely impacted. Decreased melatonin production increases the risk of cancer, impairs immune system function, and possibly leads to cardio and metabolic consequences such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease. 

Cortisol production is also elevated with sleep deprivation also, which promotes the development of insulin resistance, a risk factor for obesity and diabetes. In fact, sleep deprivation has been proven to be fatal: lab rats denied the chance to rest die within two to three weeks. 

Can’t figure out why you’ve got those extra pounds hanging on? Recent studies have shown that even one night of poor sleep can result in dramatic changes in appetite and food intake. It’s all about the hormone disruption. Other studies show that restricting sleep to five hours a night for just one week impairs carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Researchers now believe that sleep deprivation is the single best predictor of overweight and obesity in children. Another study shows that not getting enough sleep causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

An Officer Safety Issue
Anyone who has had a few nights of poor sleep can tell you that insomnia is associated with depression. Insufficient sleep shuts down the pre-frontal cortex and can cause or exacerbate a number of psychological conditions, ranging from anxiety to PTSD to depression. This impact on mood and mental health impacts our ability to do our jobs well, and certainly impacts relationships.

Sleep deprivation causes chronic, low-grade inflammation, which many experts believe to be the root of all modern disease. This systemic inflammation manifests in more ways than I can list, and often results in a doctor’s visit for some strange symptom and subsequent prescribed drug. 

We all recognize when we fell less “sharp” due to the cognitive decline from lack of sleep. According to the Issue #70 of Force Science Institute News, many of the egregious errors committed in law enforcement occur when officers are fatigued. Officers who come to work with as little as three hours sleep show the level of impaired performance as those who have reached the legal blood alcohol limit! 

As an industry, we focus a lot on tactics and mindset in order to keep us as safe as we can be. However, if we do not prioritize sleep and ensure our bodies and brains are getting sufficient rest, we are setting ourselves up for getting hurt. Assuming we don’t end up hurt on the job, chronic sleep deprivation can result in a shorter life and chronic illness in the retirement years. 

In our line of work, it’s natural to focus on the obvious things that help keep us and the public safe. Tactics, procedures, equipment and case law are all important training topics to help protect us. I’d like to see our culture appreciate the importance that nutrition and sleep has on keeping us alive. Whether it’s being sharp in a split-second decision making situation, problem solving, or simply avoiding chronic disease, sleep is a critical piece of officer safety that is too often overlooked. 

We live in a culture where functioning on little sleep seems to be a badge of honor. As a country, we are getting 20 percent less sleep per night on average than we were 40 years ago, according to the National Sleep Foundation, which does sleep polls every few years. Average sleep times in the 1960s were about 8-1/2 hours per night. There has been a steady decline in sleep amounts, and now the average is 6-1/2 hours per night for working adults, and about 7 hours and 20 minutes on weekends. 

I’ve been a Holistic health coach for more than a year now — my training through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition includes many aspects of wellness — and although nutrition is the most common topic I’m asked about, I’ve come to understand it is not necessarily the most important or sole cause of most folks’ health issues. Nearly every client I have worked with has revealed that they are consistently sleep deprived. 

Often I hear “I only need five hours and I’m just fine,” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Or “I don’t have time for sleep. I have to work overtime.” In many cases, this is a person’s main obstacle to maintaining wellness.

For more information about the importance of sleep, I’ve included a couple of online references for your review. Further, you may consider checking out Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival by T.S. Wiley. In my next article, I’ll discuss some of my thoughts on how to get better sleep. 

1.) How artificial light impacts sleep 
2.) The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism 

About the Author
Officer Kendra Nunes has worked for San Jose Police Department since 1992. She began her career in communications and worked as a reserve police officer before becoming a full time police officer in 2000. She has worked patrol, Child Exploitation, Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and is currently assigned to the Training Division. Kendra also was trained by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and works as a Wellness Coach for public safety employees who want to live long and healthy lives in spite of the unique demands of their work. Visit Kendra’s website at 

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