For many people, a 9-to-5 job is a luxury. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 15 million Americans regularly work a night shift, making them more susceptible to experiencing the harsh effects of shift work sleep disorder.
Shift work refers to any unusual work hours, whether that’s an early morning shift that starts at 2 a.m. or even a rotating schedule, which requires some employees to work a traditional shift for a few days of the week and then switch to a different shift.
Naturally, working such irregular hours can have a devastating impact on your mental and physical health. Many shift workers find themselves battling excessive sleepiness, microsleep episodes, fatigue, and insomnia. Here, we’ll take a close look at the consequences of shift work, the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder, and tips for coping with an erratic work schedule.
What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
Shift work sleep disorder is a circadian rhythm disorder that affects those who work irregular hours. It is typically characterized by sleep problems, such as sleepiness at work, drowsiness, and insomnia. The adverse effects associated with shift work mainly arise because working nontraditional hours can disrupt your body’s internal clock, also known as the circadian rhythm.
However, it’s important to note that not everyone who works a night shift or irregular hours experiences shift work disorder. Some people are naturally predisposed to staying up until the wee hours of the morning and sleeping during the day. Night owls, in particular, are likely to thrive in a routine that allows them to work when they’re most energetic and creative.
Who Can Experience Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
When you think of shift workers, you might picture nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, all of whom are often required to be on duty during times of the day when most of us are fast asleep. But shift work sleep disorder can affect anyone who works irregular hours. This can mean:
- A person who starts work late at night and sleeps during the day.
- A person who works rotating shifts during the week. For instance, on three days of the week, they may be required to work a regular day shift, and on the remaining two days, they work through the night.
- A person whose workday starts early in the morning, requiring them to go to bed in the afternoon.
Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Shift work sleep disorder can be damaging to your daily routine. Here are some of the symptoms you may experience:
- Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
- Sleep that leaves you feeling unrefreshed and drowsy
- Trouble concentrating
- Excessive sleepiness
- Mood swings
- Lack of energy
The consequences of shift work sleep disorder can be severe and may persist until you get back to a routine that suits your circadian rhythm. The unshakeable sleepiness you experience because of shift work sleep disorder can impact you both on and off the job. At the same time, you might find yourself unable to get a good night’s sleep despite feeling bone-tired. This vicious cycle can eventually lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which can have a severe impact on your health.
Prolonged sleep deprivation has been linked to several health problems, including a weak immune system, high blood pressure, psychosis, obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, and digestive issues. You might also find yourself turning to harmful substances, such as alcohol and drugs, as a coping mechanism. Beyond just your physical health, sleep deprivation can also increase your risk of accidents because you experience microsleep.
Microsleep refers to brief episodes of sleep that typically last under 30 seconds where you fall asleep without even realizing it. During microsleep, one part of your brain remains awake, while the other part forcefully shuts down to cope with the lack of sleep. In fact, it’s believed that human errors due to insufficient sleep were responsible for global catastrophes, such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the American Airlines Flight 1420 crash, and the Challenger space shuttle explosion.
How Does Shift Work Affect The Circadian Rhythm?
Shift work can completely throw your circadian rhythm off course. The circadian rhythm, or our body’s internal clock, follows the 24-hour light/dark cycle of the Earth and sun. This means that our bodies naturally produce the sleep hormone melatonin when it’s dark outside and suppresses its production when it’s daytime. This is the main reason why many of us naturally feel more alert during the day and drowsy at night.
People who work night, early morning, or rotating shifts are forced to work during hours they would normally sleep. As a result, they may struggle to adjust to their schedules, especially if their circadian rhythms are incompatible with their work timings. The main challenge with working these shifts is that your body will continue to produce melatonin at night when you need to be alert and suppress it during the day when you’re trying to go to sleep, which triggers insomnia.
When your circadian rhythm is turned on its head, it can impact your mood and energy levels, causing you to lose focus at work, experience chronic sleepiness, and battle mood changes.
5 Ways To Cope With Shift Work Sleep Disorder
A good night’s rest might feel elusive, especially when it feels like you’re trying to go to sleep at a time when the world around you is bustling. But there are some simple steps you can take to cope with an irregular work schedule and manage symptoms of shift work sleep disorder.
1. Try to keep a regular sleep schedule
Compared to someone who doesn’t work a night shift, your sleep schedule might look a lot different. But it’s essential to create a routine for yourself and try to stick to it as closely as you can every day, even on your days off. This way, you don’t have to worry about readjusting to a different routine all over again.
To help you set a schedule, be sure to go to bed and wake up at the same time. Though it might seem challenging, it’s also important to set a goal of getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep so that you can wake up feeling well-rested.
2. Trick your body clock by managing light
Our circadian rhythms are highly influenced by light. To help you feel more alert when you’re working late into the night, ensure that your work environment is brightly lit. This can trick your body clock and help you feel more alert when you’re at work.
Similarly, when you’re on your way back home from work, try to avoid bright lights as much as possible. This may be tougher to control, especially if it’s sunny outside, but wearing sunglasses can help. When you get home, close all the curtains so that it’s completely dark and avoid spending too much time on your phone or computer.
3. Limit caffeine intake
If you’re not a night owl, it can be tempting to chug coffee after coffee to help you stay awake, but be sure not to rely on it too heavily.
Caffeine can certainly help you kickstart your workday, but toward the end of your shift, it’s essential to switch to decaf or wean off caffeinated drinks entirely so that your sleep isn’t impacted.
4. Try melatonin supplements
Melatonin supplements are a synthetic version of the hormone your body naturally produces. In case you’re unable to get any shut-eye because it’s daytime, melatonin supplements might be effective at regulating your body’s circadian rhythm and improving the quality of your sleep.
Melatonin supplements are available in various doses, ranging from 0.5 to 10 milligrams. For your safety, it’s best to start with the lowest dosage. If you’re unsure about the dosage or concerned about the effects of taking melatonin, consult a doctor first.
5. Optimize your space for maximum comfort
If you regularly work the night shift, then the one thing you should prioritize is the comfort of your bedroom.
The first step to creating a bedroom that’ll help you sleep better is investing in the best mattress possible. Not sure where to start? Consider a hybrid mattress if you want to experience the perfect balance of support and comfort. Hybrid mattresses are essentially a cross between a traditional innerspring mattress and memory foam, which means they provide stability and cloud-like comfort at the same time.
Another bedroom essential for those who want to minimize the side effects of shift work sleep disorder is blackout curtains. These curtains can make it easier to block out light and help you get some much-needed shut-eye.
The Bottom Line
Shift work sleep disorder is a serious condition that prevents you from getting sufficient rest. It’s natural to feel alone, especially when you’re following a completely different schedule than the people around you. But it’s essential to remember that many shift workers struggle with the same problem.
While there are some ways to fight some negative symptoms, consider consulting a doctor for medical advice if you suspect you have shift work sleep disorder.
Do you suffer from shift work sleep disorder? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.