Sleep Care

Balancing Shift-work and Sleep

Long after most of us have settled in for the night, the day’s demands are just beginning for a select group of people known as shift workers. Comprised of doctors, nurses, emergency medical personnel, police officers, pilots, commercial drivers, customer service representatives, factory workers and many others, these people are working many nights while the rest of us are sleeping.

In fact, according to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, about 14 percent of Americans do some sort of shift work. Accordingly, employers in the United States have become increasingly dependent on shift workers to meet the growing demands of our 24-hour society. But this dependence sometimes comes at a cost.

Working the graveyard shift can take a toll on workers. Aside from the fact that shift workers typically get one to four hours less sleep than average workers, they also can suffer from symptoms that mirror jet lag. They may battle insomnia, fatigue, poor memory function, headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability and depression.

Shift workers also are at risk for developing a number of health problems. These include:

  • higher cholesterol levels,
  • an increased risk of obesity,
  • an increased risk for infections like cold and flu,
  • an increased risk for some cancers, and
  • an increased risk of heart attack.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, shift workers also are more likely to drive while fatigued and almost twice as likely to fall asleep at the wheel. Furthermore, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that the heart is particularly vulnerable during the night shift. The study reports that irregular heart beats can develop eventually leading to heart disease and even heart attacks.

Shift workers also may develop a condition known as shift work sleep disorder. This disorder affects anyone whose work schedule impacts their natural sleep pattern. At issue is the impact the night shift has on the body’s 24-hour internal clock or circadian rhythm, as light and dark help the body automatically know when to be active and when to sleep. Therefore, when working the graveyard shift, the body’s internal clock needs to reset in order for the person to sleep during the day. But, this is sometimes hard to do. In fact, some research indicates that the body may never adapt to the night shift – especially for those who switch to a normal weekend sleep schedule.

Unfortunately, treatment for shift work is limited. There are some medications and treatments that can help alleviate symptoms including the use of melatonin. Melatonin is a dietary supplement that may help improve sleep. During normal sleep, the body manufactures melatonin naturally. But when normal

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sleep does not occur, a melatonin supplement may help. Your doctor can help you determine the dose that’s right for you. Additionally, there are several sleep studies your doctor may use to find out if there is another underlying cause for your symptoms including a sleep disorder.

In the meantime, here are some suggestions for balancing your night shift work with your need for sleep:

  • Work fewer shifts in a row if possible and avoid rotating shifts if you can
  • Take short naps during your shift if permitted
  • Bring bright lights for your work station if permitted
  • Be active during breaks including going for walks or shooting a few baskets in the parking lot
  • Eat a healthy diet and avoid high-calorie, high-fat foods
  • Wear dark sunglasses on the drive home to block out light
  • Find ways to darken your bedroom including purchasing light blocking shades and wearing eye masks
  • Keep your room cool, dark and quiet when sleeping and if noise is a problem use a white noise machine to block unwanted sounds
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule if possible
  • Develop a relaxing bedtime routine including keeping the lights dimmed and sipping herbal tea
  • Turn off all electronics before bed and consider covering your digital clock with a towel to block the light from it

If sleep issues persist, it is best to consult your physician. Losing sleep can have a long-term effect on health

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and wellness.


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