There’s been a lot in the news lately about people who work the late shift and have trouble staying awake, in particular about air traffic controllers.  One group of people who seem to have developed a system to avoid the same problems of falling asleep on the job, even in the face of extreme sleep deprivation: nurses.

Their system, however, may be seriously confusing their bodies.  According to a recent article, many nurses go without sleep for 24-hours in order to adjust to their late-night shifts.  Not only is this ineffective, it’s also potentially harmful:

  • When you don’t sleep for that long, your sleep/wake patterns end up out of sync with your biological clock
  • This leads to a misalignment of your circadian rhythms
  • This kind of circadian misalignment has been associated with increased risk of developing cardiovascular, metabolic and gastrointestinal disorders

We have a set of internal rhythms that repeat roughly every 24 hours: the sleep-wake cycle, hunger, the ebb and flow of hormones, the rise and fall of body temperature, and other subtle rhythms that mesh with the 24-hour solar day.   In fact, a lot of people’s sleep problems can be attributed to an internal clock that has become out of sync or mismatched with the day-night cycle. Sometimes your body’s clock just doesn’t quite match up with society’s 24-hour clock.

Many nurses work 12-hour shifts, and if a nurse works three night shifts in a row and then has a few days off, that means he or she is returning to a normal sleep schedule on days off and repeating the 24-hours of no sleep preparation a few times a week.

Jet lag is the most familiar and mild example of people’s sleep and biological clocks not lining up; going multiple 24-hour stretches without sleeping is much, much more risky. 

Nurses aren’t alone in the struggle to work odd-hour shifts.  According to U.S. labor statistics, about 20 percent of the workforce, or about 19.7 million U.S. workers, are early risers who begin work between 2:30 a.m. and 7 a.m.  If you’re one of those people, I’m very impressed—and I hope that you aren’t resorting to methods like the ones some nurses are using.  While it may help in the short term, the long term benefit of messing with your circadian rhythms is anything but helpful.  Instead, try napping if you can (and if it is safe to do so) and try to stick to as regular a sleep routine as possible.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

Everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep™
twitter: @thesleepdoctor