Shift Work Sleep Disorder and How To Get a Good Night’s Sleep (Even if you Work Graveyard)

Tired medical worker resting after procedure

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If you work on a regular 9 to 5 schedule, then you may not be aware of a condition known as Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). Working during the daylight hours can be exhausting enough, but working during unconventional hours can present its own set of challenges to employees.

Nearly one in five employees work non-traditional shifts. This can include many careers, including medical workers, food service, and even retail workers. This has become especially prevalent due to the pandemic requiring essential employees to work, sometimes around the clock. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone who works unconventional hours to keep the world moving, but I know that this schedule can really take a toll on their sleep and their health.

Especially in today’s world, It’s not always realistic to just find other work or work on a different schedule, so what can you do if shift work is ruining your sleep? First, let’s take a look at what shift work sleep disorder is, and how you can keep an eye out for symptoms.

What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder, also known as shift work disorder, is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that mainly affects people who work atypical shifts outside of the normal 9 to 5. This can include night shift, early morning shift, evening shift, or rotating shifts.

SWSD can cause excessive sleepiness while you work, or insomnia when you’re trying to get some sleep. You can lose anywhere from one to four hours of sleep each night as a result! This can create a significant sleep deficit— this kind of sleep deprivation is not only exhausting, but it can actually be dangerous. Sleep deprivation and excessive sleepiness can decrease your mental acuity and increase the risk of injury and accidents.

Studies show that shift workers are also at a much higher risk of mental and physical illness compared to non-shift workers as well. Shift work disorder can also increase the risk of:

  • Frequent illness and increased use of sick time
  • Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Substance abuse, including using drugs or alcohol to promote sleep

Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Thanks to their schedule, a shift worker may face a number of symptoms that can be associated with other sleep disorders, as well as a lack of adequate sleep. Some of these may include:

  • Disturbed sleep, including difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Poor sleep quality or short sleep duration
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Lack of energy
  • Poor mood

People who work night shifts are often fighting against their circadian rhythms as well, which can cause its own set of problems.

How Shift Work Affects Your Circadian Rhythm

The health problems that affect shift workers are often because their circadian rhythms are out of alignment. Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that your body perpetuates to keep itself working properly. Think of it as your body’s internal clock, scheduling your sleep-wake cycle according to the light exposure you get throughout the day.

Normally, your circadian rhythm has you rising with the sun, and getting ready for bed when it sets so your sleep schedule starts during the dark nighttime hours. For those who work outside of the normal daytime work schedule, such as night workers, they’re working directly against their body’s internal clock and potentially creating a circadian misalignment in the process.

Unless they struggle to sleep at night due to other factors, day workers don’t tend to experience this kind of circadian disruption. Either way, if your circadian rhythm is out of alignment then you don’t want to leave it that way.

How is Shift Work Sleep Disorder Treated?

Because of the potential health risks associated with shift work disorder, it’s vital that anyone with the condition or at risk for it get the restful sleep they need to safely function.

A common treatment for SWSD is sleep aids. Melatonin supplements are popular for helping shift workers fall asleep and stay asleep. Some are prescribed a sleeping pill like Ambien or Lunesta, though these should be used sparingly since they can be habit-forming, may actually contribute to insomnia, and can even cause life-threatening sleep behaviors!

Another medication prescribed to shift workers is Modafinil. This prescription drug has been found to have low abuse potential, and is effective in promoting wakefulness in patients.

If you’re struggling to sleep due to your work schedule, make sure to talk to your doctor and see what your options are. There are other ways to help you get the sleep you need without medication as well.

How to Deal with Shift Work Sleep Disorder

As with any sleep disturbance, positive lifestyle changes can go a long way in making sure you get the sleep you deserve when your schedule allows it. Give these a try if you’re not sure where to begin— you may be surprised at how well they can work!

1. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule

It might be hard to get yourself in the groove, but following a consistent sleep schedule is one of the best things you can do for good sleep. This is especially true if you work while others are sleeping.

The key is going to bed at the same time every night/day, and waking up at the same time the following day. If you’re not sure what your ideal bedtime is according to your sleep schedule, check out my sleep calculator.

It’s also a good idea to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals at least a few hours before bedtime. You don’t want your body to be working overtime while you’re trying to sleep.

2. Create an Ideal Sleep Environment

It may seem like a no-brainer, but you want to make sure your bedroom is a perfect environment for sleeping. There’s a lot you can do to ensure that your sleeping environment is actually conducive to getting proper sleep.

If you work at night and sleep during the day, blackout curtains are essential for blocking out any sunlight or ambient light that may be keeping you awake. If it isn’t practical to add blackout curtains to your sleep environment, a quality blackout sleep eye mask is a very good alternative. This is especially true if your environment requires you to frequently change sleeping locations.

If you’re the only person in your sleep location that follows your specific schedule, it can be tricky to sleep through noise— so I recommend blocking it out. Earplugs, my favorite are Earplanes, are an inexpensive and easily accessible option, but I personally recommend the Bose Sleepbuds II.

These handy devices offer the best features of earplugs and white noise sound machines, but with the power of Bose’s noise-masking technology. I’m proud to partner with Bose, because of their commitment to creating a peaceful and comfortable sleep environment.

3. Limit Technology Use Before Bed

If you are going to sleep when it is still dark out, but outside your normal circadian time, you still need to be aware of electronics use before bed. Electronic devices have become a very important part of everyday life, but they can make getting a good night’s sleep difficult. The blue light emitted by devices like phones, tablets, computer screens, and even televisions actually inhibit your brain’s ability to produce melatonin, which can prevent you from falling asleep on time.

However, blue light itself is not inherently bad— natural blue light produced by the sun is what typically determines your sleep wake cycle. Overexposure to artificial blue light is what really causes sleep difficulty.

To combat this, I recommend putting your devices away at least 60 minutes before bed. Or, if you absolutely must use your devices before bed, you can use blue light blocking glasses. Just make sure they have amber-colored lenses, since those are most effective against blue light reaching your eyes.

4. Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are simple practices you can perform to help yourself calm down, deal with stress, and sleep well. Incorporating one or more relaxation techniques into your bedtime routine can make a huge difference in your sleep quality, and your total hours of sleep.

Some of my favorite relaxation techniques are:

There’s really something out there for everyone. Give one of these a try and see how you feel after!

5. Take Naps

Whether you’re taking a long nap or a “power nap,” a good siesta can make a big difference in your energy levels and help you get through the day. Some benefits of napping include increased alertness, reduced stress, better stamina, and a stronger immune system.

Make sure you don’t nap for more than 90 minutes though— napping for too long or too close to bedtime can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep later. Plus, napping for too long could lead to one of those “Where Am I?!” hazes you sometimes feel once you wake up. The goal is to feel more awake and alert after a nap, not disoriented and groggy.

When To Seek Help

Even with a proper sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene, it’s still possible to experience sleep disturbances. If you’re struggling to get the rest you need and your work and home life are suffering because of it, it’s vital to seek treatment.

A simple consultation or even a sleep study could be just what you need to start sleeping well. Your doctor or a sleep expert can help you determine whether your sleep problem is caused by a sleep disorder like insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or a circadian rhythm disorder like shift work sleep disorder. To find an accredited sleep expert or sleep center near you, check out this tool by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

It can be tricky to get the sleep you need while you’re adjusting to an unconventional work schedule, but it’s so important that you do. Not only can proper sleep improve your work performance, but it’s also vital to keep yourself safe both on and off the clock.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, D, ABSM; FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!

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