How to get better shut-eye when you work night shifts

by Marc F. Schlosberg, MD, Neurologist
July 24, 2017

Job duties can pose various dangers to workers’ health: handling chemicals, operating heavy machinery, even sitting for hours on end in an office every day. But the schedule you work also can put you at greater risk for conditions such as heart disease, depression and cancer.  

While the traditional 9-to-5 workday is not entirely a thing of the past, more Americans than ever – nearly 15 percent – work hours outside that schedule or work shifts that rotate between day and night. These employees keep the country moving 24 hours a day and include police officers, truck drivers, manufacturing workers and my colleagues here at the hospital.  

These types of schedules, known as shift work, pose various challenges to daily life – but sleep often is the biggest one. The resulting difficulty sleeping or excessive fatigue even has a name: shift work disorder. It’s estimated that up to 10 percent of shift workers suffer from this condition.  

An October 2016 study found that:

  • 30 percent of shift workers reported poor sleep quality
  • 61 percent of night shift workers reported short sleep duration, or sleep lasting less than seven hours
  • More than 40 percent required more than 30 minutes to fall asleep
  • 18 percent of night shift workers reported having insomnia  

If you are one of the 20,000 shift workers in the United States, it’s important to understand the dangers sleep deprivation can pose to your health, how to improve your sleep and when to seek help.

Potential dangers related to shift work sleep disorder

Just like anyone who doesn’t get enough quality sleep, shift workers are at increased risk for accidents and work-related errors. It also can cause them to become irritable or depressed. But lack of sleep due to shift work also can affect your health.  

Our circadian rhythm controls the production of hormones such as melatonin, which causes drowsiness, and growth hormones that help repair and restore body processes during deep sleep. While our circadian rhythm is partially driven by natural factors, it’s also influenced by our environment, especially light. When there is less light, like at night, our brain tells our circadian rhythm to make more melatonin so we fall asleep. During the day, we produce less melatonin, so we stay awake.  

Although we don’t understand exactly how, researchers have found that disrupting the circadian rhythm can trigger changes in the body at a molecular level. In fact, the World Health Organization in 2007 deemed shift work a probable carcinogen due to a potential connection between cancer and night shifts.  

In a 2015 study, researchers found that in nurses who worked rotating night shifts:

  • 11 percent had a shortened lifespan after at least six years.
  • The risk of death from cardiovascular disease increased by 23 percent after 15 years.
  • The risk of death from lung cancer increased by 25 percent after 15 years.  

Sleep restores our bodies. Without it, you may become irritable or depressed, and your short-term memory may suffer. Poor sleep also can impair the immune system, which can mean you’re at increased risk of catching a cold or the flu.  

Shift work doesn’t mean you’re doomed to poor health. There are steps you can take to improve your sleep, and if that doesn’t work, your doctor may be able to help.

How to improve sleep when you work odd shifts

Just like anyone else, shift workers need to make sleep a priority. And preparing your body for sleep starts before you even get home from work.

  • Wear sunglasses on your way home: This prevents the sunlight from confusing your body about what you want it to do.
  • Close the blinds when you get home: Darkness will tell your body it’s time to sleep. 
  • Tell friends and family when you will be sleeping: This hopefully will keep them from waking you with visits and phone calls.
  • Keep to your sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time as often as you can – even on your days off.  

If you practice good sleep habits and still struggle with your sleep schedule, see your doctor. They may recommend or prescribe a wake-promoting agent, which can make you less sleepy while you work, and a melatonin supplement or sleeping pill to help you get better rest.  

When to seek help for shift work disorder

Adjusting to a shift work schedule does require some patience. It can take months to adjust to a shift work sleep schedule. And if you go back to a “normal” schedule, it also may take time to readjust to sleeping during night hours.  

But because sleep plays such an essential role in our health, it’s important to see your doctor when you’re not getting enough of it for a prolonged period of time.  

Unfortunately, many people with shift work disorder never see a doctor – or wait until it’s causing serious problems. Some think that working night or rotating hours just means they have to deal with poor sleep. They don’t realize there are options to improve or treat it.  

Request an appointment if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Difficulty falling asleep  
  • Excessive sleepiness or falling asleep during work hours
  • Insomnia, or not getting an uninterrupted six to eight hours of sleep
  • Irritability or depression
  • Sleep that doesn’t feel refreshing  

Request an Appointment

Your doctor will ask about your health history and sleep habits. Consider keeping a sleep diary, which can help your doctor assess and monitor your sleep habits. Here’s what you should include:

  • The times you went to bed and woke up
  • How often you awoke up during the “night” and for how long
  • What you ate and drank before going to sleep
  • Whether you exercised and when  

Your doctor also may recommend a sleep study, which we will perform during your normal sleep hours. This can help rule out other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. Once we determine a cause, we can recommend behavioral changes or medical treatment.  

Poor sleep is not normal or something you just have to deal with – no matter your work schedule. There are things you and your doctor can do to help you get a good night’s rest.  

Category: Healthy Living     Tags: circadian rhythmMarc Schlosbergmedication for shift work sleep disordershift work sleep disorder