Whether it was due to a late night out on the town or cramming for an exam, most of us have pulled an all-nighter occasionally. But for millions of people, staying up all night is a regular part of their job.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 20 percent of people work overnight or evening hours. For some people, working these non-traditional hours can lead to a sleep disorder. Shift work sleep disorder is a condition, which can occur if your natural sleep cycle is chronically disrupted due to working overnight or rotating shifts.
To understand more about shift work sleep disorder, it’s helpful to learn a bit about how sleep works. Your circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep cycle over a 24-hour period. Think of it as your internal clock telling you when to sleep and when to be alert.
Most people have an internal rhythm, which involves sleeping at night and being awake during the day. Doing the reverse and staying awake all night and trying to sleep in the day, goes against most people’s natural circadian rhythm. When you work overnight, you create a conflict between what you need to do and what your body wants to do, which is why sleep problems can develop.
People who have shift work sleep disorder may have trouble falling asleep, which leaves them feeling excessively tired and fatigued. Some people can get to sleep, but have trouble staying asleep. In fact, according to UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, night shift workers tend to get between two and four hours less sleep each day than the general population.
Additional symptoms may include headaches, inability to concentrate and irritability. But that’s not all; sleep deprivation can affect your mood, reaction time and concentration. The effects can lead to a variety of other problems, such as increased sick leave, a higher rate of accidents and decreased productivity.
Most people cannot quit their job and take a nap! But what you can do is decrease the chances of developing the disorder. If possible, try to limit how many overnight shifts you do to no more than four in a row. It’s also helpful to avoid rotating shifts.
If you work night shift, try to take a nap before you leave for work. If your job allows, a short nap during your lunch break may also improve alertness and get you through the rest of your shift.
Although it may not always be possible, you should try to stay on the same sleep-wake cycle even on your days off. Keeping to the same sleep schedule will help your body adjust to sleeping during the day and may improve the quality of your sleep.
When you get off work, try to get to sleep as soon as possible. Keep your bedroom, quiet, cool and dark to improve the chances you’ll stay asleep. Invest in blackout curtains and earplugs to block out sunlight and noise.
Although guzzling coffee and other caffeinated drinks may help get you through your working hours, taper off towards the end of your shift. Caffeine can stay in your body for several hours, which may keep you from falling asleep. If sleep problems persist, you may want to consider seeing a sleep specialist. Options for treatment include the following:
Medications: Both prescription and over-the-counter medications are available that can help you fall asleep. Over-the-counter medications used as a sleep aide usually contain an antihistamine. Prescription medication is available that can help you fall asleep easier. But along with the benefits, there are risks and side effects, so they should be taken with caution.
Light Therapy: Light has a big effect on your sleep/wake cycle. Light therapy involves sitting near a light box for a prescribed amount of time. It can be used to help adjust your sleep/wake patterns to either later or earlier depending on the timing of the light exposure.
Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in your brain. Melatonin is usually released in the evening and makes you feel sleepy. It is also sold as a supplement to promote sleep. Keep in mind, it is not regulated by the FDA and as with any supplements, it’s important to talk with your doctor before taking melatonin.
Cleveland Clinic. Shift Work Sleep Disorder. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/neurological_institute/sleep-disorders-center/disorders-conditions/hic-shift-work-sleep-disorder Retrieved September 2015
UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. Coping with Shift Work. http://sleepcenter.ucla.edu/coping-with-shift-work Retrieved September 2015
© 2021 American Sleep Association.