How You Can Sleep Better If You Work the Night Shift

What you can do to minimize shift work sleep disorder

Droste clock

If you work a non-traditional shift like the night shift or rotating shifts, you may be missing out on more than daylight and watching your kids’ soccer games. You could be missing out on sleep and better health.

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Night shift workers who have trouble sleeping may have a condition known as shift work sleep disorder.

“Working non-traditional shifts interferes with the body’s circadian rhythms,” says sleep expert Tina Waters, MD. “Most of us are awake during the day because our body’s internal clock is keeping us awake. So no matter how tired you are after working all night, your awakening signals will conflict with your desire to sleep.”

Fortunately, there are some lifestyle changes that can help. But first, let’s look at the problems this disorder can cause.

Why shift work sleep disorder can be hazardous to your health

Studies have shown that lack of sleep can lead to other health issues. Some people develop gastrointestinal distress or metabolic disorders, such as diabetes. Others may develop heart disease.

“There was also a large study done on nurses who worked the night shift in which they were found to have a higher prevalence of infertility and even cancer,” Dr. Waters says.

From a non-health perspective, working alternate shifts can make it difficult to lead a balanced life. “If you’re a spouse or a parent, there are things going on during the time you need to be sleeping,” Dr. Waters says.

Do you have shift work sleep disorder?

Not all shift workers will develop shift work sleep disorder.

If you’re having trouble sleeping and you think this disorder could be the culprit, expect your doctor to first run some tests to rule out other underlying sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy.

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“It’s also a good idea to keep a sleep diary of which shifts you worked and what hours you slept,” says Dr. Waters. A sleep diary can help your doctor identify the problem and monitor its progression over time.

What you can do to get a good ‘night’s’ sleep

Practice good sleep hygiene. If you’re diagnosed with shift work sleep disorder, one of the most important things you can do to make sure you are getting enough sleep is to practice ‘good sleep hygiene.’ which includes:

  • Establishing a regular bedtime routine and sticking to it
  • Making your environment conducive to sleep (e.g., keeping your bedroom dark, cool and quiet)

Go straight to bed after work. Dr. Waters also recommends going home and sleeping as soon as your shift is over. “One of the triggers that keeps people awake is light, so it helps to decrease your light exposure at least 30 minutes before trying to sleep,” she says. “One way you can do that is to wear sunglasses on your way home, even on a cloudy day.”

Cut back on caffeine. Another thing you can do to help you get a better ‘night’s’ sleep is to reduce your caffeine intake. “If you’re drinking caffeine to stay awake, try not to drink any within four hours of the end of your shift to give your body time to metabolize it,” Dr. Waters says.

Set boundaries. It’s also a good idea to let people know what hours you’re working and when you will be sleeping, so they know when to leave you alone.

Get help from your doctor if you need it. If behavioral techniques aren’t helping you sleep, your doctor may prescribe melatonin to induce sleep, medications to promote wakefulness, or prescription sleep aids.

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