How You Can Sleep Better If You Work the Night Shift

What you can do to minimize shift work sleep disorder
A person sits on the edge of their bed exhausted after working the night shift.

Counting sheep. Catching some Zzz’s. Hitting the hay.

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No matter what you call it, it’s a well-known fact that getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of your overall well-being. But if you’re part of the 20% of people who work a non-traditional shift like night shifts or rotating shifts, you may be missing out on more than just the sunlight and tucking your kids in for the night. You could be missing out on better health.

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

“Working nontraditional shifts interferes with the body’s circadian rhythms,” says sleep expert Jessica Vensel Rundo, MD, MS. “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. Dr. Vensel Rundo explains the problems this disorder can cause and what you can do to help.

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Why shift work sleep disorder can be hazardous to your health

Lack of sleep can lead to other health issues like heart disease or gastrointestinal distress or metabolic disorders, such as diabetes. Besides health problems, you may also have symptoms like mood problems, irritability, drug and alcohol dependency or even accidents and work-related mistakes.

“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 breast cancer,” says Dr. Vensel Rundo.

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.

Do you have shift work sleep disorder?

Not all shift workers will develop shift work sleep disorder.

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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.

“It’s also a good idea to keep a sleep diary of which shifts you worked and what hours you slept,” says Dr. Vensel Rundo. “Keeping 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

Dr. Vensel Rundo suggests five lifestyle changes habits to implement to make a lasting impact on your sleep and most importantly, your health: 

  1. 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. This can include establishing a regular bedtime routine and sticking to it and making your environment conducive to sleep, like keeping your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
  2. Go straight to bed after work. As soon as your shift is over, make plans to go straight to bed. 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. One way you can do that is to wear sunglasses on your way home, even on a cloudy day.
  3. Cut back on caffeine. Reduce your caffeine intake to help you get on your way toward a great night’s sleep. 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.
  4. 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. For those who live with you, ask them to refrain from doing any noisy activities while you sleep like vacuuming, washing dishes or watching TV loudly. Put your smartphone on “Do Not Disturb” mode so your screen won’t be lighting up frequently with new email, messages or phone call notifications.
  5. Get help from your doctor if you need it. If behavioral techniques aren’t helping you sleep, your doctor may prescribe sleep aids, melatonin to induce sleep or medications to promote wakefulness.

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