How to Identify & Treat Shift Work Sleep Disorder


Working rotations and night shifts have become more common as technology has progressed. Medical staff, call center agents, government workers, and various other jobs require workers to be on hand at all times, which means someone has to work night and rotating shifts.

While this schedule has become commonplace for many people, the dangers and health impacts of working an unnatural nocturnal schedule have become apparent. Many people have a hard time sleeping during the day or getting a regular amount of sleep when their schedules change so frequently. Those who can’t seem to get to sleep suffer from something called Shift Work Disorder, and it can be a major problem for those who suffer from it.

What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder is almost exactly what it sounds like. It describes those who have difficulty sleeping because of a rotating or night shift schedule. If you suffer with this sleep disorder, you might find yourself struggling to stay awake during your shift, nodding off when you’re supposed to be working. You also might have a hard time sleeping during the day and end up being poorly rested all around.

Here are some of the most common symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Headache
  • Lack of energy

Why Does it Happen?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder happens when your body’s internal clock is out of balance. Your brain actually determines when it is time to wake up or go to sleep based on the light and dark of day and night. When you go against that natural rhythm, it can cause issues with your ability to sleep.

Your internal clock is also called your circadian rhythm. This refers to behavioral, mental, and physical changes that responds to the light and dark levels in your environment over a 24 hour period. Your circadian rhythms can impact body temperature, hormones, and sleep cycles. When they are out of sync, they can contribute to bipolar disorder, depression, diabetes, obesity, and seasonal affective disorder.

Working during the night, or on a rotating shift, will likely necessarily expose your body to artificial light. This interaction with light late at night, or early in the morning, disrupts your body’s ability to make melatonin. Blue light is the worst when it comes to interfering with your sleep schedule, and since fluorescent and LED lights are so common, working at night is likely to expose you to them. Blue light has been shown to reduce the production of melatonin, which then makes it difficult for you to follow a regular sleep schedule.

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When you are exposed to significant amounts of blue light, which are found in computer screens, phones, and fluorescent lighting, your brain has a difficult time telling when it is time to sleep and time to be awake. This tends to lead to sleep deprivation or sleep debt, which is another way of describing those days when you can’t seem to keep your head up. When you’re in a place of sleep deprivation, you’re more likely to notice the dips in your circadian rhythm (typically between 1-3 p.m. and 2-4 a.m.). If you’re working during these times, you might accidentally nod off. This can be dangerous in factory settings, and at very best, can lead to getting a verbal lashing from the boss.

Health Risks

Aside from making you feel tired during the day, there are many potential health risks you could face if you suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder. The worst thing you can experience as a result of irregular work schedule is cancer. Because working at night messes with your body’s natural processes, shift work has been correlated with increased tumor development. This study only looked at the incidence of breast cancer, but other cancers are certainly possible.

Before you start worrying about getting cancer, you should know that it isn’t the most common side effect of having this sleep disorder. The most common issues you’ll experience are higher stress levels, being more prone to accidents, and mood problems. Higher stress levels can mess with your immune system, making you more likely to get sick.

Because you aren’t getting enough sleep, your judgement is more impaired than if you were well rested. This can increase the likelihood of you getting into an accident. If you go without sleep for 18 hours, your driving ability can resemble that of  having .05 percent alcohol in your blood.

Along with being moody (who hasn’t felt moody after getting little to no sleep?), you’re also susceptible to digestive disorders and menstrual cycle complications. Shift work issues have been connected with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain. The colon has its own internal clock, and when that is disrupted, it causes digestive complications. Working during odd hours is also likely to cause irregular menstrual cycles, and many who have their cycle length changed don’t go back to the natural cycle, even after stopping shift work.

How to Treat it

The health complications of working irregular shifts are enough to make anyone pause with concern. However, there are several things you can do to minimize the effect of these health risks on your mind and body.

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The best thing you can do is to try to get to a regular work shift. Symptoms usually clear up when you return to daytime work hours and can sleep during the night. Even if it takes some time to get to a more natural work schedule, try to see if you can talk to your boss or supervisor about getting a shift change, or sticking with a more regular schedule.

However, there are some professions where getting away from shift work is impossible. Nurses need to be on hand at the hospital 24/7, and there isn’t anything that can be done about that. If you find that you can’t break out of your nightly work shift, there are several changes you can make to reduce the impact your odd hours have on your health.

Make sure you are getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Many shift workers get 1-4 hours of sleep fewer than their daytime coworkers, and this lack of sleep can seriously mess with their ability to function.

Using bright light treatment during your work shift and blackout curtains in your room during the day can trick your brain into believing that it’s daytime when you need to be awake, and nighttime when you need to sleep. Timing light exposure in this way can help you reset your internal clock, which will help you get a more regular sleep.

You’ll also need to reduce the noise levels in your environment. Noise disturbances can impact your sleep, and cause your overall sleep quality to diminish. If you have roommates, ask them to keep it down when you need to sleep, and consider investing in a white noise machine to help drown out ambient sounds.

Taking a melatonin supplement has been shown to be effective in treating sleep-wake cycle disorders. Using this in combination with your light therapy can help your brain act as if it were naturally night time.

One of the best things you can do for your overall health is to visit a sleep doctor. They can perform tests to see when you are awake and when you are asleep. This will then help them figure out the best ways to treat you, and get you back to sleeping a decent amount each night.

Whether you’re only working the night shift for a short period of time, or find yourself stuck in a rotating shift for quite some time, making sure you get enough sleep can seem like a challenge. With some of the tips mentioned in this article, and the help of a health professional, you’ll be able to get the amount of rest you need and get back to living your life.

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