Shift Work Sleep Disorder: How to Identify and Treat It

Working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week has become common. 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, it is not without dangers and health impacts. Many people have a hard time sleeping during the day or getting sufficient sleep when their schedules change so frequently.

Those who have sleep problems due to shift work suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder, and it can be a major problem. Read on to learn about this disorder and what can be done to mitigate the negative effects of our on-demand work culture.

WHAT IS SHIFT WORK SLEEP DISORDER?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder is a condition where sufferers have difficulty sleeping because of a rotating or night shift schedule. If you suffer from 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. You’ll have a hard time maintaining a sleep schedule.

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

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

WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder happens when your body’s internal clock is out of sync with the day and night cycles of nature. Your brain determines when it is time to wake up or go to sleep based on the light it detects, typically delivered through sunshine. 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 respond to the light and dark levels in your environment over a 24-hour period. Your circadian rhythm can impact body temperature, hormones and wake schedule. A circadian rhythm that has been disturbed can contribute to bipolar disorder, depression, diabetes, obesity and seasonal affective disorder.

Working during the night, or on a rotating shift, will expose your body to artificial light. This interaction with light disrupts your body’s ability to make melatonin. Your body is especially sensitive to blue light, which is light of shorter wavelengths. Blue light comes from many luminous devices, including computer, phone and television screens, as well as fluorescent lighting.

When you are exposed to significant amounts of blue light, your brain has a difficult time knowing when it is time to sleep and time to be awake. This leads to shorter sleep time and trouble sleeping, which can ultimately lead to sleep deprivation or sleep debt. This makes your circadian rhythm dip periodically during the day (typically between 1 and 3 p.m. and 2 to 4 a.m.). If you’re working during these times, you might accidentally nod off.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder: How to Identify & Treat It

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. Because working at night interferes with your body’s natural processes, shift work has been correlated with increased tumor development.

The most common issues you’ll experience are higher stress levels, mood problems and being more prone to accidents. Higher stress levels can mess with your immune system, making you more likely to get sick. Because you aren’t getting enough sleep, your judgment is impaired. 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.

You’re also susceptible to digestive disorders and women are prone to 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.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder: How to Identify It & Treat It

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.

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 at night. Talk to your boss or supervisor about getting a shift change or sticking to a more regular schedule.

However, there are some professions like nursing where getting away from shift work schedule is impossible. 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 seven to eight hours of sleep each cycle. Many shift workers get one to four fewer hours of sleep than daytime workers. Using bright light therapy during your work shift and blackout curtains in your room while you sleep 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. 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 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 better sleep and get back to living your life.

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