Do you work at odd hours of the night or work on a rotating shift instead of the usual 9-to-5 working hours? If you do, then you have probably experienced the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder at one point or another. Your challenges in keeping awake during the day (i.e., daytime sleepiness), lethargy, and anxiety can be caused by the disturbances in your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
Think of it this way: With your non-traditional sleeping and waking schedule, you’re throwing your body’s internal clock out of whack. Fortunately, shift work sleep disorder isn’t such a hopeless case – its symptoms can be managed, if not significantly reduced, with healthy lifestyle habits.
Symptoms to Look For
Shift work sleep disorder is usually caused by an early morning shift, graveyard shift, and rotating shift. These non-traditional work schedules cause chronic sleep deprivation wherein a person fails to catch up on much-needed sleep and builds up “sleep debt” in the long run. The term “chronic” means continuing so being assigned to a graveyard shift just once in a week or a month won’t likely lead to the disorder; the sleep deprivation must be prolonged over several days in a week.
Over time, the sleep debt causes the following symptoms to become increasingly evident:
- Insomnia, the inability to fall and stay asleep when needed, which can mean either difficulty in falling asleep or waking up earlier than planned (i.e., insufficient sleep)
- Excessive drowsiness or sleepiness when being alert for productivity purposes is necessary
- Feeling less than refreshed or rejuvenated after waking up
- Difficulty in focusing on the tasks at hand
- Trouble dealing with others resulting in personal and professional relationship issues
Even with the most comfortable Serta mattress, for example, you may still have difficulty in falling and staying asleep because your body seems to have a mind of its own. As you feel drowsy during the day when your family needs your attention, you can be more irritated at them and, thus, your family life can be affected. Each symptom seems to make the other symptoms even worse and the cycle goes on and on until such time that it feels like your life is falling to pieces.
If you’re like many shift workers, you may also struggle with so-called micro-sleep wherein you actually fall asleep for just a few seconds or minutes before suddenly being jolted awake. You’re falling asleep not only briefly but unconsciously, too.
Micro-sleep may seem like a minor issue but it isn’t. You can fall asleep when you’re supposed to be at work, or spending leisure time with family and friends, or performing household chores like folding the laundry. Your risk of injury can increase when you asleep while on the job or performing household tasks, especially when you’re handling sharp objects.
Ways of Coping
You have two choices in the matter: resign from your job or find ways of coping with your non-traditional working hours. This is with the assumption that your job and company require non-traditional working hours, of course, but if you can be assigned to a 9-to-5 schedule, then good for you.
Here are a few safe and effective ways that you can pay off your sleep debt and, thus, reduce your symptoms.
- Take short naps when and where possible so as to increase your alertness and decrease your drowsiness on the job. You should try taking a 90-minute nap just before your night shift begins, a good way of giving your body a boost of energy so there will be no sleep disruptions later on. Keep in mind that consistency is the key in napping so stick to your schedule naps even on your days off.
- Eat well and eat smart. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, among other healthy foods, should be on your plate for mealtimes and snacks. Be sure to eat on a regular basis, too, so that your body’s internal clock becomes more attuned to a regular meal schedule even when it’s during unconventional hours. For example, your breakfast may be eaten at 8 P.M. while your lunch is at 2 A.M. Keep to a regular schedule of eating your meals and snacks so your body has the fuel it needs to function well. Avoid eating excessive amounts of high-sugar and high-carbs foods since these can cause a sugar rush, and it’s something that you don’t want on the job. If you need to eat fast food, try something like Panera Bread.
- Try light therapy. You can work with your doctor in determining the right amount of light, the type of light, and the timing of light exposure in your case. For example, you can turn on the bright lamps in your home after waking up at night to prepare for your graveyard shift – you’re helping your body to feel like it’s daytime.
And don’t forget to make your bedroom sleep-friendly, too! This includes making sure your bed has fresh linens and fluffy pillows while your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool, among other things.