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What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Symptoms, Treatments, & More

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Anyone can have a bad night’s sleep, but those who work outside of the regular 9-5 schedule are at risk for shift work sleep disorder. Whether you are working night shift after night shift, working overnight, early morning, or rotating shifts, if you find yourself constantly sleepy, fatigued, or irritable, you may be suffering from shift work disorder. Some other common symptoms of shift work sleep disorder include:

  • Insomnia, or the inability to complete a full sleep cycle (whether that means waking up often during sleep, or difficulty falling asleep in the first place)
  • Unshakeable sleepiness during waking hours
  • Not feeling renewed or refreshed from sleep
  • Feeling depressed or short-tempered
  • Feeling consistently “low-energy”
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems or difficulty concentrating

Shift work sleep disorder is more than a few nights of tossing and turning. It is a continuous battle against poor sleep patterns that can affect your health and interpersonal relationships. It is important to remember that shift work sleep disorder is not just a night shift sleep disorder; it can happen to anyone working long and unusual hours. 

Causes of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Causes of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 15% of the U.S. workforce works outside of a 9-5 schedule – whether that means late night or early morning shifts. 

Not everyone off of the 9-5 schedule will experience a diagnosed shift work disorder. However, many shift workers report having difficulty sleeping or less satisfying sleep overall. Only about 10% of shift workers are thought to have shift work disorder. (National Sleep Foundation)

Humans are naturally diurnal creatures. Our body’s circadian rhythms mean that we are programmed to repair cell damage at night when our internal clock sends signals for us to sleep. These nighttime rhythms play a key role in maintaining our overall health. According to a 2017 study from the National Institute of Health, the circadian sleep cycle helps regulate our hormones, keeps our white blood cells functioning, and maintains our mental health. Consistent sleep deprivation or patterns of unsatisfying sleep heightens your risk for Type 2 diabetes and obesity, depression and mental health disturbances, a decline in cognitive functioning, and strained relationships. 

Due to these circadian rhythms, the body is simply not programmed to “catch up” on sleep during the daytime. Overnight shift workers or anyone who does night work are at risk, but even worse off are those who work rotating shifts. Working shifts on a changing schedule make it increasingly difficult for the body to adapt.

While some are better able to cope with the strain of a non-traditional work schedule, poor sleep takes a toll on everyone eventually, lessening the overall quality of life. It can also slow your decision-making processes or impair your ability to make judgments, which can be dangerous in many jobs that require shift work, such as nursing and construction. 

Treatments for Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Luckily, there is much that can be done to address shift work sleep disorder. These are some suggestions that can lessen the symptoms and treat the underlying cause. 

  • Try to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a day, even if it has to take place during daylight hours.
  • Keeping a sleep diary can be a helpful tool when identifying lingering problems. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine offers a downloadable chart, or you can try keeping notes in a journal of your choosing. Many small businesses on platforms like Etsy offer decorated versions of sleep diaries that will make the practice less daunting. Either way, if you choose to visit a doctor or a sleep clinic for help coping with shift work sleep disorder symptoms, keeping a sleep diary can be a useful source of information that can help them offer practical solutions.

sleeping diary

  • Minimize exposure to light on the way home from working the night shift.
  • Create and follow soothing bedtime rituals, particularly ones that emphasize darkness and quiet around bedtime hours. You can customize your bedtime ritual around simple practices that appeal to you. Some examples are a lavender pillow spray suggested by homeopathic sleep remedies or an alarm clock that mimics the effects of a sunrise.
  • Try to minimize the number of night shifts you work in a row. Less than five days in a row is recommended to avoid night shift sleeping disorder.
  • Constantly rotating shifts put you at the highest risk for shift work sleep disorder – if you must work them, try to fix your sleep schedule or rotate your shift clockwise. It is easier on the body to work a morning then evening shift than it is to work an evening shift and go in early the next morning.  
  • Try to minimize caffeine intake in the hours before bedtime.
  • Try to take a nap just before a night shift. UCLA Health suggests a nap of about 90 minutes before heading out to work at night. A nap immediately before work can increase awareness and productivity during your shift, alleviating the constant sleepiness that is a hallmark symptom of night shift disorders. 

A supportive work environment can help you find a manageable work shift pattern and encourage healthy habits at the end of difficult shifts. According to the National Institute of Health, friends and family can do much to mitigate some of the stress and symptoms of work shift disorder. Night shift sleep disorders can be hard to cope with, as they mean sleeping during the day when everyone else is awake.

Still, there are methods of coping: The Cleveland Clinic suggests asking friends and family to help you recreate a dark, peaceful setting during your sleep hours, so as to naturally mimic the circadian rhythms that govern the body’s sleep cycle. Ask for help engaging in healthy sleep practices, like that phone calls be answered quietly, headphones worn, and curtains drawn when you need to sleep.

Takeaway

Shift work puts heavy demands on the human body, but there are also many ways to cope with it. Don’t be afraid to speak to a doctor about your sleep habits, and take stock of ways that you can improve your daily routine to make healthy sleep a priority.

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