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Shift Work and Sleep

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 13 Dec 2011 | comments*Discuss
Shift Work Sleep Disorder Night Shift

One of the biggest causes of sleep problems in the modern age is shift work. It's such a big issue that Shift Work Sleep Disorder has become a recognised medical condition. Often insomnia can be cured by getting into a regular sleep cycle, but how can you do that when your work schedule keeps changing? How can you minimise your sleep problems and look after your health?

Broken Sleep Rhythms

The most serious problems caused by shift work occur when shifts are constantly moving around, making it impossible to sleep in a regular pattern. You may find yourself going to bed when you're not really tired and having to get up when you're exhausted. This gets harder to cope with as you get older. You can feel as if your body is getting used to it, but still be accumulating damage.

If you must work rotating shifts, try to keep your actual number of work hours as low as you can afford. Disrupted sleep rhythms can be compensated for, to an extent, by extra sleep. Try to have a lie in on your days off. Trust your body to tell you what it needs.

Daytime Sleeping

Next to rotating shifts, the worst thing for your body is being stuck on night shifts. It's always harder to sleep during the day because there will inevitably be more disturbances, noise and light issues. People on night shifts regularly end up getting two hours' less sleep a day than average, which can add up to a serious sleep deficit over time.

The best way to compensate for the problems caused by night shifts is to give your body a misleading impression of what time of day it is. Simple things like wearing sunglasses as you travel home can trip your body into evening mode as it gets the impression the light is fading. Consider using coloured light therapy in addition to this. Make sure the room you sleep in is as dark as possible.

Much of the damage caused by night shifts can be mitigated if they only last for two or three days at a time with at least two days' break in between.

Sleep Apnoea

Recent research has shown that sleep apnoea, or difficulty in breathing during sleep, is significantly more common among shift workers. This can result in you suddenly waking up, feeling short of breath. Your partner may notice you breathing irregularly whilst asleep. Sleep apnoea can occasionally be dangerous and it can be an early indicator of serious health problems so you should always speak to your doctor if you think you may be suffering from it.

Some people have a family history of sleep apnoea and are considered to be at extra risk. In this situation it is probably best to avoid shift work, even if you can't find any other employment. Your doctor can help you to make the best decision for your particular circumstances, and can support you if you find yourself pressured to take unsuitable work.

The Importance of Naps

There are a number of reasons why our bodies need sleep but one of the most important is the REM cycle. If we don't get enough of these cycles we may have memory problems and may experience disorientation. This can be dangerous if your work involves using heavy machinery or driving (or even if you need to drive there and back).

Fortunately, many people find that they need only a short amount of sleep in order to get into an REM cycle. Fifteen to twenty minute naps every few hours can make a huge difference. Don't nap for too long or you'll fall into deeper sleep and may struggle to feel properly awake again. Most experts recommend half an hour as a maximum. If you get your napping schedule right, you can enjoy healthy full sleep when your shift is over.

Staying Healthy

When you're dealing with shift work sleep disorder it's important to look after other aspects of your health. Getting enough exercise (especially the sort that gets you out of breath) can make your body much better at adapting to changing sleep patterns.

Struggling with sleep can make it tempting to develop a caffeine habit, but caffeine is actually a bad idea for shift workers as it stops your body from going through the natural periods of relaxation that can compensate for disrupted sleep. If you're trying to stay alert it's better to drink a glass of cold water or fruit juice.

Shift work is tough but for some people it's an economic necessity. Taking good care of your body in other ways can make it a lot easier to cope with, and can reduce the risk of it triggering long term health problems.

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