Sleep is precious and a critical part of a regular, healthy lifestyle. Few people appreciate the benefits of sleep as much as they should—until they can’t get it! Most people who get a full night of sleep feel happy and well-rested in the morning. And when we get enough sleep, we often tend to take it for granted.
But some people aren’t able to sleep all night long for various reasons. Having a newborn baby, struggling with insomnia, and working the night shift are all factors that can keep people from getting the sleep they need to at night. That’s when people begin to really appreciate sleep.
Sleep Pattern for Night Shift Workers
We know that sleep patterns for a typical person include wake time when it is light out (about 16 hours of this) and sleep time when it is dark (approximately 8 hours). But some people, including medical professionals, air traffic controllers, police officers, security guards, and people in the hospitality industry may have to work all night long in order to keep people safe, healthy, and well cared for. In industrialized nations, this usually means that up to 20% of people are working either rotating or night shifts.
Shift Work Sleeping Disorder (SWSD) is a condition in which people who work the night shift can’t seem to adjust to a new sleep schedule. These folks often struggle to accommodate sleep into their working lives during the work week and then adjust to a “normal” schedule when they aren’t working.
People who can’t adjust their sleep schedule have a higher risk of accidents and are more likely to miss work than those who adjust well. Memory loss, impaired ability to focus, irritability, and depression can all be signs that a person is suffering from a shift work sleeping disorder. These people often suffer from a constant feeling of jet lag that they just can’t get past. Health problems may also come along with sleeping disorders related to working the night shift, including ulcers, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, heart problem, insulin resistance, and weight gain.
Night Shift Sleep Tips
People who are on the night shift or a swing shift will have to work much harder to make sure that their sleeping patterns are healthy and productive. Here are some great tips to help night shift workers build healthy habits and discipline into their sleep schedules:
- Avoid rotating shifts. If you can find one shift and stick to it, that’s better for your body. Constantly changing and adjusting shifts makes it much more difficult for you to fall into a pattern. If you must rotate shifts, try to arrange it so that you change from day shift into an evening shift, and then into a night shift (rather than from night to evening to day). Your body will adjust better.
- Try to work near where you live or live near where you work. Long commute times will only add to the amount of time you need to stay awake and make it more difficult to adjust well.
- Cut back on caffeine. Although people who do shift work often rely on caffeine and other stimulating substances to keep them awake at night, this can actually make your sleep patterns worse. Caffeine and sugary energy drinks that you consume toward the second half of your shift might keep you awake during work, but will also make more difficult for you to fall asleep when you get home from work.
- Keep bright lights on at your workplace during the night. This will tell your body and brain that it’s time to be awake, even though it is nighttime. Make use of a special light box or lamp to reset your internal clock and tell it that it’s time to be awake. Train your brain and body into starting your work day by exposing it to light.
- Begin your downtime on the way home from work. As you head home from work, whether driving or walking, begin preparing your body to get home and go to sleep. Wear a big hat and dark sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sunlight. Try to relax as you head home, without stopping to run errands or do any other activity that might wake you up. Go straight home and get into bed.
- Limit stimulation during your sleep. The rest of the world is awake and may be phoning or texting you during your sleep time. Ask friends and family to limit communication during this time. Even better, turn your phone off or leave it in another room so you don’t hear it.
- Block the world out from your bedroom. Room darkening blinds and a white noise machine may help you get the sleep that you need even though the rest of the world is awake. Even if your eyes are closed, your body can sense sunlight coming into the room so be sure to block out the light. Keep your bedroom as a haven away from the light and noise from outside.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. It might be difficult to keep up with the rest of the world, but do your best to maintain a regular sleep schedule—even on days that you aren’t working. This will keep you from yo-yo-ing back and forth into and out of a night shift sleep schedule.
- Enlist the support of friends and family. Some people just don’t understand and need you to explain to them that your schedule requires special accommodation. Ask for help with babysitting or meal preparation so that you can get the sleep you need and not feel like a zombie all the time.
Working the night shift isn’t ideal since the human body isn’t programmed to work that way. On the other hand, it is possible to adjust well to a night shift sleep schedule and many people make it work! The best advice is to give yourself some wiggle room to work out a schedule that fits best for you. You may need to prioritize sleep over anything else for a while. But once you get adjusted, you’ll figure out how to juggle all of the other aspects of your life and get the sleep that you need to make your life fit together!