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The Effects of Shift Work on Your Sleep and How to Cope


Submitted by Koala Center for Sleep Disorders

There has been a significant increase in the amount of people in the United States working shifts. Police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, pilots, waitresses, truck drivers, and many other professionals are working shifts. In fact, over 22 million Americans are working evening, rotating, or on-call shifts according to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.

The increase in the amount of people working an atypical work shift rather than the traditional 9 to 5 schedule has also put many at risk for sleep deprivation. According to the National Sleep Foundation, one-third of shift workers state that they sleep fewer than six hours per night on workdays, and 30 percent report that they only get a good night’s sleep a few nights per month or less. Some studies have even compared the sleep deprivation experienced by shift workers to that of being drunk.

Sleep deprivation can cause a shift worker to be less alert and more prone to accidents both on the job and off, and it can also increase their risk for certain health problems. “There is strong evidence that shift work is related to a number of serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity,” says Frank Scheer, PhD, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Shift work is also linked to stomach problems and ulcers, depression, and an increased risk of accidents or injury.

How Shift Work Can Disrupt Our Circadian Rhythm
Each of us has an internal body clock that produces circadian rhythms that influence our body’s temperature, alertness, sleepiness, hunger, and hormone levels. This internal clock is influenced by your exposure to sunlight, and your level of sleepiness naturally peaks from about midnight to 7am. Shift workers must fight their natural body clock to stay awake.

Not only do they have to fight their body clock to stay awake during their shifts, but getting quality rest when they are done is easier said than done. Shift workers often fight insomnia or being awakened by family or external noises causing their sleep to be lighter and shorter. A sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea can cause them to have even poorer sleep and wake up feeling as though they never got any rest as well heighten their risk of health problems.

Strategies for Sleeping Better
There are a number of strategies that can help shift workers sleep better.

  • Napping—Take a nap just before starting a night shift.
  • Eating Well—Many shift workers eat poorly and at odd times, which causes stomach issues.
  • Sleep Schedules—Stay on the same sleep schedule every day of the week, which will help you have better quality sleep.
  • Sleep aides should be used with extreme caution, as they can increase drowsiness on the job or driving.
  • Avoid caffeine at least four hours before your bedtime.
  • Light Therapy—Artificial bright light can affect the body clock in the same way that sunlight does and can help to adjust your body’s sleep cycle.
  • At Home—Family needs to understand and respect the shift worker’s need for quality, uninterrupted sleep.
  • Do something calming before you go to sleep, such as reading a book, going for a short walk, or having a warm bath.
  • Don’t do any intense exercise before going to bed, as this can make you feel more awake and make it harder to get to sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom cool to aid sleep.
  • Use blackout curtains or blinds to make your bedroom dark, or wear an eye mask to keep out light.
  • Put your phone on the silent setting to prevent interruptions. Ask family or friends to keep noise to a low level and to wear headphones when listening to music or playing computer games.
  • Talk to neighbors so they are aware of your shift work, and ask them to keep noise levels low at certain times of the day. Wear earplugs if there is any unavoidable noise, or play white noise or background music to drown out noise.

If you suspect that you may have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, talk with your healthcare provider about sleep studies and options for treatment.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, visit, or phone 309-243-8980.

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