Shift-worker? This post is for you.

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In a global economy, customers expect 24/7 access to services. That’s created an increase in the number of people who work night and swing shifts. However, their time spent working outside the normal 9-to-5 schedule can lead to shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), wherein they have trouble falling and staying asleep and experience excessive sleepiness. Shift workers, even more so than those on a regular sleep schedule, need good sleep hygiene to help their body get the rest it needs.

How does shift work affect sleep?

Your body naturally times its sleep cycle according to the day/night schedule created by the Earth’s rotation. Sunlight, a blue spectrum light, is absorbed by special photoreceptors called ganglion cells and sent directly to the circadian region of the brain. The circadian rhythms then control all of the body’s 24-hour cycles like sleep, meal timing, hormone production, and cell regeneration.

Sleep hormones are naturally released as it starts to get dark. If you’re working at night, you’ll be fighting those hormones until morning. Unfortunately, morning light suppresses sleep hormones, which makes it hard to sleep in the morning. A nighttime work schedule works against all of your natural rhythms.

What is sleep hygiene and how can it help?

Sleep hygiene includes all the habits and behaviours in your life that affect your sleep. We’ll start with the basics of good sleep hygiene and how shift workers can apply it to a non-traditional schedule.

  • Stick to a Regular Bedtime: When you keep a regular bedtime, the brain learns when to start the release of sleep hormones to follow your preferred schedule. For many shift workers, that means going to bed as soon as they get home to reduce exposure to light. Light, even artificial light from smartphones and televisions, can suppress sleep hormones. Consistency is key when you’re fighting against the body’s natural tendencies so stick to that bedtime.

  • Establish a Calming Bedtime Routine: It can be hard to lay down when the brain is still whirling from a long shift. A bedtime routine gives you a chance to release some of that stress and tension before bed. With consistency, it can also trigger the release of sleep hormones. The routine can include anything that helps you feel calm and relaxed like reading a book, drinking a warm cup of milk, or doing a few minutes of meditation.

  • Eat Smart: You might be tempted to reach for an energy drink or soda while working, but caffeine can keep you awake long past the end of your shift. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants for four hours before your bedtime. Also try to avoid eating heavy, high-fat meals that can cause indigestion and discomfort.

  • Natural Sleep Aids: It can take time for the body to adjust to a new sleep schedule. Melatonin is a sleep hormone naturally released in the body that can also be found in supplement form. When taken an hour before bed, it increases sleepiness without causing the grogginess associated with some over-the-counter sleep aids. Food can also contain natural sleep aids such as sour cherries (melatonin), walnuts (tryptophan, an amino acid that’s used to make serotonin and melatonin), almonds (magnesium), and dairy products (calcium helps the body process tryptophan). A light snack that’s full of sleep-inducing nutrients can help you sleep better.

Sometimes shift work can’t be avoided. However, you can take steps and precautions to help yourself get the full seven to nine hours of sleep you need to function at your best.

A big thanks over to the folks at Tuck for providing us with this awesome guest post!


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