How Shift Work Affects Your Sleep Cycle

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The daily rhythm of your body and its biological functions over 24 hours — your Circadian rhythm — include your pattern of sleeping and waking. Working on second or third shift can throw off that rhythm and disrupt your normal sleep cycles.

So, how can your body adjust? And what if you’re bouncing back and forth between different shifts?

“It used to be there were people who worked first, second or third shift and stayed on that shift on a regular basis,” says family physician Mark Ringle, MD.

“The opportunity for shift work is a lot greater than it used to be and people are taking advantage of it. Some people are shifting back and forth between shifts, such as from first to third shift, and some people are working odd shift hours that may start at 3 or 4 am. Our bodies were never designed to do that.”

Shift work has financial and lifestyle benefits for many Americans, and you can adjust your sleep and work schedules successfully if you take the right steps, Dr. Ringle says. Here are some tips for resetting your sleep cycle:

Mimic your body’s natural rhythm. Set specific wake and sleep hours that work well with your shift. Keep to the same bedtime and wake time schedule, even on weekends. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each day, and that shouldn’t change for shift workers. Create a sleep environment that feels like it would at night. This means a room that is dark, quiet and has as little disruption as possible from the outside world. If necessary, use an eye mask and ear plugs to block out light and noise.

Let light reflect your schedule. Keep work environments as bright as possible during the night. It is difficult to stay alert when working in dim surroundings at night. Likewise, keep light as limited as possible during the day. Wear sunglasses on the way home and keep shades closed once you get there.

Use stimulants wisely. Caffeine can be helpful in preparing for a night shift, but be careful not to drink it within four hours of your scheduled sleep time. For example, if your bedtime is 6 am, don’t drink coffee around 4 am.

Ease into shifts. Shift work also includes individuals who may work at night for a couple of days and then switch back to day hours. This can be especially tricky and requires careful planning. Dr. Ringle suggests that individuals plan a two-day break between such radical shift changes. This will help your body ease into the change.

Avoid alcohol as a sleep agent. Although alcohol may seem to improve sleep initially, you can develop a tolerance and quickly find that it is disturbing your sleep rather than promoting good sleep.

Shift Work’s Potential Negative Health Effects

A National Sleep Foundation poll revealed that shift workers are more likely to suffer from insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness. They also are more likely to drive while fatigued and almost twice as likely to fall asleep at the wheel.

About 10 percent of people who work shifts other than day shift develop Shift Work Sleep Disorder. This condition is recognized by the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders as an imbalance in the Circadian rhythm when a person tries to make adaptations to a second- or third-shift work schedule. People with this disorder have frequent sleep disturbances, excessive sleepiness while awake and inability to fall asleep when they wish.

You can adjust your sleep and work schedules successfully if you take the right steps, Dr. Ringle says.

Shift workers have an increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and gastrointestinal diseases. Extreme fatigue when performing certain jobs also puts others at risk.

“The problem is that most of the people who have the greatest fluctuation in work schedules are those who hold very important professions,” Dr. Ringle says. “These include jobs such as police officers, health care workers, pilots and those in the service industry.”

By practicing good sleep hygiene when you switch shifts, you can prevent many of the negative effects of an altered sleep cycle. For more information on good sleep habits, see 10 Ways to Get Better Sleep.

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.