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Shift Work and Sleep Disorders: The Struggle Is Real

shift worker-1.jpgIF YOU’RE ONE of the 15 million Americans who work the late shift, you’re probably barely keeping your eyes open to read this. The night is alive with early-rising bakers and factory workers keeping the assembly lines moving, not to mention all the doctors, nurses and first responders who are always on call. These are the people in your neighborhood getting the job done, night after weary night.

Perhaps you were enticed to work third shift by the extra pay, thinking to yourself that it would be a breeze to crawl into bed after work to catch a nap before having your whole day left to run errands or enjoy being home while the rest of the world sits in traffic and complains about it. You probably didn’t realize that any shift differential can practically be considered combat pay based on the toll that the late shift can take on your body.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift Work Sleep Disorder occurs when people who work at night — or sometimes, start work in the very early hours of the morning — have trouble sleeping when their shift is over or feel chronically fatigued while trying to work.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder also affects people who work rotating shifts. The problem happens because your body’s natural circadian rhythms are naturally influenced by the presence and absence of daylight, so you may never feel sleepy during the day when your schedule demands you try to catch some Zs. Lost sleep during the day can lead to on-the-job-fatigue at night, and it can be a vicious cycle if left untreated.

Common symptoms of the disorder include the following:

    • Excessive sleepiness, especially when you should be alert at work
    • Insomnia
    • Tossing and turning
    • Low energy
    • Inability to focus or concentrate
    • Irritability
    • Depression
    • Problems with interpersonal relationships

There are also other major health problems related to working the night shift. These can include the following:

    • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
    • Increased risk of accidents
    • Increased risk for cancer
    • Shorter overall lifespans

Ouch. Clearly, a lack of quality rest isn’t just about getting rid of those dark circles — your heath is at stake here.

Ways to Get the Rest You Need

If you think you are suffering from Shift Work Sleep Disorder, talk to your doctor ASAP. She’s likely to suggest you make some adjustments to your sleep habits, including going to bed at the same time every day and creating a good pre-sleep routine (think hot milk, warm shower and curling up with a good book).

It can also be helpful to invest in some blackout curtains or light-blocking shades in your bedroom to combat the influence of the sun on your body’s rhythms. Keeping temperatures cool in your bedroom and sleeping on a comfortable mattress are also good ways to get comfortable so you stay asleep longer.

If these don’t work, your doctor may suggest a medication like Provigil or Nuvigil that’s designed to keep you alert during your shift. This should, in turn, help you feel tired afterward as well. These meds aren’t habit-forming and might work for you.

You could also try melatonin supplements, which increase your body’s natural drowsiness when taken a few hours before bedtime. With a willingness to experiment, you should be able to find the magic combination to get you the sleep you crave.

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