People who work nontraditional hours often experience shift work sleep disorder. This typically occurs in those who work at night, early mornings, or have rotating shifts outside the usual 9-to-5 schedule. Symptoms of shift work sleep disorder include insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, poor quality sleep, lack of energy, anxiety, and depression. These challenges arise because the “off-peak” work schedule can confuse the body’s circadian rhythm, an internal clock that dictates when you sleep and wake. The good news: Simple lifestyle adjustments can help you mitigate these effects and improve your sleep schedule. Follow these tips to help prevent or alleviate shift work sleep disorder.
Take a Nap
Taking short naps can help improve alertness on the job. In addition to combating excessive sleepiness, a 90-minute nap right before your night shift can give you a boost of energy without disrupting sleep later on. Because consistency is key to helping your body adjust to a new sleep schedule, try to nap every evening before work, and stick with that scheduled naptime on weekends or days off.
Good nutrition can go a long way to improving sleep issues. Regular mealtimes are cues for your body’s internal clock that it’s time to rev the engine and start your day—even when your “day” is at night. Even if your meals fall at awkward times (like a 2 A.M. lunch break), stick to eating three meals plus a few healthy snacks throughout the hours you are awake in order to keep your body fueled and energy level even. Avoid eating too many high-carbohydrate foods or foods that are high in sugar, as these will cause energy levels to spike and then crash. If you’re hungry after a night shift, eat a small meal or a light, healthy snack which will make it easier to fall asleep.
Try Light Therapy
Because your body takes many of its sleep and waking cues from light, light therapy can help shift workers adjust to irregular schedules. Timed exposure to bright lamps or sunlight can help adjust your body’s sleep cycle to your shift work schedule. For instance, after a nap and before starting a night shift, turn on all the bright lights in your home to help your body wake up. Conversely, when you arrive home after work in broad daylight, lower the shades or invest in some blackout curtains so your sleep environment mirrors nighttime. Working with a doctor can help determine the timing and amount of light therapy that is best for you.
Make Your Room Sleep-Friendly
A good sleep environment can improve quality of sleep. Soundproof your bedroom to block outside noise, and speak with your family or roommates about keeping things quiet during your sleep hours. Set your bedroom thermometer at a comfortably cool temperature, and avoid piling on too many blankets that could cause you to wake up sweating. Turning off all electronics an hour before bedtime will also create a sleep-conducive space.
By its nature, shift work can create sleep challenges for many people. But considering that more than 22 million Americans work nontraditional hours, it’s important to know there are successful strategies for achieving a good night’s sleep—even if that night’s sleep happens to occur during the day.