Shift Worker Sleeping Signs and the Best Sleep Aids for Working the Night Shift

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is a serious condition that can affect both your physical and mental health, as well as negatively impact your performance and safety on the job. From exhaustion to insomnia, symptoms can be devastating to the individual facing them. If you're concerned about SWSD, read on to learn about its symptoms, dangers, and the remedies for this condition.

What is Shift Work Disorder?

SWSD is a sleep disorder that occurs during work scheduling adjustment periods, such as a transition from first to third shift. However, it's not just third shift that affects people. Early-morning shifts, overnight shifts, and rotating shifts can all cause SWSD.

This significant change in one's timetable can create a discrepancy between someone's waking hours and his or her circadian rhythms. In effect, a person's sleep schedule is reversed. It should be stated however, that not every shift worker suffers from SWSD. If you're a night owl or an early bird, you may be just fine.

Those suffering from SWSD may have up to four hours less sleep than the average worker, according to Sleep Center. While quantitatively SWSD is impairing, qualitatively it can be even more detrimental. For those who suffer from the conditions, it's common to wake up tired, unrefreshed, and extremely tired.

Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder

The effects of SWSD can be pervasive. The lack of and low quality of sleep can negatively impact health, work performance, mood, and even driving ability. Research by the National Sleep Foundation found that driving while sleep deprived is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of .10 (assuming one hasn't slept in 24 hours). As a reference, .08 is the legally drunk.

This statistic is particularly important for shift workers, as often times they are operating heavy machinery and/or driving a vehicle. This increases the risk not only the worker who is sleep deprived, but to those working with him or her.

According to Sleep Foundation, symptoms of SWSD have been linked to chronic diseases and illnesses including:

  • Cancer
  • Metabolic Problems
  • Heart Disease
  • Ulcers
  • Gastrointestinal Problems
  • Obesity

Unfortunately, shift worker's mental health can also suffer. SWSD has been known to cause symptoms including, but not limited to:

  • Depression
  • Social Issues
  • Increased Impulsive Behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Memory & Concentration Problems

Diagnosing Shift Work Sleep Disorder

There are some preliminary questions you should ask yourself as a self-test.

  1. Are you working a job that requires you to work when you used to you sleep?
  2. Are you severely tired (more so than normal when you wake up)?
  3. Have symptoms been persistent for a month?

If your answer is "all the above," it may be a good idea to a see a doctor. Generally they'll have you document your sleep times in a journal and keep detailed notes on any difficulties experienced while trying to fall asleep, and other sleep habits.

Shift work doctor

medical worker sleeping on call

Treatments for Shift Work Sleep Disorder

  1. Bright Light Therapy: This treatment, also known as phototherapy, involves exposure to a light therapy box. This artificial sunlight mimics natural outdoor light. Phototherapy sessions are between 20 to 30 minutes each day. Light must indirectly enter your eyes in order for the therapy to be effective.
  2. Melatonin: Your body naturally produces melatonin. However, shift workers are known to have issues with their brain's ability to produce this hormone because of the altered sleep cycle. For that reason, melatonin supplements (also available in teas and other drinks) are available to aid in better sleep.
  3. Sleep Medications: While more natural ways are advised, sometimes sleeping pills are needed for severe SWSD cases. Consult with a doctor before taking any over the counter sleep medications. Moreover, before you hop on the Ambien train, make sure you know the side effects.
  4. SleepPhones: These sleep headphones are built for sleeping, with the earpieces built into a super soft headband that can double as an eye mask. SleepPhones can help you block out daytime noises and filter out unwanted light. Try listening to guided meditations, hypnosis, bedtime stories, soundscapes, or audiobooks to help you fall asleep soundly.

Disclaimer: This should not substitute for medical advice from your doctor. Please call your doctor if you have questions about sleep with shift work.

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