Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) – sometimes referred to as night shift fatigue syndrome – is a sleep disorder that is commonly seen among shift workers such as nurses, paramedics and factory workers. Symptoms are characterised as excessive sleepiness, sleep problems and lack of restful sleep.
Any individuals working non-traditional hours such as split shift, graveyard shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts are at risk of these symptoms. And for those that work with machinery or are responsible for the health of others, they can potentially have dangerous consequences. This article aims to inform about this sleep disorder and explore the things you can do to avoid it.
How do Night Shifts Affect Sleep?
The average adult requires between 7-9 hours of sleep. They follow a regular pattern of waking up and growing tired during the day and falling asleep at night, although it is common for day-to-day stressors to prevent the right amount of sleep. However, night shift workers experience this the other way round.
The body requires a regular sleep schedule in order to recover and recuperate from all of the tension and damage done during the day. This internal process is known as our body’s internal clock – or circadian rhythm – which helps to regulate our essential functions and processes. Healthy circadian rhythms means a healthy sleep schedule, but this isn’t the same for shift workers.
Due to our internal clock being influenced by environmental cues such as natural light, working night and early morning shifts can result in a disrupted sleep schedule. That means shift workers are alert when their natural circadian rhythm requires sleep and are asleep when it is alert.
Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder
According to the Cleveland Clinic, most shift workers sleep 1 to 4 hours less than the the regular 7 to 8 hours of non-shift workers. When we think of the consequences of sleep disorders, we often think of sleep deprivation, trouble concentrating and an overall lack of energy. While these are the most common symptoms, those fewer hours of sleep means that shift workers can experience symptoms at an extreme level and even develop others such as:
- Poor coping skills and impaired social functioning
- Drug and alcohol dependency
- Irritability or mood problems
If you are a shift worker and are experiencing these symptoms, it is recommended you seek out professional medical advice.
Decreasing the Effects of Shift Work Sleep Disorder
A shift work disorder can affect the health and well-being of an individual. Working long hours and irregular times, and on a regular basis, can have long-term health consequences. And while our jobs are important, there are limits to how long we can tolerate these symptoms.
If possible, making some changes to your work schedule remains a productive way to ease the effects of SWSD. A shift work disorder will most commonly develop during rotating shifts which see shift work schedules change from one day to the other. This could mean going from two night shifts over two days to two early morning shifts for the next two days.
Another way to break up this disruption to your sleep hygiene is decreasing the amount of night shifts worked in a row. It is recommended that night shift workers limit the number of night shifts to 5 or less with days off in between.
Treatments for Shift Work Sleep Disorder
There is sleep medicine available through prescription that are designed to mitigate the effects of sleep disorders, but you can also find adequate sleep aids at your local chemist and supermarket. Some of these include melatonin, which can come in pill, tincture and spray forms. However, always seek professional medical advice before adding sleep medicine to your routine.
While it may not be as simple as finding another job or changing shift work schedules, there are ways to lessen the effects of shift work sleep disorder. There are many changes shift workers can make in order to relieve some of the symptoms.
- Keeping a regular schedule of sleep, especially on weekends and days off
- When sleeping during the day, wear a dark sleep mask and make your environment as dark as possible
- Minimize exposure to light on the way home from night shift work to keep sunlight from activating the internal clock
- Take naps whenever possible
- Stick to a nightly ritual, even during the daytime
- Limit caffeine intake or anything that promotes being alert unnaturally
- Maintain a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables.
The best thing for shift workers to do in order to avoid SWSD and balance out their excessive sleepiness is to always try and get as much sleep as possible. Whenever it is possible to get enough sleep, you must always take the opportunity because even as little as 1 hour can make a big difference.
Shift work is a can be a difficult adjustment and can have negative, long-term effects on sleep which in turn effects overall health. If you are experiencing SWSD, we hope this article has provided you with some much need tips to help you adjust your lifestyle, although this is not to be taken as medical advice and should you require it, please seek out a medical professional.
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