Sticking to a regular, healthy sleep cycle is tough at the best of times, but for shift workers it’s down-right impossible. Working changeable hours, day and night, forces individuals to sleep against the clock, consequently increasing their risk of chronic health conditions (including heart disease and cancer), poor mental health and early death. In fact, it’s considered to have such an impact on a person’s health that there is even a medical term for it: Shift Work Disorder (SWD).
ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
Here, we speak to Lisa Artis – sleep expert at The Sleep Council and Furniture Village – who explains the ins and outs of the condition and offers tips on how to regain control of an erratic sleep pattern.
Shift work: Why it’s so bad for us
“You have an internal body clock in your brain that produces circadian rhythms which signal to you when it is time to sleep or wake up,” Lisa explains. “This is often set by exposure to sunlight. Shift workers must fight the body’s natural rhythms to try and stay awake and then feel sleepy in the day when the body expects to be alert.”
“Unfortunately shift workers have the hardest time when it comes to achieving a good night’s sleep. Some shift workers may work a week of nights, others may have mixed rotating shifts, making it difficult to get into any kind of routine. Even if they do sleep well, many shift workers often feel like they haven’t had enough sleep and find themselves lethargic and irritable.”
Make it better
However, if you work shifts then don’t despair just yet – there are things that can be done to help. “Because of the different sleep times, bedtime routines should be taken from environmental cues rather than timings,” says Lisa, highlighting the significance of creating a sleep space that works to optimise your rest periods.
Here are nine things you can do to try and gain control over an erratic sleep pattern:
- Try to avoid caffeine at least six hours before sleep and a heavy meal at least two to three hours before bed.
- Mealtimes can be irregular when working shifts but try to keep to three regularly spaced meals and use these as cues for your body clock.
- Use light to keep melatonin levels suppressed during night shifts. Equally, use light (such as a sunshine alarm clock or light box) to regulate the body clock.
- Whatever time you go to bed, wind down properly. Avoid using mobile phones, iPads and watching TV and instead try yoga or meditation to reduce stress levels and help switch off alongside a warm bath or shower. Keep lights low or shut curtains to help the body’s natural melatonin production.
ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
- When working a night shift, try a short nap (no longer than 40 minutes) around two hours before work to boost energy levels.
- Keep bedroom décor calm and soothing. Trying to sleep in the day is hard but ensure there are dark curtains and a blackout blind to block out light. Use foam ear plugs to muffle external noise.
- If you have trouble getting to sleep, lavender, passion flower, hops, orange blossom, Scot’s pine, camomile and peppermint all claim to promote sleep. And milky night time drinks really do help bring on the Zzzs.
- Try to catch up on ‘recovery sleep’ at weekends or on days off. Where possible, try ‘anchor sleep’ where you have at least four hours sleep at the same time every night / morning, for example between 3am and 7am.
It’s not just the shift worker that suffers. Anyone who has ever shared a bed will know how much of an affect your significant other coming in at 1am and waking you up after a few too many at the pub can have on how you feel the next day. However, people who share a sleep environment with shift workers – even if they themselves work a regular 9-5 day – face these kinds of disturbances every night. Lisa says:
“Sharing a bed can be a challenge when you have clashing sleep schedules. If your partner is coming into bed after a night shift, make sure you’ve put your clothes in another room so you don’t disturb them when dressing for the next day. If your partner stirs when your alarm goes off, don’t try to engage with them. Let them roll over and go back to sleep.”
Couples may find sleeping in a bigger bed helps them sleep, as this means there is less chance of partner disturbance. When shopping for a new mattress, always make sure you choose one that is comfortable for both of you.
“Make sure on weekends or days off, that you are going to bed at the same time – apparently sleeping with your partner can actually benefit your health and increase the odds of your having a longer lifespan!”