shift work sleep disorder

If you’re already asking yourself, “What the heck is Shift Work Disorder,” you’re not alone. In fact, plenty of folks who have lived with its effects for years still don’t even know it’s a medically defined condition.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

According to the Cleveland Clinic, Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) or Shift Work Disorder (SWD) is a condition that affects anyone who regularly rotates shifts or works at night. Healthcare workers and firefighters might be the first professions that come to mind, but the range of impacted workers is actually a lot wider than that. Those affected can include everyone from accountants and IT professionals to manufacturing line employees and even waitresses. In fact, it’s estimated that roughly 20% of the entire U.S. workforce does a job that necessitates some shift work, and up to 50-70 million adults have a sleep or wakefulness disorder.

The disorder originates out of a disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which prevents us from adapting to a regular sleep schedule and leaves us feeling excessively tired during those hours when we have to be awake for work. In addition to feeling overtired, common symptoms include difficulty concentrating, irritability, headaches, and even problems falling or staying asleep. Furthermore, SWSD can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive problems over time, if not properly addressed.

What can be done?

Well, obviously quitting our job or suddenly changing careers probably isn’t that realistic, but there are some things we can do to cope better with the circumstances. Before anything else, however, shift workers have to be willing to make sleep a priority. This priority can be more difficult than it sounds, especially when the hours we need to be sleeping are the same daylight hours that most our friends and family are all awake.

The Cleveland Clinic offers some of the most effective tips for overcoming the symptoms of SWSD include:

  • Minimize your exposure to light on the way home from work (assuming you work the night shift). Sunlight activates your body’s internal clock, telling you to be wakeful when the opposite response is what you’re looking for.
  • Maximize your exposure to light when you first arrive at work. Studies have shown this practice helps improve wakefulness throughout the duration of your shift.
  • Steer clear of caffeine toward the latter hours of your shift. While a cup of coffee or two might help get the engines firing during the beginning hours of your shift, research shows that coffee, tea, soft drinks, and even chocolate can all have negative impacts on sleep as much as six hours before bedtime.

Other things that can help you get better sleep include asking family members to wear headphones when watching tv or listening to music. Chores, such as vacuuming and doing laundry, might also be best re-scheduled for times of the day or week when your sleep will be least disturbed by such activities. One could even go as far as leaving a “do not disturb” note on the front door to keep neighbors and the UPS man from dissolving an otherwise productive sleep session.

Finally, let’s not forget that the same sleep environment principles that apply to everyone else also apply to shift workers. These principles primarily pertain to the quality of mattress you choose to sleep on.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading The Scholar so far, and invite you to continue learning more about the world of sleep science. Signup for The Scholar, then continue your journey toward a better night’s sleep.

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