Solid Advice for Those Who Work Night Shifts

Compromising sleep due to working in shifts is hazardous to your health. A little lifestyle adjustment can help, says Dr Harish Shetty

Man off to work - all sleep depravedViolating the laws of nature can distort the body’s orchestra leading to physical and psychological disorders. The worst affected are those who work in shifts. Since, for many, discontinuing shift work is not an option, there are some things they can do to minimise damage.

Clockwise shifts rock

Research has shown that those who work in clockwise shifts do better than those who function in anti-clockwise shifts. Morning shifts followed by evening shifts and then night shifts are better. This is because one can delay sleep, but advancing the rest period is difficult. Shifts that rotate backward [night shift followed by evening then night] harm health and causes psychological problems.

Continuous sleep helps

Many night shift workers sleep for a few hours in the morning, wake up to do household chores, and sleep again after a late lunch. They feel that by doing so they are completing their normal sleep quota. This is not true as they are compromising on the quality of sleep, which is as important as the quantity. Sleep follows a pattern that is controlled by a clock in the brain, the pineal gland and hormones secreted by the body.

Continuous sleep helps maintain this pattern [comprising deep sleep and dream sleep] thereby maintaining health. Disruption in this pattern can lead to diabetes, blood pressure, cancer and a host of other physical illnesses. Inability to bear children and problems in memory are other unhealthy consequences.

The darker and quieter it is, the better

After a night shift, sleep in a dark room. If this is not possible, tie a dark band around your eyes. This cuts out bright light that stimulates the sleep/awake clock in the brain disturbing your sleep. While you sleep, forbid family members from venturing in the room to open cupboards or open the blinds as it affects the light in the room. Similarly, while working at night, bright light helps stay awake and alert. Avoid forgoing sleep to finish housework. This happens often in couples where both husband and wife work in shifts. Typically, the husband takes day shift to be with the children at night and the wife takes night shift so that she can look after the kids and complete house chores during the day without sleeping. This is bad practice.

Power naps work

There is substantial research in favour of power naps. A short, half an hour nap during a night shift enhances alertness. A power nap just before beginning a shift helps too. Naps help in memory consolidation, alertness, and learning and performance. However, the naps should not be long. At the most, they can last 30 minutes to one hour.

By temperament, some of us are ‘larks’ [most active in the mornings] and others owls [most active at night]. Evidence suggests it is genetically determined. I am a lark, and so can never sleep late in the morning even after a late night. A small power nap gives me a lot of energy. So, consider your temperament and adjust your nap accordingly.

Sleep hygiene matters

The bed should be reserved only for two activities: sleep and sex. Using it for other mundane activities may disturb the rhythm of sleep. Also, it’s not advised to use caffeine to stay awake. Drinking many cups of caffeinated beverages harms more than it helps. Many shift workers use alcohol to cope with anxiety and depression and to sleep well. Doing so is counterproductive and actually disturbs sleep. The same holds true for indiscriminate use of sedatives. Those in shifts are more prone to consuming addictive substances that may worsen their situation.

Many people rely on cannabis [also known as pot, weed or grass] to stay awake, often with disastrous consequences. Such drugs hamper work performance and slow down the brain, leading to a condition known as ‘Shift Work Disorder,’ characterised by too little or too much sleep.

A healthy lifestyle is important

Shift work distances a person from family, friends and loved ones. Many appear irritable, sad, and lonely and experience mood swings. I see many break-ups, loss of friends and poor interpersonal relationships in those working in shifts. Exercising before and during a shift has helped many to improve their moods. Eating at odd hours causes increase in juices secreted by the stomach, thereby disturbing sleep. Sleeping during normal hours on holidays may not help.

Smoking also takes its toll. If you are a shift worker, incorporate healthy habits in your routine to minimise the effects of sleeping at odd hours. Also, make time for family and friends whenever possible; it will help you cope with your situation better.

Careful travel prevents mishaps

While returning home from a night shift, it is better not to drive as sudden bouts of sleep can lead to accidents. Some people attempt to keep themselves awake by keeping windows open or by drinking coffee. However, these attempts may not always work. Getting someone to drive you back home is safer. Wearing dark glasses on your way back helps falling asleep sooner after reaching home.

Points to remember

  • Often shift work disorder may mimic the symptoms of depression— sadness, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. This needs to be treated by medicines and counselling.
  • Travelling across time zones may cause symptoms similar to those working in shifts. The best way to find relief is to sleep it off.
  • Many continue to experience sleep issues after quitting working in shifts. They can be helped by a medical practitioner. Bringing back the rhythm may take time, but it can be achieved.


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