Shift work is a reality of our modern economy. Services don’t stop running when the sun goes down. Without night workers—nurses and doctors, toll booth workers, security guards, policemen and women, truck drivers, pilots, and more—our world would grind to a halt. One of my closest friends works nights at a home for children. Most of his time is spent reading, but when the kids wake up or there’s an emergency, he is the first person on the scene. Without him, those kids wouldn’t be safe. But he pays a high price. Like many late shift workers, he suffers from terrible sleep-wake disruption, and is always either strung out or exhausted. After years of this strange schedule, he suffers from a host of physical problems. He has high blood pressure, struggles with his weight, and was just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He also has a lot of trouble with his relationship.
Unfortunately these problems plague shift workers the world over. At least 15 percent of workers in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, and 23 percent of workers in Japan work outside normal hours. A recent study found that SWSD (shift work sleep disorder) affects about 10 percent of these workers. In addition to the health risks associated with poor sleeping habits (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases and mood disorders, including depression), late night workers are also at risk for secondary problems like workplace injuries, accidents, and automobile crashes. And, if we look at economics, SWSD accounts for a large number of quality control problems in industry (if we’re talking about the food industry, this could mean a real safety problem for consumers.)
According to Sally Ibrahim, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorder Center: “We don’t see a lot of people who do fine on shift work. They have trouble sleeping, trouble waking. And they’re drowsy when they’re awake.” Scientists believe that the source of the problem lies in the body’s circadian rhythm. Some people can adjust to unusual hours, while others can’t. Circadian rhythms are linked to daylight. It’s possible that in some people the brain can’t adjust without cues from the sun. If you’re suffering from SWSD and you can’t switch your hours, here are some tips for helping your body cope.
- Adjust slowly. Give your body time. It may take weeks or even months to shift circadian rhythms. It helps to start going to bed an hour later each night.
- Avoid caffeine. Stimulants will aggravate insomnia: they may make it harder to sleep when you have the chance.
- Make sure you have a good sleeping environment, and a comfortable natural mattress.
- Get a doctor’s note. If you’re really suffering and your doctor can back you up, your employer may be more likely to change your hours. It’s worth a shot!