Shift Work and Biological Processes
Shift work is often split into three categories: the day shift, “swing” shift, and the “graveyard” or “night” shift. Even though your body rests during sleep, your brain keeps active 24/7 maintaining the homeostatic process of sleep and wakefulness. When you oppose your natural sleep tendency – for example, working shifts that take place during the night – your biological clock’s processes become skewed. Your body will have to work extra hard. Why? During the day, when your body naturally wants to be alert and active, it must get the sleep it missed the night before. And during the night, when your body naturally wants to rest, it will have to work overtime trying to maintain alertness. Shift workers often get up to two hours less sleep during the day than they would normally receive at night. Over time, this adds up.
Not everyone employed in shift work will develop a related sleeping disorder. Factors that influence your personal experience with shift work include shift frequency, the length of your shifts, family and social responsibilities and your own individual circadian physiology, or biological clock. Signals that you might have a sleeping problem related to shift work include insomnia, feeling jet lagged without having traveled or feeling fatigued. If you suspect a sleeping disorder, contact your doctor. Left untreated, health problems related to shift work can lead to higher risk of heart disease, cancer, cardiovascular issues, and other serious conditions.
What To Do
When your night shift ends, try to sleep immediately afterwards. Using an eye mask and earplugs can help reduce light and sound. Melatonin supplements might help you stabilize sleep patterns, although sleep researchers are still working to demonstrate efficacy for this method. When necessary, alerting agents – such as caffeine – can be used to feel more awake, but sleep experts emphasize that this is not an effective long-term solution. It’s sometimes possible to reset your biological clock to be more synced with your assigned work schedule, but this should be done under direct supervision of a physician because it’s a fairly complicated process.
Sleep doctors unanimously recommend maintaining a consistent sleep schedule – not just for shift workers, but for the general population. For shift workers, though, this can pose a tough dilemma because we know that you want to spend time with loved ones during your time off, on a more typical wake and sleep cycle. Because this has the unfortunate effect of contributing to your sleep problems, try to maintain as consistent sleep schedule as possible even on your days off. Talk with your doctor for suggestions on how to best make this work for your individual lifestyle. And if you’re ever working at night and feel sleepy, alert a supervisor. It’s not worth a workplace accident that could cause harm to yourself or others.
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