Better Me

How Dangerous is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

We spend a third of our lives sleeping. At least we hope to spend it that way.

This fact can make it seem like we are missing out on valuable experiences. But, if you have trouble sleeping, you know that resting is the best way to spend that time. For shift workers, getting adequate sleep is a daily goal – one that often goes unmet. We spoke with Siavash Panah, MD, a sleep specialist at Banner Health in Northern Colorado, to get some tips for people working hours other than the typical 9 to 5.

“Not getting enough sleep is harmful in the short- and long-term,” warned Dr. Panah. “If you experience a lack of proper sleep over time, your body feels a strain in several ways. You will have decreased cognitive ability, changes in mood and will feel physical symptoms of exhaustion. For example, if you are tired, you make more errors at work and of course there is a higher risk for driving accidents. The physiological strain on your body can lead to cardiovascular issues, weight gain, strokes and inflammation. This inflammation has been linked to some cancers. In fact, shift work has recently been officially classified as a probable carcinogen or cause for cancer.”

Who struggles with shift work sleep disorder?

The same study that determined shift work to be a carcinogen estimated that 15-20% of Americans work night shifts. This is a number that will undoubtedly rise as society continues to operate on a 24/7 schedule. Law enforcement, medical professionals, store managers and airline pilots are just a few of the professions that depend on a round-the-clock schedule to be successful.

“Before I diagnose shift work sleep disorder, I have to rule out any other underlying sleep disorders. Many shift workers struggle with more than one,” commented Dr. Panah. It’s easy to blame your schedule, but sleep apnea, insomnia or other sleep disorders could also contribute to your lack of restful sleep. Dr. Panah added, “I can diagnose shift work sleep disorder when I determine that the person would have no trouble sleeping during appropriate hours. In other words, if they worked daytime hours, the sleep issues would go away.”

You are built for rest

Every plant, animal and living thing on this earth is compelled by a circadian rhythm. This rhythm, combined with your complex internal clock, governs your sleep-wake schedule and makes you feel sleepy as the sun begins to set. Your circadian rhythm is triggered primarily by light, which is why working an opposite schedule can make you feel like you are fighting against yourself to stay awake and alert.

Dr. Panah gave legitimacy to the notion of night owls and morning larks. “We are all different. It is very common for people to have a natural inclination to wake up early. It’s even more common for people to say that they prefer to stay up late. For these people, abnormal schedules, beginning at 6am or ending at 10pm can be comfortable. However, it is very uncommon for an individual’s natural sleep-wake schedule to line up perfectly with overnight work hours.”

Tips for shift workers

Natural or not, the job must be done. For people working night shifts, Dr. Panah had a few helpful tips:

  • Try to be consistent. Dr. Panah recommended keeping the same schedule for at least four days at a time. Flipping between day and night shifts every day or two can make it very hard to get your body into a rhythm.
  • Find natural light on the way in. If it is already dark when you wake up for your night shift, Dr. Panah suggests light boxes or bulbs as an option to help you wake up. These specialized light sources can even be helpful periodically during your shift.
  • Wear dark glasses on the way home. When you go home after a night shift, wearing sunglasses will moderate your circadian rhythm and help your body to avoid jumping into “wake mode.”
  • Limit caffeine. Caffeine can be helpful for shift workers. But try not to consume caffeine during the second half of your night shift. You don’t want to be fighting against it when you’re trying to rest at home.
  • Consolidate your sleep. If you can, Dr. Panah recommended blocking seven to eight hours for undisturbed sleep. However, if this isn’t possible, set two blocks of three to four hours so that you can achieve deep rest.
  • Limit screens. When it’s time to rest, your electronic screen may be keeping you awake. Help your body know when it’s time to rest by putting your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and plug it in across the room.
  • Sleep Evaluation. Speak to your health professional specifically about your sleep concerns. A sleep medicine referral, diagnostic testing or possible medication treatment may be appropriate for your type of sleep disruption.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, you are likely feeling the ill effects in every aspect of your life. For many, simple lifestyle changes and medical solutions are all that is needed to get yourself back on track. Schedule a visit with your Banner Health physician to regain your rest and enjoy every hour of your day a little bit more.

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