Today I want to bring up my absolute best shift work sleep tips. I used to work in shifts for a summer some while back and then I really learned how to handle this difficult situation.
Still today, I admire anyone being able to work successfully in shift. But if you're not there yet, here are my best advice for all shift workers.
So listen, sleep is extremely important to any mammal and human beings are no different. Lack of sleep has been shown to decrease performance and in extreme circumstances can even lead to serious health problems!
Historically, obtaining adequate sleep hasn't been much of an issue but in the modern 24 hour society shift workers are increasingly called to adapt sleep patterns which are out of sync with your natural rhythm. The inability of shift workers to adapt to this new sleep cycle is known as Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWD). So what is the cause of this?
The entire natural world is regulated by rhythms and the human body is no different. When it comes to sleeping and waking, your body is regulated by what is called the circadian rhythm. The word circadian comes from the Latin "circa" meaning around and "dies" meaning day, it denotes a 24 hour period which is the time length this biological clock cycles through.
Your body clock is regulated by external stimuli like light levels, these stimuli are referred to as zeitgebers (time-givers) which is a German word meaning literally "time givers". Changes of zeitgebers control levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone and by responding to the environment your body keeps you adjusted to the natural day/night cycle. Inappropriate zeitgebers can interfere with your sleep patterns, this is why you'll find it difficult to sleep if you spend all evening staring at a bright screen. Shift workers too are negatively affected by trying to sleep when their melatonin levels say they should be awake.
So our key question now becomes "how can this battle against biology be overcome?"
Well, here I have gathered 9 practical and straightforward shift work sleep tips that will help you immensely when use them.
As we have noted, the human body clock will do its best to adapt to your environment. And as with all patterns - the longer they continue the more they become ingrained in your biological habit.
By restricting unnatural sleep patterns to no more than two days in a row you can minimize the degree to which they become a habit, thereby making it easier to reset your biological clock.
However, deciding your shift might not be entirely under your control. So if this one isn't fully applicable, just read on for more ways on how to improve your shift work sleep.
Many shift workers report stomach problems caused by irregular meal times and poor quality diets. Food is a major time-giver and breakfast should be thought of as an anchor which cues your body clock.
By ensuring you eat a large healthy meal upon waking you'll help your body clock adjust to your new sleep schedule. This tip is not only useful in avoiding shift work sleep disorder (SWD) but can also be used to counter other body clock issues like jet lag.
Avoid snacking and random meal times as these will have the opposite effect. By keeping a regular meal plan and cutting down on carbohydrates and sugars you can also avoid insulin spikes which lead to additional tiredness, and diabetes.
Sometimes you'll not be able to maintain your eating plan; there will also be times when you can't stay awake to an hour appropriate to help reset your body clock.
This is normal and by using naps you can help overcome the fatigue inherent to sleep adjustment phases, such as during shift work sleep. The classic power nap is 20 minutes long but if you have a long time until real sleep is available it might be better to go for a 90 minute nap. The first will afford you one very short sleep cycle and the second two, but just remember to give yourself some time to fall asleep.
As a human being you have a unique ability to influence your own mind, so take advantage of it.
Music is a key stimulus for example, you can use lively music to keep you upbeat and awake then prepare for bed using relaxed music featuring no lyrics.
Exercise is another weapon in your arsenal. A short period of exercise will not tire you, it will help fire up your body for the day. Maybe consider a short swim in the morning?
On the other hand a marathon gym session could be just the thing to help you get some nice deep sleep. Be sensible with other stimuli too, avoid bright light in the 2 hours before you wish to sleep, use your biology to your advantage rather than letting it own you.
These are all keys to improve sleep for shift workers.
Caffeine upon waking isn't a bad idea, nor is caffeine during a momentary bout of fatigue. You don't need too much though; this will actually decrease your cognitive performance and simply make you jittery.
Think about switching from coffee to tea, not only is it healthier but you'll avoid getting your caffeine levels to the point where your concentration is negatively impacted. It goes without saying that a coffee two hours before you want to sleep isn't very clever.
Finally I must say that my general recommendation is to avoid caffeine altogether.
When your shift work spells are approaching, then begin using the food tip to start an early shift in your body clock. Gradually move your waking hours to those more in line with the upcoming sleeping patterns.
By giving yourself an adjustment phase you can avoid the fatigue crashes that sap the morale of so many shift workers. If you don't have much warning on your shift times then simply focus on the other tips for better shift work sleep.
Whilst it's fairly simple to timetable your own sleeping hours, ensure those around you respect them too. You need zero distraction so turn off your phone and make sure anyone living with you understands that their phones need to be on silent during these set hours. Dare to be direct! :-)
There is a voluminous historical record to show that the natural human sleeping pattern is not to have one huge block of sleep, but instead to have two.
Many agricultural societies before the advent of bright electrical lighting would sleep from just after dusk until around midnight. They would then have a few hours of waking time spent socialising and eating only to return to bed for a short time to wake again at dawn.
You too can use biphasic sleeping, simply divide your sleep into one 3 hour period and one 4.5 hour period. By placing these two sleep intervals at either end of your shift you will be far more adaptable to a changing work schedule than someone who requires one large block of sleep at a set time. This is highly recommended for workers whose shifts are prone to rapid change.
Many people find it very difficult to sleep with any kind of light in the room. As discussed, this is a very natural reaction of the brain to the environment. Light means awake as far as the brain is concerned.
In order to maximize your sleeping time then it would be wise to invest in some blockout blinds in order to ensure your room is conducive to healthy sleep. The importance of deep healthy sleep makes a good set of blinds a wise investment.
If you follow these 9 useful tips, you'll be sure to avoid many common problems related to shift work sleep.
Early Riser > How To Wake Up > Shift Work Sleep
Early Riser > Guest Post > Shift Work Sleep
Ash Graham is the owner of Sola Shade a blinds and shutters company based in Perth, Western Australia. Catch Ash on Google+ with any questions about this piece.
Return to the top of Shift Work Sleep