Working the night shift is not as uncommon as many people may think. Some of society’s most important role-players work non-traditional hours, such as nurses, paramedics, firemen, policemen, cleaners, factory workers, and more.
In fact, up to 20% of workers in industrialized countries are rotating shift or night shift workers. But is working the night shift healthy? Is it sustainable in the long-term or over the course of a person’s career?
Here’s how non-traditional work hours affect your sleep rhythm, your overall health, and what you can do to sleep better as a night shift worker.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Sleep plays a crucial role in how your body functions on a day-to-day basis. There are many physical, mental, and emotional benefits that come from good quality sleep.
Mentally, studies show that our learning, memory, and problem-solving capabilities are consolidated during REM sleep. Physically, our bodies also heal and repair during sleep hours. Our brains remove the build-up of toxins that accumulate while we are awake.
Essentially, sleep has an effect on every type of tissue and function of your body. Without sleep, you are at a higher risk of developing disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
Now, how does working the night shift affect your body?
Working the Night Shift and Your Circadian Rhythm
The overall function of your body is governed by a number of different biological clocks, which all work to regulate numerous bodily functions.
The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) is also known as the master clock. The SCN is found in the hypothalamus, which is essential in regulating your circadian rhythm.
But what is your circadian rhythm, and is it affected by shift work?
Your circadian rhythm controls your sleep-wake cycle throughout a 24-hour period. It is finely tuned to your body and is regulated internally according to your hormones and other external influences. As evening approaches, your body responds by producing the sleep hormone, melatonin, which is what helps you to feel sleepy, fall asleep, and sustain quality sleep.
Working the night shift can create a misalignment between your circadian rhythm and the outside world. In short, your body’s internal clock sends sleep signals that may conflict with your daytime or nighttime activities.
This misalignment produces chemicals like melatonin that make you feel drowsy on the job and alert during the day when you should be sleeping.
The entire process is only exacerbated when you work rotational night shifts because your circadian rhythm never gets the chance to find a regular cycle and catch up. Ultimately, shift workers can be left with a feeling of perpetual jet lag.
In addition, sleeping during the day can be a real challenge for shift workers because your circadian rhythm naturally correlates light as a signal for awake. Daylight and other external factors trigger signals for the body and mind to stay alert. Basically, this means that sustained periods of high-quality sleep are difficult due to a misaligned internal clock.
An out-of-sync circadian rhythm can result in a disorder known as Shift Work Sleep Disorder.
What Are the Impacts of Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
Shift Work Sleep Disorder’s (SWSD) defining characteristics include excessive sleepiness in the evening and insomnia during the day. But if you’re working the night shift, SWSD can wreak havoc on your body.
Naturally, SWSD is caused by a major change in one of your body’s primary natural functions, your circadian rhythm. Staying up all night and trying to sleep during the day creates major irregularities in the rhythm that your body has perfected.
But what makes SWSD a disorder?
The Health Effect of Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Prolonged periods of daytime sleep are not healthy. Research shows a direct link between irregular sleep patterns and certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, mental health disorders, and cardiac disease.
Irregular circadian function is also known to exacerbate inflammatory disorders, slow metabolism, and spike blood sugar levels. Daytime sleep is not as high-quality as nighttime sleep due to lower melatonin levels during the day. This means that prolonged stretches of working the night shift could also impact your memory and concentration levels at work.
Most importantly, SWSD is classified as a disorder due to its damaging effect on your DNA. When your body’s melatonin output is at a healthy level, adequate levels of the chemical, 8-OHdG, are present in your urine. When melatonin output is low, there is an excessive presence of this chemical in your urine.
8-OHdG is a biomarker for oxidative damage and stress to the DNA. The higher this level is, the less your body is able to fend off stress and illness, which causes damage to your DNA.
How to Get Better Sleep As a Night Shift Worker
For most shift workers, working the night shift is inevitable and part of the job. However, there are a few variables you can control:
- Stick to the Same Sleep Schedule, i.e. Sleep at the Same Time for the Same Amount of Hours
- Create an Environment That Is Designed for Sleep: Use Black-Out Curtains, Keep Your Room Cool, and Use a High-Quality Pillow With Good Neck Support
- Limit Your Caffeine and Sugar Intake Towards the End of a Night Shift so That You Don’t Have Trouble Falling Asleep During Your Rest Period
Other than these tips, try to maintain a healthy lifestyle: exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and drink plenty of water. If you can, keep your workplace brightly lit throughout the night to promote focus. Exposure to bright light from lightboxes and lamps can help with circadian-related sleep issues.
Finally, be sure to communicate with family and friends when you’re working the night shift. Let them know when you’re available and when you need to sleep!
There are ways to repay your sleep debt and find a rhythm that works for you with our night shift sleep techniques.