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Medically reviewed by:
Carlos Del Rio-Bermudez
Carlos is a neuroscientist and a medical & science writer with more than eight years of research experience in the field of Neuroscience. Prior to working full time as a medical writer, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University Hospital of Bern (Switzerland). Carlos obtained his PhD from the University of Iowa (USA), supported by the Fulbright Program.
Some of the areas Carlos focuses on are RNA therapeutics, Rare Diseases, and REMS/RMPs. He has authored multiple original research papers in top journals in the field, book chapters, and periodicals. Carlos has also participated in international scientific meetings; most notably, he was invited to present his dissertation research at the 2018 Gordon Research Conference on Sleep Regulation and Function.
Night shift workers struggle with bad sleep, fatigue, drowsiness, poor concentration, headaches, and mood swings on a daily basis. Things are so bad that one in three night-shift workers have insomnia, and up to 90% report regular fatigue and drowsiness at the workplace. If you consider that two out of five people work unusual shifts, with more than three million people in the US working only at night, the scale of the problem becomes evident.
We all know that insomnia can turn your life upside down, impacting your ability to complete daily tasks. Importantly, chronic insomnia may lead to more severe consequences such as an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, inflammation, and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Shift work disorder is recognized by the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, and it affects people working in the medical field, police, factory workers, truck and Uber drivers, among others. These people usually need to be highly alert, and when their performance is impaired due to lack of sleep, consequences can be devastating.
So, is there anything a night shift worker can do to protect their health and prevent a disaster in the workplace?
Watch our video to find out!
We reviewed over 20 articles to bring you the best science-backed information and help you win a battle against insomnia even when you have to do shift work.
Why Is It so Hard to Work Night Shifts?
Even the most flexible sleepers have a hard time adjusting to working at night and sleeping during the day, and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for that.
You see, people are diurnal, meaning that we are naturally active during the day, and we rest at night. This cycle is dictated by our internal biological clock, also known as the circadian system.
One part of the hypothalamus, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), is our master clock. Among other important functions, it tells different parts of our brain when it is time to sleep, and when we should get up to be active. It does so by controlling the secretion of certain hormones and important bodily functions such as temperature regulation.
For instance, when the sun goes down, and we experience darkness, the SCN activates a tiny brain region called the pineal gland to produce melatonin, a hormone that reduces alertness and signals sleeping time. In other words, a high level of melatonin in blood makes us sleepy and sends a message that it is time to seek rest. In the morning, melatonin levels drop, while another hormone called cortisol sparks. Cortisol plays a role in being awake and alert, and its levels stay high during the day, to finally drop at night.
And how does a tiny part of our brain know when to start secreting these hormones?
The answer is light.
Light is the primary stimulus that tells our brain it is time to start secreting melatonin in the evening and to stop it in the morning.
Whereas most of us are allowed to doze off at night, soon after melatonin kicks in, night shift workers are “forced” to stay awake when sleep is naturally expected to occur. This leads to sleep and circadian rhythm misalignment, and difficulties working at night.
But once you know how your circadian system functions, it’s a lot easier to take control of it and make your night shifts a lot more tolerable.
Getting in Control of Your Circadian Rhythm System
Let’s be clear: There is no magic trick to adjust to night shifts instantly. However, you can try out different strategies that may alleviate the undesired effects associated with working at night.
Here are some science-backed tips to readjust your circadian clock, and minimize the consequences of night shift work:
Control Your Light Exposure
You’ve learned by now that light is the most significant environmental cue used by your biological clocks to set their time in relation to the day-night cycle and regulate sleep. Thus, controlling light exposure seems like the most logical way of adjusting your inner clock.
However, not all light is the same. It seems that blue light (~460 nm) has the highest potential to suppress melatonin production. So, you can pretty much use it to trick your brain into thinking it’s supposed to be active during the night. You can do that by exposing yourself to bright lights from table lamps, lightboxes, and overhead lamps at the beginning of your wake period and during the night shift. It is also vital to dim the lights at the end of the wake period so that your brain can start producing melatonin and induce sleepiness.
Research has shown that bright light exposure at night can improve the functioning of night shift workers. Their nocturnal alertness was much better, and they also enjoyed more daytime sleep once their shift was over; these effects are thought to be mediated by delayed melatonin secretion.
And it seems that the benefits associated with light therapy are not restricted to continuous exposure. According to one study, shorter intervals of light exposure work just as well as lengthy episodes of exposure. In this study, 25-90 minutes intervals of bright light were almost as effective as constant 5-hour exposure to produce robust phase shifts of the internal clock.
But besides using bright light during the night, you need to find a way to escape sunlight during the day, as it will suppress your melatonin production, and leave you unable to fall asleep once you get home from your night shift.
So, wear sunglasses on your way home, and invest in blackout curtains or a sleep mask to block daylight from entering your bedroom. Keeping your bedroom dark is essential for switching your body into sleep mode.
In summary, controlling light exposure is an efficient way to aligning your inner clock to your new schedule. If your schedule allows it, spend some time in the sunlight after waking up, as it could help you readjust your inner clock to your work/sleep schedule.
Caffeine is a stimulant many people rely on to increase alertness and productivity. And it can do wonders for night shift workers, but only if used wisely.
Studies show that caffeine is useful for improving performance in night shift workers. However, drinking a high dose of caffeine at the start of your shift might not be the best approach. Research showed that workers who consumed smaller amounts of coffee throughout their shift performed better, and had periods of extended wakefulness. It looks like a steady consumption of smaller amounts of coffee leads to improved alertness, better cognition, as well as fewer accidental naps.
But know when to stop!
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine showed that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime had a significantly disruptive effect on sleep. So, you should have the last sip of coffee more than 6 hours before you plan to go to bed. Thus, it is a good idea to limit your caffeine to the first half of your working shift.
It takes a little planning, but you will surely experience fewer insomnia symptoms and feel more energized if you learn to time and control your caffeine intake during your night shift.
(If Possible) Take Naps during Your Shift
Many people don’t like naps because the sleep inertia takes over after they wake up. They actually feel groggy and worse after taking a nap. Lucky you, there might be a trick to avoid this.
Having a quick 20-minute nap will fuel your batteries and increase alertness without feeling tired afterward. That is because when you limit your sleep to about 20 minutes, you avoid reaching deep stages of sleep, making it easier to wake up. Research shows that this might be the only way to avoid drowsiness after waking up, as other techniques for battling sleep inertia, like washing your face with cold water, are not sufficient.
Ever heard of “coffee napping”? For most benefits, try combining your coffee with a nap. Since caffeine needs about 20 minutes to kick in, drink coffee before you go for a power nap. Science has demonstrated this to be a hugely effective technique to reduce sleepiness and improve performance and alertness among night workers.
If you are not able to rest during your working hours, remember that even taking a nap before night shift can improve performance!
Other General Tips
There are other things you can do to manage your sleep and avoid insomnia if you are a night shift worker, such as:
- Consider taking melatonin supplements. Studies show that melatonin supplements could help night shift workers struggling to sleep during the day. However, it is still not clear whether it could help reduce fatigue and increase performance during night shifts. And you should always talk to your doctor before taking these supplements, and seek their advice on improving sleep hygiene.
- Create a regular sleeping schedule. Research shows that the prevalence of insomnia is a lot higher in workers who rotate shifts. That is because their brain and body can’t fully adapt to a changing environment, so their inner clock is all over the place. By sticking to a regular work and sleep schedule, you will get better quality rest.
- Watch your diet. When your inner clock is disrupted, so is your metabolism. In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis showed night workers to have a 23% increased chance of becoming overweight or obese. That is why it is vital to try to eat as healthy as you can. Plan your meals and bring healthy snacks to work instead of eating junk food.
- Control indoor temperature. The best sleeping temperature is in the mid-60s degrees Fahrenheit. Set this temperature in your bedroom to quickly fall asleep once you’re back from work.
A transfer to night shift may be hard at the beginning, but with proper planning and the use of our science-backed advice, you’ll become a night owl in no time! You will get the best results if you combine all the strategies we’ve covered.
Experienced night shift workers probably have a lot more useful advice on how to beat insomnia and get better sleep.
So, let us know in the comment section what you’ve found particularly useful to maintain your sleep and focus, even when working night shifts for a long time.
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Dusan is a biologist, a science enthusiast and a huge nature lover. He loves to keep up to date with all the new research and write accurate science-based articles. When he’s not writing or reading, you can find him in the kitchen, trying out new delicious recipes; out in the wild, enjoying the nature or sleeping in his bed.