Sleep advice for shift and night workers

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Health Assured team

07 May 2024

Importance of sleep

Getting enough sleep is critical in supporting core functions, processing memories, and emotional regulation. In fact, it’s so important that the average person will spend 26 years of their life asleep.

When we sleep, our brain is better equipped to process emotional information by evaluating and remembering thoughts and memories from the day. Not getting enough sleep can be particularly harmful when processing positive emotional memories and often negatively affects mood, emotional reactivity and increases the risk of mental health challenges.

Among many other things, sleep supports your immune system, mental health, physical wellbeing, as well as boosting fertility, cognitive function and reduces stress levels.

Without sleep, the mind and body will deteriorate in a matter of hours and negative effects could start as quickly as the 18 hours mark without sleep, such as brain fog and hallucinations. Sleep deprivation risks weight gain, high blood pressure, heart attack, organ failure, sleep apnea and even death.

Despite the importance of sleep, the Sleep Foundation recorded that 4.8 of 10 workers say they are regularly tired during the day and 7 out of 10 confirmed that they are tired once the working day is done.

Circadian rhythm

The circadian rhythm is the natural sleep-wake cycle that is roughly repeated every 24-hours. The main function of the circadian rhythm is to let the body and mind know when it is time to sleep and wake naturally. It changes the physical, mental and behavioural experiences of every living thing, including humans, plants and animals.

It supports the body and mind in regulating sleep, metabolism, cognitive function, the body’s ability to react to stress and the immune system. It also allows the body and mind to rest during the night, giving a boost in energy during the day.

A misaligned circadian rhythm means that falling asleep can become difficult, the quality of sleep may be impacted and disturbances during sleep could increase. This can be a risk to people who work shifts because their daily working hours do not correspond or align with the natural sleep-wake cycle of the day or the sun. Despite this, there are ways to offset sleeping challenges when working shifts.

Risks to shift workers

Shift work is a term that indicates a work schedule falling out of the hours of 7am and 6pm, including early mornings, evenings and throughout the night.

People who work shifts are generally at higher risk of affecting their circadian rhythm and developing sleep challenges. This is because of the disconnect between shift work hours and the natural sunlight hours, risking a good sleep routine, sleeping quality and mental health.

According to a study, shift work promotes poor sleeping habits and quality by as much as 76% compared to their 9 to 5 counterparts where the figure is 30%. In fact, shift work sleep disorder is a real condition that affects 15% to 30% of workers in the US and Europe.

Risks factors to sleep for shift workers:

  • Inability to fall asleep
  • Insomnia
  • Problems with staying asleep
  • Increase disrupted sleep
  • Increased chance of weight gain
  • Sleep loss
  • Fatigue during working hours
  • Poor mental health
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Weakening memory
  • Poor mood control or feeling irritable a lot

How to counteract this?

  1. Keep your routine consistent

Keep your bedtime and wake hours as consistent as possible, even on your days off. Keeping your sleep-wake cycle regulated allows your internal circadian rhythm to run more efficiently, helping the body to fall asleep faster, improve the quality and decreases disturbances.

  1. Create the perfect sleeping conditions

The circadian rhythm can be influenced by temperature and exposure to light, so it is important to sleep in optimal temperatures and with as little light as possible. Exposure to light and noise can affect our sleep, which is especially true for those of use trying to get their sleep while the sun is still up.

Make sure your bedroom is the perfect temperature by investing in a fan or air conditioning and buy some thick curtains to block out the sun.

Remove any screens from your bedroom, including the TV and phone. Light inhibits melatonin production which helps the body sleep, so keeping the phone and TV away from your bedroom could bring you some much needed quality sleep.

  1. Preparing for sleep

On average, we spend 7 years tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep, so it’s vital to have a good bedtime routine. Find ways you like to relax and implement them in your sleep schedule, such as breathing exercises, mindful meditation, reading a book or taking a hot bath.

It is all about winding down your mind and body, so it is ready for a well-deserved and well-rested sleep.

  1. Change your food habits before bed

Having sugary food before bed is a recipe for disaster, literally. Sugar is a stimulant, so eating it before your bedtime could mean it will be harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sugar is also connected to night sweats and snoring which can lead to poorer sleep quality. Try swapping the sugary treats for foods that enhance sleep, such as fatty fish, nuts, and rice.

It is important to wait at least 2-3 hours between your last meal and bedtime, allowing your body to digest the food and reduce the risk of interrupted sleep.

  1. Find support

When things get overwhelming, it can be impossible to combat it alone. Speaking to a professional counsellor, trusted friend, or family member can be liberating. It allows you to talk your worries through, have a second opinion, keep you motivated and produce different perspectives and ideas to support your journey.

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