Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Even if it doesn’t cause a sleep disorder shift work is still bad for your health. A shift work sleep disorder is caused by a disruption of the natural circadian rhythms. It is one of the “extrinsic” types of circadian rhythm disorders, which means that it is not caused by anything intrinsic or inside of the body, but by outside effects. The other recognized extrinsic circadian rhythm disorder is jet lag.

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If you are required to frequently change your shifts, going from night to day or vice versa, here are a few things that you should know.

The circadian rhythm is something like an inner clock. It has to do with the hormones produced when it’s time to sleep and different ones produced when it is time to be fully awake, as well as environmental “cues”, which include sunrise, sunset and a daily routine.

It is possible for a person with a healthy circadian rhythm to reset their inner clocks, but only by about an hour per day. So, if you had been used to getting up at 10pm to make the 11pm – 7am night shift, but your schedule suddenly changed to the 7am to 3pm shift, requiring you to wake at 6 in the morning, it would take over a week for your inner clock to reset.

The sleep disorder shift work causes typically occur in people whose shifts change from one week to the next. Their inner clocks never have time to reset properly. They have trouble falling asleep and rarely feel well rested when they wake.

Lady under blue pattern sheetsPhoto: Andrew Richards
Lady under blue pattern sheetsPhoto: Andrew Richards

If they work night shifts, only, their bodies can become confused by the environmental cues that normally keep the circadian clock "aligned" with that of other people. So, they may be sleepy at work, but have difficulty sleeping when they get home.

The use of artificial lighting and artificial dark is helpful for shift work sleep disorder. By using very dark curtains, it is possible to fool the body into thinking that it is dark and that you should be sleepy. So, it becomes easier to fall asleep. If you're in the UK a blackout blind can be purchased from a store such as Roller Blinds Direct.

It is also helpful to establish a routine that is very similar to what you would do if you were sleeping, rather than working at night. Another suggestion recommended by some doctors to deal with shift work sleep disorder is to try and sleep as late in the evening as your shift will allow. In other words, for an 11pm to 7am shift, sleeping from 2PM to 10PM seems to be more restful than going to sleep in the morning, right after work.

If it doesn’t cause a sleep disorder shift work could still be bad for your health. Dozens of studies have been conducted concerning an association between an increased cancer risk and working at night.

Conflicting results have been seen in these studies, but the evidence concerning an increased breast cancer risk has been particularly strong. In fact, the evidence was strong enough to lead to a monetary compensation for Danish night shift workers with breast cancer.

Of course, not everyone that works at night will develop cancer. Some people’s inner circadian clocks seem to be pre-set with a preference for sleeping in the early morning hours or the early night and being fully awake in the middle of the night.

The prevalence of alternating shift work sleep disorder is higher and may be accompanied by a higher risk of cancer. It seems that if a person regularly works night shifts all the time, rather than alternating from one shift to another, there are fewer negative health effects.

An increased risk of high blood pressure has also been noted among regular night-shift workers. But, a recent small study showed that exercising prior to the shift can lower blood pressure.

So, there are ways to combat shift work sleep disorder and ways to reduce the health risks. Generally speaking, it is a regular schedule, healthy eating and regular physical activity that makes the difference.

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