Is shift work starting to leave you sleep deprived?
In the past few decades, society has become more and more reliant on shift workers to support commerce and industry, with an estimated 20% of all workers being involved in some type of shift work, be it the early bird shift, back shift or night shift. Although, the repercussions that shift work has on your sleep patterns isn’t exactly a secret I’m going to focus on some of these issues today and go into detail about some of the possible solutions.
What does shift work do to your sleep?
Shift work is commonplace in the UK – it’s thought that, of those in employment, 1 in 8 are involved in night shifts, but this figure is just scratching the surface and doesn’t account for bar workers, who can work as late as 3 am or those involved in the customer service industry that sometimes have to start work from as early as 4am. 1
However, despite working such erratic hours, most shift workers consider poor sleep and sleep deprivation to be just another part of the job and tolerate any side-effects as best as they can – after all, quitting is not always a realistic option.
In recent years though, more and more light is being shed on how shift work can affect your sleep – not only are you forcing your body to be awake at a time when it’s naturally inclined to rest, it can interrupt your key sleep phases that are essential for your health and wellbeing – think of that clock diagram we gave you earlier.
Your body naturally releases melatonin, the sleep hormone, as natural light wanes, making you feel tired and sleepy, prompting you to go to bed. While you sleep your body has time to carry out repair work, strengthening your immune system and even secreting certain hormones. As the sun rises, cortisol is secreted so you can feel more roused as you wake up.
If you fight these natural instincts, your inherent biological rhythm will become disturbed and confused, particularly if you rotate your shifts. Your body won’t get the time it needs to recuperate so you may be more vulnerable to inflammation and have a lowered immune function.
You also have to account for the fact that if you’re awake at night, you’re probably going to be eating at some point, forcing your digestive system to be active when it should be doing recovery work. Your hormone secretion may even be affected and your blood sugar levels can fluctuate during the day when you’re trying to sleep, exaggerating your problem and making you more prone to emotional problems such as stress and depression.
Then, after resisting your body’s natural inclination, you have to somehow get to sleep during the day, a time when natural light will be inhibiting your production of melatonin. You probably won’t feel all that inclined to spend time outdoors either, which means you may even experience low levels of vitamin D too!
On a more serious note, though, if you’re not getting the sleep you need when you should be, it can impact your concentration levels. If you clock off at 6am and have been on the go for 12 hours, you might have to factor in a 30 minute commute home. During this time you’ll be feeling worn down, exhausted and may find your mind wandering away from the road - according to the Sleep Foundation, in one poll 37% of participants admitted to falling asleep at the wheel!2
What is SWSD?
SWSD, or Sleep Work Shift Disorder, or SWSD, is a recognised circadian shift disorder, and is associated with symptoms ranging from fatigue to irritability to relationship difficulties.
Can you retrain your circadian rhythm?
Your circadian is the 24 hour internal clock that governs your sleep-wake cycle Although it is possible, retraining your circadian rhythm is tricky - is capable of adapting but factors such as your diet and lifestyle can affect your chances of success. So what can you do?
1 – Get outdoors when you can
If you start work early in the evening, try to make a point of getting outdoors before your shift begins, especially during the bleaker winter months when you could be arriving at work in darkness and leaving in the same conditions. Not only can sunlight inhibit your production of melatonin, it can also boost your intake of vitamin D, which is pivotal for a healthy immune system.
Even during your shift, it might be an idea to pop outside on your break. Although you won’t be getting the same exposure to sunlight, fresh air can be very stimulating, re-energising your body and even boosting your mood as serotonin is often impacted by how much oxygen you inhale.3
2 – Manage your time properly
Trying to juggle erratic hours with everyday demands can be tricky – you probably want to try and at least spend some time with your family during the day and it can become difficult to accommodate friends who work the usual 9-5 routine. That’s why good time management is essential – keep a diary of when you are working so you can organise a catch-up with your friends and set aside time to spend with your family when you can.
This doesn’t mean you should be sacrificing your sleep but if you don’t speak to your partner or loved ones, you may risk becoming more isolated which can lead to low mood or even stress.
3 – Don’t always immediately reach for coffee
If you’re a shift worker, tea and coffee are probably your crutch and at 4am, you’d probably sooner give up an ear than your mid-shift cuppa. Caffeine can help to keep you awake and alert; however, it does have its drawbacks, particularly if you’re finding it difficult to get into a good sleep routine during the day.
This is because caffeine can linger in your system for up to 6 hours and sometimes longer. So if you have a cup at 3am and clock off at 6am, you’re going to find it difficult to get the same quality of sleep when you get in.
Now I’m not saying you should do away with coffee completely, however, you might need to be a bit more strategic about when you consume it. Having a cuppa just before you start your shift might not be a bad idea, but if you start drinking coffee just hours before you finish, you’re going to experience some problems.
Instead, it might be worth switching to a caffeine-free alternative like Bambu. Immensley popular with our customers here at Jan de Vries, Bambu utilises a rich blend of chicory, Turkish figs and barley, creating a deep earthy drink that's perfect for reinvigorating your senses.
4 - Invest in blackout blinds
Trying to sleep during the day definitely has its drawbacks – you’re more likely to be disturbed by background noise and the sunlight creeping in through your curtains will stimulate your body, rousing you awake. That’s why, as most shift workers are probably aware, black-out blinds are a must.
You might not be able to block out the sound of your neighbour mowing the grass at 1pm, but you can at least eliminate the sun from interrupting your sleep, creating a darker environment that’s more conducive to sleep and rest.
5- Practice relaxation techniques
Your body might be exhausted by the time you get home in the morning, but your mind might still be racing, making it difficult to fall asleep when the time comes. That’s why I always recommend trying to practice some relaxation techniques to help calm those racing thoughts; mindfulness apps like Headspace are completely free and only take minutes so they’re definitely a viable option.
You could also try some mindful stretches and deep breathing to help relax your body and ease any tension – this might be particularly useful if your job involves any hard manual labour!
6 – Watch what you eat while you work
As we shall go on to discuss soon, what you eat can play a huge role in determining how you sleep. When it comes to shift work, this is especially important – if you’re feasting on a bacon roll at 3am and washing it down with a sugary snack, you’re not going to have a good time trying to get to sleep once you finish your shift.
Eat your main meal before you start and try to avoid eating heavy, stodgy food on your shift. Instead, stick to lighter options and homemade snacks – low fat yoghurt, almonds, nut butters and hummus are all excellent choices and shouldn’t affect your blood sugar levels too much, meaning you’ll avoid that dreaded crash!
It might also be worth including magnesium-rich foods like spinach, bananas or pumpkin seeds. As I mentioned yesterday, the importance of magnesium when it comes to your sleep patterns really can't be overstated. If you're struggling to get magnesium into your diet, you could try a gentle supplement like Floradix's Liquid Magnesium.
7 – Don’t be afraid of napping
Napping during the day can sometimes be associated with sleep problems at night, however, new evidence has been uncovered about the potential benefits of napping and when it comes to shift work, these benefits seem to increase.
According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, napping might help to counteract the impact of a sleep restricted night when it comes to your stress levels and immune function because it helps you to normalise your levels of cytokines and heightening your alertness. In the study, 30 minutes of napping was used as an example, so perhaps taking 30 winks during your break isn’t a bad idea!4
8 - Don't be afraid of herbal remedies
Gentle herbal remedies like A.Vogel's Dormeasan or our own Night Essence can be very beneficial when it comes to supporting healthy sleep patterns. Dormeasan contains a wholesome blend of organically cultivated Valerian and Hops, helping to gradually encourage a deep, restful sleep. Unlike traditional sleep remedies, this formula isn't associated with any next-day grogginess and should leave you feeling refreshed for the day ahead.
However, if you're under 18, you might prefer to try our very own Night Essence, a relaxing flower essence that contains a calming infusion of Chamomile, Vervain and Asphalt.
If shift work is starting to drag your sleep patterns down you could try our tailored sleep bundle. Including a selection of soothing herbal remedies and natural supplements specifically aimed towards your sleep problem, you can rest easy knowing that all care has been taken to ensure you get enough sleep!