Thank you to all the heroes risking their lives to help the people that have been affected by the current pandemic. Among the battles these heroes are fighting, many are also fighting the battle to keep their immune system strong. This can be a real challenge, especially for night shift workers because they may not be getting enough sleep. Here’s why sleep can be a challenge for night shift workers and how we can improve sleep for night shift workers.
The other day, I was speaking with my mom. Currently, she is working the graveyard shift (midnight to 8 AM) screening hospital employees for COVID-19. She has been working for the same hospital system for over 30 years as a secretary for their Operating Room. Recently, her hospital decided to stop all elective surgeries due to the risk of COVID-19. As a result, the hospital staff had their hours drastically reduced. Some hospitals such as the one where my mother works have offered to allow these workers to pick up extra shifts. The majority of these shifts are during the night or bedtime hours!
Hospital workers are not the only people affected by this. Many other workers in different industries are having to work these night time shift just to have enough money to feed their family. These graveyard shifts have been known for their potential to cause health issues. We have seen in reports where individuals that have worked years in these jobs with irregular sleep habits have shown an increased risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases.
Why is the Night Shift so Toxic to Our Bodies?
Our bodies need sleep for many reasons. Sleep doesn’t just allow your body to recover and feel rejuvenated every morning. Your body is actually working hard while you sleep. In fact, experts have calculated that you ONLY burn about 30% less calories while you sleep. Sleep has many other physiological functions that have to do with optimizing your health. One of the most important functions of sleep is the ability to maintain and keep our immune system strong. Our immune system allows us to produce the defense and weapons to fight off any foreign invader like the COVID-19 virus or any other virus out there!
For us to take advantage of this extremely important feature of sleep and keep our immune system operating optimally, we need to have at least 7.5 to 9 hours of consolidated sleep. Let me repeat that! We cannot allow ourselves to sleep 2 hours here, 3 hours here, and 2 hours there; and hope that our bodies will adjust. YOUR BODY WILL NOT ADJUST. If working night shift is going to be your new NORMAL, we need to start talking about how we are going to start sleeping on our new schedule.
TIPS TO IMPROVE SLEEP FOR NIGHT SHIFT WORKERS
For starters, our body has 2 mechanisms that allow us to sleep. First is the circadian rhythm, which is strongly dependent on light and darkness. The second mechanism is known as Process S, which is defined as Sleep Pressure. These 2 mechanisms have to be closely in sync in order for us to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Your circadian rhythm will start to release melatonin when the lights are turned down or off. And it will inhibit other hormones that can keep you awake. Shifting your circadian rhythm will be the hardest to control, but not impossible. We will work on this first!
On the other hand, sleep pressure decreases when you take catnaps throughout your shift or during the day. If you had no other option to sleep, then you are at least reducing your tiredness to the point where you can function. However, your body is suffering and your immune system is taking a huge hit. This is dangerous!
TIP #1: Create Your New Sleep Schedule
When you worked a normal 9 to 5 schedule, you were probably sleeping before you went to work. So why would you start trying to fall asleep after work on the night shift? Your body is a clock and you need to maintain its consistency in order to sleep. First, think of the time that you normally wake up for work. Then give yourself at least 8 hours from that time to sleep. For example, my mother leaves at 9PM to work now. I have her going to bed at 12:30 PM in the afternoon in order to get at least 8 hours of consolidated sleep. When she comes home, I’ve coached her to stay awake, watch some TV, work out, eat, walk her dog and then start to prep for bedtime.
It is very important to stay on this schedule during the days you do not work. Bouncing back and forth to your new and old sleep schedule will confuse your body and worsen your sleep. Stick with your new schedule. Explain to your family that even though you are at home while they are awake, it does not mean that you are available. As a sleep consultant, one of the worst habits I see is nurses or emergency care workers who take naps during their shifts and come home and try to stay awake for the whole time their kids are awake. It completely destroys their bodies and over time. They can start to have serious health concerns. Your family will have to understand that you need sleep at this time.
TIP #2: Fix Your Sleep Hygiene
The second way we can improve sleep for night shift workers is to take a look at the bedroom. It needs to be optimized for sleep. Think of a CAVE. You have 3 important things. These are darkness, noise levels and temperature. Start by blocking out your windows to take away the light. Try using a large and loud fan to block out daytime noise. Then turn your air conditioner on at least 2 degrees Fahrenheit below your regular temperature. You need these 3 things to induce and sustain sleep.
In addition, you may also want to implement a 1 hour power down to help allow your body to prepare for sleep. Examples of this are:
- Eliminating or limiting screen time
- Minimizing bright lights
- Taking a warm shower
- Performing self-care
- Reading a book
- Night time yoga
- Listening to soft classical music
- Crossword puzzles
TIP #3: Avoid Stimulants Close to Bedtime
This tip should be obvious with most of us. But I still have clients that swear that they can drink a cup of decaf coffee after dinner and still go to sleep. Well, their issue is that they are waking up 2 hour after they fall asleep and they can’t go back to sleep. Yeah, I know! It’s ok to drink coffee on your shift. But please try to avoid drinking coffee at least 8 hours before your new night shift bedtime. For my mother, I recommended that she stop drinking coffee at 1:30 AM. Coffee typically has a half life of 8 to 10 hours, which means after 9 hours the amount that you consumed has decreased to half that amount. So, make sure to drink plenty of water to help move the caffeine in your body.
In addition to certain time constraints on coffee, I also want to be clear on the amount of caffeine. The amount of caffeine can also affect your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If your coffee consumption has increased over this time and you are struggling with sleep, try to cut the quantity that you consume in 24 hours in half. The added amount of caffeine only increases the concentration in your body to the point where your brain might still have plenty of stimulation from the additional cups that you drank 10 hours before you went to bed. So, try to start reducing the amount of coffee or stimulants you are taking.
TIP #4: Avoid Naps
It is important for your body to build its sleep pressure. It typically takes about 16 hours for your body to build enough sleep pressure to induce sleep and sustain sleep throughout the night. If you are constantly taking 1 to 3 hours naps throughout the day, you are constantly cutting off your sleep pressure your body needs for sleep. This makes it impossible for your body to align these two mechanisms (Process S and Circadian Rhythm). Therefore, it can take longer to fix your new sleep schedule. This is why my forth tip to improve sleep for night shift workers is to avoid naps.
A side note regarding sleep pressure. If you have been sleep deprived, meaning you have been regularly sleeping less than 6.5 hours most nights. You may have a huge sleep pressure. This can be dangerous for many reasons, especially if you operate a heavy vehicle, such as a car. I typically recommend making up those extra hours on the days you don’t work and have extra time to sleep. This can mean falling asleep 30 to 60 minutes earlier and sleeping in as long as you are able to. You want to try to fall asleep and wake up at the around same time that you always do. This will help to ensure that your circadian rhythm stays on track and doesn’t drift too much. on the weekends.
Your Body Takes Time to Adjust
Our bodies don’t adjust quickly. You can start to see improvements in your sleep within 2 weeks at the earliest. These faster results are typically for individuals that follow the plan exactly and stray minimally. I find that the biggest hurdle improve sleep for night shift workers is staying on a regular schedule with their new work hours. If you have a family, especially small children, they may not understand when mommy and daddy have to sleep. Children don’t understand that when daddy or mommy stays up longer and longer, they could potentially be weakening their immune system so much that they would not be able to fight against a foreign invader like COVID-19 or any other virus.
During this time, it is important to stay focused on your health. If you are not healthy, then who will take care of you and your family? If you are still struggling with sleep or have always struggled with sleep, reach out to me. This is the main reason why I became an adult sleep coach. As a sleep coach, I also take into consideration diet, physical activity, personal habits, behavioral habits and other health issues when fixing sleep issues. If you feel like this is you, schedule a free 15-minute sleep evaluation so we can get started fixing your sleep.
Too healthy sleep,
Zeke Medina is a certified Solve your Sleep Consultant that works with teenagers and adults struggling with insomnia and other sleep issues that interrupt sleep. Zeke has over 10 years of experience in the medical field helping individuals with chronic health issues and preventable health issues like insomnia.