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The human sleep-wake cycle has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to generally allow people to be awake during the day and to sleep and recover at night.
Known as the circadian clock, there is a small part of the brain that monitors available light and when it starts to wane, it floods the body with a chemical called melatonin which is the signal to your body to fall asleep. During the day, when light levels are high, other neurotransmitters are released by the body to increase and maintain levels of alertness.
But what if you’re a shift worker, or due to travel and other modern life demands, have irregular sleep patterns and the need to be routinely awake and alert during the night?
Shift work and sleep
Research has shown that an on average, shift workers get two to three hours less sleep than regular workers.
This is because they often need to sleep during the day, when it can be difficult to find a sleep environment that is dark, noise free and relatively cool.
Dr Aran Thillainathan, an Occupational and Environmental Physician Registrar with JOBFIT, who used to work shift rotations in an emergency department setting, says ongoing poor sleep (including lack of sleep) can impair physical and mental health.
“From a physical point of view, poor sleep can put you at higher risk of health problems including diabetes, obesity, decreased libido, stroke and irregular heartbeats known as Atrial Fibrillation. It is not uncommon to have high blood pressure due to lack of sleep,” he says.
“Mentally, poor sleep can contribute to depression and anxiety – ongoing sleep deprivation for days can lead to psychosis and psychotic episodes (such as users of Speed, Ecstasy). It can also impair your judgement and cognitive ability.”
A number of large-scale industrial accidents, including the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl accidents, have occurred in the early hours of the morning when people are more likely to be tired and experience impaired decision-making.
“Sleep helps us to consolidate our memory,” Dr Thillainathan says. “When you don’t sleep well, your brain doesn’t know where to store information properly.”
However, if you do have irregular work patterns, there are some practical steps you can take to achieve better sleep and support your health and wellbeing.
Tips for getting a good day’s sleep
Dr Thillainathan says there are some tips shift-workers should follow to get adequate quality sleep.
“Try to identify and stick to a suitable sleep schedule,” he says. “If you work regular shifts, it might mean going to bed as soon are you arrive after work or staying up and sleeping before your next shift.”
“Try taking a short sleep or nap before your first night shift. When you are coming off night shift work, have a short sleep and then try to get a proper 7-8 hours’ sleep at night to reset the circadian rhythm.”
Here are some other steps you can take to help you get good quality sleep.
- Take personal responsibility for getting enough sleep – if you are a shift-worker, or work irregular patterns accept that you will have an altered social ‘day life’ and make sure to schedule time for sleep.
- Limit and block all distractions – switch off phones and turn off lights. Dr Thillainathan calls this keeping “good sleep hygiene”, which includes keeping your bedroom temperature relatively cool.
- Let people in your household and family know your sleep routine and when you should not be disturbed.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol or nicotine before sleep. “It’s important to avoid using alcohol, it provides a false sense of sleep,” Dr Thillainathan says. Don’t over eat or over drink liquids leading to discomfort which will then affect sleep.
- Consider using foam ear plugs, heavy drapes or block-out curtains and shades to minimise distractions.
- If your mind races or you find yourself continuously thinking when trying to get to sleep, keep a sleep diary. “If you do routinely wake up, or have trouble falling asleep, keep a notepad or journal next to your bed and write down what is keeping you awake or what thoughts have disturbed your sleep,” Dr Thillainathan says. “This can be useful if you do need to see a sleep specialist and help them determine what’s happening.”
- When working at night, increase your exposure to light to maximise alertness.
A note about the ‘power nap’
A short sleep or ‘power nap’ of no more than 20 minutes can help increase alertness before starting work or in the middle of a split shift or during a shift break.
Make sure you then spend at least five minutes to stretch and walk around before resuming activity.
What to do if you have ongoing sleep issues
Accumulating “sleep debt” can be very bad for physical and mental health, along with our personal and working relationships.
“If you are having ongoing issues, please see a health professional or GP who can help and provide professional advice,” Dr Thillainathan says.