any medical professionals working night shifts struggle to get enough quality sleep. Working those late hours significantly impacts our natural circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm internally regulates the rise and fall of our sleep-wake cycles throughout the day. It drives our biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes, and essentially prepares our body to eat, sleep and be active. Circadian rhythms respond to environmental cues, primarily sunlight.
When a night shift worker’s circadian rhythm hasn’t adjusted to sleeping during the day, the resulting imbalance can cause significant health problems. Research shows that the side effects of a disrupted sleep cycle can often linger for days. Some of these symptoms include stress, fatigue, irritability, overeating, lack of exercise, and even substance use.
An unbalanced circadian rhythm also poses risks in the workplace, like increased medical errors and reduced productivity. These risks can also negatively impact the patients we treat.
Top 10 sleep tips for night shift workers
These tips can help restore the natural balance in your body as you adapt to a new sleep cycle. Remember, some of our recommendations might not work for everyone, so take your time finding the strategy that suits you best.
1. Make sleep a priority to avoid “sleep debt”
Don’t let the fear of falling behind on that never-ending list of chores keep you from getting enough rest. While you may feel tempted to handle errands or responsibilities right after your night shift, putting off sleep can trigger a dangerous cycle of “sleep debt.”
Avoid falling behind on sleep by hitting the hay earlier and allotting extra time to catch up on that much-needed R&R. We sleep more deeply when we’re sleep-deprived, so don’t worry about “paying back” each of those hours of lost sleep.
Keep in mind, the effects of sleep deprivation can linger for several days. It may take a few days of quality rest to fully recover.
2. Sleep as long as possible
Night shift workers usually sleep less and experience poorer-quality rest than their colleagues on day shift. We recommend spending as much time as possible in bed to prevent the negative effects of chronic sleep deprivation.
3. Try a quick nap before work
A quick nap before work doesn’t just boost your overall time asleep – research shows that taking a nap 1.5-3 hours before your night shift can improve your alertness as well.
4. Don’t discount light exposure
Light plays a significant role in regulating our circadian rhythm. Simply spending some time in brightly lit areas during the first half of your day can increase your overall alertness and energy. Reducing your exposure to light as you near the end of the shift can ease your body’s transition from the chaotic workplace to your restful home.
5. Blue-light-blocking glasses can help
Before you leave work and expose yourself to sunlight, try putting on a pair of wraparound blue-light blocking sunglasses. These glasses block out the blue wavelength of light that signals your body to begin its daytime circadian rhythm. Wear them until you reach the darkness of your bedroom. Blocking out those blue wavelengths of light can help you sleep longer during the day.
6. Go directly to bed after arriving at home
You may feel tempted to stay awake all day before the first shift in a block of night shifts, and then work all night. Remember that our cognitive performance after 24 hours without sleep is the equivalent of working with a blood alcohol level of .10!
If your body’s circadian rhythm hasn’t adjusted to sleeping during the day, you’ve only got a small window of time before your natural circadian-alerting mechanism kicks in to keep you awake. Help your internal clock out and get as much rest as possible before 2 pm.
7. Is a bedtime snack in order?
If you’re hungry, we recommend eating a small meal that contains a high-quality carb and protein before you head to bed. Some examples include oats with blueberries, Greek yogurt, peanut butter on an English muffin, or eggs and toast.
8. Sleep in the dark
Daylight naturally triggers our circadian clock to wake us up. Improve your sleep quality by blocking out as much light as possible in your bedroom.
9. Expand your team
Getting enough sleep at home often requires a team effort. Ask your family and friends to respect and support your sleep schedule by cutting back on disruptive behavior and disturbances during allotted times.
A gentle reminder that a good night’s sleep makes for a happier and healthier friend, parent and partner won’t hurt either!
10. If all else fails, try melatonin
If you’re still struggling with the new sleep schedule, you may want to consider taking a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is a hormone the body usually produces in the evening. When working non-standard shifts, taking melatonin supplements at other times of the day may help prepare your body for sleep.
While melatonin can help night shift workers sleep during the day, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine cautions that the supplements don’t necessarily lead to better alertness during the work shift. Although melatonin supplements are commonly available over the counter, we still recommend checking with your doctor first.