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Effects of the Night Shift on Sleep

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Updated April 25, 2007

Working the night shift can wreak havoc on your sleep. This leads to an increased risk of insomnia and other sleep disorders. Night shift work has also been shown to increase the risk of heart and digestive problems, as well as problems with moods and emotions. Night shift workers are at an increased risk for safety accidents due to tiredness.

The Effect of the Night Shift on Your Body

When you are awake at night and asleep during the day, your body does not receive powerful biological cues from the amount of light in the environment. These cues are necessary to regulate the circadian rhythms that control your sleep/wake cycle. This causes difficulty in falling asleep and getting enough deep sleep.

An additional problem is switching from a night schedule to a day schedule on days off, or during changes in your work shift. This switching causes the same effects as jet lag. The body needs one hour per day to adjust to changes in sleep. Night shift workers may find that impossible.

Dealing with the Night Shift and Sleep

There are a number of things that you can do to make sure you get enough good quality sleep even while working the night shift:
  • Bright Lights: While at work during the night, try to be in as much bright light as possible. A full-spectrum light would be best, but any increase in light will help your body to regulate its sleep/wake cycle.
  • Dark Bedroom: When you are trying to sleep, make your bedroom as dark as possible. Close the curtains and the door. Some people find that sleep masks help block the light, allowing for more refreshing sleep.
  • Increase Your Total Sleep: Add naps and lengthen the hours you spend sleeping to make up for a loss in sleep quality.
  • Limit Caffeine: Use caffeine only in the early part of your shift. Try to avoid it toward the end of your shift so you will be able to go right to sleep when it's time.
  • Limit Shift Changes: Try to stay on one schedule for as long as possible. Shifting between day and night work is especially hard on the body.

More on Sleep Disorders and Sleep Problems

Sources:

National Institutes of Health; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Your Guide to Healthy Sleep. NIH Publication No. 06-5271.

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