Firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, factory workers, and office cleaning staff – they’re all pillars of society. What else have they got in common? They all work night shifts. Working at night can keep you from getting the full sleep that most daytime workers take for granted. However, the connection between sleep and the night shift can be often overlooked even by those working overnight.
Why Does the Night Shift Make You Sleepy?
According to Wesley Elon Fleming, MD, it’s all to do with your circadian rhythm, or your body’s clock. Your circadian rhythm is basically a 24-hour internal clock that’s running in the background of your brain. It cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals, letting you sleep when it’s dark and wake up when it’s light.
When you’re working the night shift, you’re “going against the body’s natural desire to be asleep at night-time and to be awake during the daytime”, Fleming explains. This is why it can be difficult to feel alert during the night; your body knows that it should be resting.1
Rotating shifts can be even harder on your body. For example, if you work every two nights or work certain nights of the week. Fleming explains that your body operates on a routine schedule and likes to know what to expect in terms of producing hormones. So, when your exposure to daylight varies and you’re sleeping some nights but then sleeping during the day sometimes, your body has difficulty “knowing what to anticipate and when to produce” the chemicals.2
Regular, restful sleep is important for the body’s repair. Your body recovers from the day while you sleep so, if you’re working the night shift, you don’t get the full repair that you need.
You can read more about your circadian rhythm here.
If you work the night shift – no matter how often or how little – you could be at risk of Shift Work Sleep Disorder. Find out more about this in our article, ‘What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?‘
9 Tips for Better Sleep
If your job means that you work the night shift or that you work irregular shifts, you need to pay close attention to your sleep. Below, we’ve gathered some tips that’ll help you get a good sleep.
1. Try to avoid working several night shifts in a row. You may become increasingly sleep-deprived over several nights, but you’re more likely to recover if you can limit your night shifts and schedule days off in between.
2. Avoid frequently rotating shifts. If you can’t manage this, it’s easier to adjust to a schedule that rotates from day shift to evening to night, rather than the reverse order.
3. Avoid long commutes if possible. These may take time away from sleeping.
4. Have a brightly lit space to promote alertness. If you’re working the night shift, expose yourself to bright light, such as lamps, when you wake up. As your circadian rhythm is influenced by light, being exposed to a bright light when you get out of bed can help train your body’s internal clock to adjust. Our Wake Up to Daylight light from Lumie is a great choice as it mimics daytime sunlight. Read more about its benefits here.
5. Limit caffeine. Drinking a cup of coffee at the beginning of your shift will help promote alertness. However, don’t consume caffeine later in your shift as you may have trouble getting to sleep when you get home.
6. Avoid bright lights on your way home if possible. Although this is easier said than done, especially if the sun is up when you leave work, avoiding bright lights will make it easier for you to fall asleep once you hit the pillow. If you have to, wear a hat or dark sunglasses to shield yourself from sunlight.
7. Stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule as much as you can. This will help your body adjust to your shifts, and you’ll find falling asleep easier.
8. Ask your family and friends to limit phone calls and visits. When you’re sleeping during the day, you might be woken up by your phone ringing or a knock on the door. However, letting your family and friends know when you’ll be sleeping will keep disturbances at bay.
9. Use blackout blinds or heavy curtains. According to Fleming, “sunlight coming into your room tells your brain that it’s daytime” – even when your eyes are closed. Yet, when you’re exhausted and trying to sleep, this is “not a healthy thing for the body to be exposed to”.3 Blackout blinds and heavy curtains will help block sunlight, so that your bedroom is kept dark and cool so that you won’t be woken up.
Find out more about how to get a good sleep even when you work night shifts with our article, ‘Work Your Sleep Schedule Around Night Shifts‘.