Chaos Theory: How Shiftwork & Irregular Bedtimes Wreak Havoc On Sleep

Chaos Theory: How Shiftwork & Irregular Bedtimes Wreak Havoc On Sleep

The news isn’t good as research confirms the impact on health

There are plenty of reasons to love shift work and the lifestyle that comes with zigging while everyone else is zagging, from skipping rush hour traffic to midnight shopping at 24-hour grocery stores. But for those who work outside the realm of 9 to 5, the serious implications for their overall health might have them pondering a career change. From an increased risk of certain types of cancer to depression, shiftwork may require a shift in thinking and taking extra care in managing the fallout. 

What’s at stake for your health when it comes to shiftwork? 

According to Sleepfoundation, the list of possible health problems among shiftworkers is lengthy. It includes: higher rates of heart disease, metabolic issues, gastrointestinal problems, metabolism changes, greater levels of triglycerides, obesity and chronic sleep shortages. And it’s not just physical wellbeing that suffers. It’s mental health, too. Shiftwork has a social cost, which causes some workers to feel out of step with everyone else, which can result in less happiness.

On the job, employees working non-daytime hours can experience slower reaction times (not good especially when operating machinery or driving), poorer concentration and less effective problem solving, too. Not surprisingly, the news doesn’t get any better in regard to sleep. Shiftwork sleep disorder is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that causes excessive sleepiness, insomnia, chaotic sleep schedules, difficulties with personal relationships, irritability and depression. The culprit is the disruption of circadian rhythms. The natural rhythm of the human biological clock that dictates the sleep-wake cycle and other functions does not like to be upset and the body will fight to stay on track. On average, shiftworkers sleep 2 to 4 hours less than everyone else. That’s more than enough to mess with their health.

Blame the cavemen for the sleep problems…

Since prehistoric times and the arrival of humans on earth, our activities have been entwined with our exposure to sunlight – and the absence of it. When the stars came out, it was time to slip into your cave and cover yourself up in animal skins for warmth and, consequently, sleep. The internal clock is hardwired. The body functions fine and dandy when we go with that flow, but there’s a price to be paid when we go against it, like, say with shiftwork. Your body does not want to sleep when the sun is shining and tells you to get into bed come nighttime.

Successful strategies for managing shiftwork & sleep

It’s not as simple as avoiding it. The world doesn’t stop after five o’clock. While that’s understood, it’s important to safeguard your health. Here’s how, according to UCLA Sleep Disorders Center:                

  • Have a say about your shifts. If you can, opt for shifts that change every 2-3 days and not 3-5, which are tougher are your body.
  • Make naps your friend. Before a nightshift, take a nap that’s up to 90 minutes long. While at work, a short nap may be useful during your lunch break, depending on how your body responds. Also consider a wee kip before head home too. Driving drowsy causes an estimated 100,000 car accidents annually. Try to stick to a regular bedtime, whenever that might be.
  • Eat well. Try to eat 3 meals spaced out evenly over the course of your day. Avoid large meals and alcohol at least 3 hours before bedtime. Skip the caffeine and focus on eating a low-fat diet that’s high in fruit and vegetables.
  • Plan ahead how you’ll get home. If you’re exhausted after your shift, do not drive drowsy. Take public transportation or call for a ride.
  • Take breaks. Taking short breaks on the job can help maintain alertness. Conversations with coworkers or a short stroll around the office can help prevent sleepiness.

Sadly, shiftwork isn’t going anywhere. But the effects of sleep deprivation, while not avoidable, can be reduced with some careful planning. Maintaining a semi-normal sleep schedule, eating healthy and exercising when possible can help you cope with the effects. Good luck!