Do you might have a shift work sleep disorder?

If you work a regular 9 to 5 schedule, you may not be aware of a condition known as Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). Working in daylight can be stressful enough, but working off-hours can present employees with their own challenges.

Almost one in five workers works non-traditional shifts. This can include many occupations, including medical workers, food service workers, and even retail workers. This is particularly prevalent due to the pandemic, which has sometimes required key workers to work around the clock. I have a lot of respect for anyone who works non-conventional hours to keep the world moving, but I know this schedule can really affect their sleep and health.

Especially in today’s world, simply finding another job or working a different schedule isn’t always realistic, so what can you do when shift work is ruining your sleep? First, let’s take a look at what shift work sleep disorder is and how to look out for symptoms.

What is shift work sleep disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder, also known as shift work disorder, is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that primarily affects people who work atypical shifts outside of the normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This may include night shift, early shift, late shift, or rotating shift.

SWSD can cause excessive sleepiness during work or insomnia when trying to get some sleep. As a result, you can lose anywhere from one to four hours of sleep each night! This can lead to a significant sleep deficit – this type of sleep deprivation is not only exhausting, it can even be dangerous. Sleep deprivation and excessive sleepiness can decrease your mental performance and increase your risk of injury and accidents.

Studies show that shift workers are also at a much higher risk of mental and physical illness than non-shift workers. Shift work disorders can also increase the risk of:

  • Frequent illness and increased use of sick leave
  • breast cancer and prostate cancer
  • heart disease
  • Substance abuse, including using drugs or alcohol to promote sleep

Symptoms of shift work sleep disorder

Because of their schedule, a shift worker may face a range of symptoms that can be linked to other sleep disorders as well as a lack of adequate sleep. Some of these may include:

  • Sleep disorders, including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Poor sleep quality or short sleep duration
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • lack of energy
  • Bad mood

People who work night shifts are often battling their circadian rhythm as well, which can cause its own problems.

How shift work affects your circadian rhythm

The health issues that affect shift workers are often due to their circadian rhythms being out of sync. Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that your body maintains to properly. Think of it as your body’s internal clock that schedules your sleep-wake cycle according to the to light you receive throughout the day.

Normally, your circadian rhythm has you rising with the sun and getting ready for bed when it sets, so your sleep schedule begins in the dark hours of the night. For those who work outside of normal daytime work schedules, such as night workers, they are working directly against their body’s internal clock, potentially creating circadian misalignment in the process.

Unless they struggle to fall asleep at night due to other factors, day workers don’t tend to experience these types of circadian disturbances. Either way, if your circadian rhythm isn’t in sync, then you don’t want to leave it that way.

How is shift work sleep disorder treated?

Because of the potential health risks associated with shift work disorders, it is important that anyone with or at risk of the condition gets the restorative sleep they need to safely.

A common treatment for SWSD is sleep medication. Melatonin supplements are popular for helping shift workers fall asleep and stay asleep. Some will be prescribed a sleeping pill such as Ambien or Lunesta, although these should be used sparingly as they are addictive, can actually contribute to insomnia and even cause life-threatening sleep patterns!

Another drug prescribed to shift workers is Modafinil. This prescription drug has been found to have low abuse potential and is effective in promoting alertness in patients.

If you’re having trouble sleeping because of your work schedule, be sure to talk to your doctor and see what your options are. There are other to help you get the sleep you need without medication, too.

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