Working Against the Clock – Getting enough sleep on a shift work schedule

In my 20s, I’d brag about not needing much sleep. I’d hit the gym at 4:30 am. Then, I’d work until 6:00 pm then head to my job as a bouncer until 4:00 am. I kept that schedule for years. It was brutal but I thought it was proof of my fortitude. Truthfully, it was nuts because sleep is the most important thing you can do for your overall health every day.

Over 60 million people have insomnia. Some have difficulty falling asleep. Others experience regularly interrupted sleep. Then, there are the almost 9 million people in the United States along who work the “graveyard shift” – those middle-of-the night hours when most people sleep (hospital and emergency personnel, truck drivers, police officers, factory workers, security guards, casino workers, cab drivers, and others).

Shift work disrupts the body’s “circadian rhythm,” (the “biological clock”). It’s the internal mechanism that tells our bodies when to sleep, wake up, eat, and more. It relies on environmental cues like natural daylight and nighttime and temperature changes. Shift work messes with this biology and wreaks havoc on our bodies. Frank Sheer, PhD and Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Neuroscientist, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders has studied what lack of sleep does. He says, “There is strong evidence that shift work is related to a number of serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.”

The average person requires eight hours of sleep, yet most people get less than six. And, no, you can’t “make up” sleep. Luckily, there are simple things night owls (everyone for that matter) can do to get the shuteye they need*.

Unplug. Turn off electronic devices. Those little lights tell your brain it’s daylight and inhibit the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin.

Make some noise. There are many apps that play consistent, soothing sounds meant to relax the mind. Constant changes in pitch, tone, and modulation of noises in our surroundings puts the brain on high alert. Sound machines create a constant, steady noise that helps mask those noises that can keep us awake.

Go natural. Believe it or not, carbohydrate-rich foods can help induce sleep by helping the brain produce tryptophan (the drowsy hormone). Bedtime snacks (not meals, folks) that have a carbohydrate and protein in them, like cheese or peanut butter and crackers, a small bowl of cereal and milk, are good sleepy foods. Caution: This is not permission to go nuts.

Exercise has too many health benefits to list here, but it’s important for good sleep. And, it doesn’t necessarily need to be ”four hours before you go to bed.” Shawn Youngstedt, a researcher at the University of South Carolina, did a study that showed 30 minutes of exercise before bedtime didn’t keep participants awake. Finding time to exercise that works with your schedule may be more important than when you exercise.

Limit your lattes. Caffeine increases adrenaline production (cortisol) and prevents sleep hormones from kicking in.

Calm Down. Breathe deeply. Take a warm shower or bath. Breathe. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re thinking about a to-do list. A friend of mine uses this meditative mantra, “I lovingly release the day and fall peacefully into sleep, knowing tomorrow will take care of itself.”

Feed me. Eating healthy food is critical. Advance planning can help save you from hitting the drive-thru. (Two sample meals are below.)

Mimic the real deal. Our bodies are designed to be alert during the day and to sleep during the night. Keep your room dark and cool (between 60-67°) when you hit the sack. Get blackout shades, turn off the lights, and cover and turn off electronic devices.

Stick to the schedule. The body needs some consistency. Decide when you’ll go to sleep and when you’ll get up. Stick to it.

Optimize your hormones. This is secret weapon of good health. Hormones are in each cell of our bodies and they need to be functioning at optimal levels for you to be alert and get the sleep your body needs. (BioTE® Medical changed my life by optimizing my hormones.)

So, while all schedules have challenges, shift work poses particularly difficult ones for getting the rest you need. The good news is that with a few healthy habits, they don’t have to keep you up at all night…or day.

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