Over a quarter of Americans reportedly work the night shift—a significantly higher amount than most European nations. This means it’s very likely that you or someone you know works throughout the night, catching sleep during the day when everyone else is up and at ‘em.
Nobody chooses to work nights because they hate sleeping at night when most others do, of course. People choose to work nights for a variety of important reasons: either it fits their life’s schedule, or it provides certain benefits, or because night shift work is part of the nature of their chosen profession, such as it is for first responders or those in the emergency services field.
While shift work obviously has some negative effects on your sleep, we’re not here to tell shift workers to go in tomorrow and quit. Rather, if you or someone you know feel that overnight work is having serious consequences on their or your health (including getting good sleep), we simply recommend consulting a doctor as soon as possible.
Why the night shift is bad for sleep—and your health
An overnight work schedule goes against your natural circadian rhythm (the daily biological schedule which controls your sleepiness and alertness throughout the day, among lots of other functions), and so, even if you are awake all during the night, your body is still pushing you constantly to sleep—even if it’s not obvious to you. Despite what many say otherwise, it is a fact that no amount of experience in night shift work can help you “learn” how to overcome a lack of sleep and develop a resilience to it.
The unfortunate truth is that longer experience with the night shift really means an increased risk of health complications, including:
- Metabolic problems
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal problems
Perhaps most alarming is the World Health Organization’s classification of overnight shift work as a Group 2a “possible carcinogen”.
How to get better sleep when working the night shift
- Take naps. A 20-minute nap before your shift and (if possible and permissible) a 10 or 15-minute power nap during a break will help give you a small burst of energy.
- Eat well. Try to avoid irregularly-spaced meals consisting of fast food. Keep a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Also, don’t eat a large meal closer than an hour to when you plan on heading to bed.
- Communicate with your employer if you believe your lack of sleep caused by your work schedule is a danger to the workplace environment (or to your own personal health). Let your family or roommates know about your sleep schedule and how they can help you get the sleep you need.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Cut off caffeine at least three or four hours before you plan on going to bed. Avoid exposure to sunlight on the drive home by wearing sunglasses, and put up blackout curtains in your bedroom.
- Practice consistency as much as possible. Our bodies love routine. Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, even on days off and holidays. Also, if you can have the same days on and off each week (and the same sleep schedule), it will benefit your sleep.
While sometimes we must put up with less-than-ideal sleep for whatever reason, we should always be careful to ease as much of the impact of this on our bodies as possible. Your sleep (and your health overall) will thank you!