Shift Work Disorder Guide: The Signs, Causes, and Treatments


New parents and elderly folks tend to get the most attention regarding sleep problems, as well as people with chronic pain. What about one of the largest, yet least-discussed groups: shift workers? If you’ve struggled to adjust to your work schedule, you aren’t alone. Shift work disorder is a common ailment among those with constantly-changing schedules.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 40% of shift workers struggle to get adequate sleep at night. While pay increases can make alternate hours more appealing, they come at a greater cost.

Below we will discuss shift work sleep disorder, a common problem for Americans living outside the standard work schedule. We’ll discuss the basics, including signs that you might have this disorder and upcoming treatment options.

What Is Shift Work Disorder?

Lady sleeping with eye shadesShift work sleep disorder is a disorder that causes insomnia and constant sleepiness. Individuals with SWSD often struggle to fall asleep or to wake up when they need to do so. 

Most shift workers get around two hours of sleep a night. Deep REM sleep, which is where the body does the most restorative work, is harder to come by for shift workers. They might complete one REM cycle per night at most, while a full night’s sleep involves several completed REM cycles.

Even if you commit to a full night’s sleep, you may feel sleep-deprived when you wake up. You might resort to several cups of coffee a day, leaving you jittery and tired at the same time.

Energy drinks are also a popular choice for shift workers trying to get through the day. Energy drinks tend to contain lots of sugar and other ingredients that are unhealthy in large doses. They also fail to help with alertness or actual energy levels.

If your job requires driving, handling machinery, or other intensive tasks, a lack of alertness can be dangerous. People who run on little sleep tend to be less alert, which can lead to injuries on the job. Driving a car on little or no sleep can be just as dangerous as driving while drunk.

People working unusual hours or shifts that interrupt typical sleeping times are most likely to suffer from SWSD. Split shifts, graveyard shifts, rotating shifts, and pre-sunrise hours tend to throw off sleep routines.

What Causes Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

You might think that a hard day at work would make you sleepy, regardless of your schedule. You might also think that turning off phones and screens and sipping some warm milk is enough to help you fall asleep when you need to.

Unfortunately, sleep isn’t that simple.

Your body relies on several components to keep you rested and ready for the day. These components, like the light, stimulus, activity throughout the day, caffeine, and your biological clock all contribute to your quality of sleep. If you throw one component off, the others may not be enough to get you back on track.

Your biological clock is the key to successful sleep routines. This internal “clock” releases chemicals throughout the day that help your body shift gears. In the morning, your brain slowly builds up acetylcholine levels (and fades melatonin levels) to wake you up. At night, a mix of chemicals helps you to feel drowsy and relaxed.

Of course, this process is much more complex than one chemical. The body also uses more gradual secretions to keep a balance, while over-the-counter products have a simpler, faster effect on the brain.

Everyone’s bodies use circadian rhythms to regulate alertness, body temperature, hormones, and appetite. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, all of these processes are also disrupted. Even if you take melatonin at night, your body might be releasing chemicals that make you more alert, making deep sleep seem like an impossible feat.

Signs You Might Have Shift Work Disorder

Guy-lying-awakeThe biggest marker of SWSD is excessive sleepiness throughout the day. If you struggle to wake up and feel alert, you will likely struggle to be productive for the first chunk of the day. Individuals with SWSD continue to experience marked drowsiness in the afternoon and evening hours.

When you finally feel tired enough to sleep, it may already be close to your waking time. Alarm clocks do little to help. If anything, you probably hit snooze multiple times every day.

Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep when you need to
  • Being tired but unable to nap effectively
  • Struggling to concentrate on basic tasks
  • A general lack of energy
  • Frequent irritability
  • A smaller window of productivity

Surprisingly, most cases of SWSD go undiagnosed. Some doctors offer melatonin as a temporary fix.

While melatonin can help induce a feeling of drowsiness in the evenings, it may not help to realign circadian rhythms. People who used melatonin noticed some unpleasant side effects, including drowsiness the next day.

If you’re already suffering from a lack of energy, added drowsiness is the last thing you need.

Furthermore, temporary fixes with positive effects will likely fall short if you continue to work unusual hours, starting the process all over again. This is where many people with SWSD are left to their own devices.

What Are Some Lasting Consequences of Poor Sleep?

Over time, irregular sleep schedules cause something similar to jet lag, but with little or no relief. Your biological clock, which is wired according to your sleep and wake times, can become confused by changes in your schedule.

As your biological clock continues to readjust, your body experiences increasing fatigue. Immune function can begin to decline, leaving you vulnerable to disease and infection. When you do get sick, you may take longer to recover than people who get enough sleep.

Those who suffer from chronic sleep issues are also more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, which kills thousands of people each year.

Firefighters working extended shifts are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders. Regular sleep interruptions further their risk for circadian misalignment. Because of the unavoidable sleep problems, firefighters are one of the many groups predisposed to cardiovascular disease.

Juggling Relationships with Shift Work Sleep Disorder

DepressionEven if you don’t notice major health problems, your social life will likely suffer. People with long-term sleep problems struggle to keep up with family and friends. Some social problems can be due to scheduling, but the cumulative effects come from an inability to manage life on little sleep.

Relationships can also suffer over time. Your mood and memory could decline, which makes connecting and deepening relationships difficult. People may become impatient with you, even if you are putting in extra effort to make time for them.

If you are struggling with depression or another disorder as a result of sleep problems, you may feel responsible for the consequences of your sleep schedule. It’s important to remember that sleep issues are not your fault. It takes time to fix a misaligned biological clock.

Even if you can’t change your schedule, you can get help treating this issue. If your doctor doesn’t offer a sleep quality test, ask for one. Let them know what’s on the line, and they will be more than happy to help you change your sleep habits for the better.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder Treatments

  • Traditional treatments include bright light therapy, which tells your body it’s time to be awake by mimicking daylight. Light therapy can help your body clock adjust to smaller changes in routine. If you travel for work, you may find that it helps with jet lag, too.
  • If you can take naps, you may want to try a nap just before heading out to the night shift. A short nap can help you feel more alert while on the clock. For best results, try napping for around 90 minutes (one full REM cycle).
  • Melatonin is the aforementioned hormone that helps you feel sleepy at the right time. Melatonin may have some unpleasant side effects, but it works when you are desperate to catch some zzz’s. Researchers are still testing the overall effectiveness of melatonin for disorders like SWSD.
  • Employers can also help you get through rotating shifts. A schedule rotating clockwise may be a more natural adjustment for your body. Schedules that go from day to morning and then to night hours would be a much more difficult adjustment.
  • Getting a mattress to fit your specific comfort and body needs is imperative to improving your sleep.  

Putting Sleep First: One Night at a Time

You don’t have to live with shift work disorder’s nagging symptoms forever. If you continue to have problems sleeping, it might be time to consider a job change. If that isn’t possible, simply following good hygiene practices can give you a head start on the road to better sleep- and better health.

We believe that great sleep starts with the right foundation. Our line of handmade, all-natural fabric mattresses can help you get better sleep from night one!




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