Busy work schedules, hectic family life, late-night television, electronics and other stimulants get in the way of our daily sleep. Therefore, most people sleep when work and family life permits.
However, for shift workers, life can be even more difficult. Whether they are working in a factory, protecting their community or working diligently to meet deadlines, a shift worker does not always get to decide a bedtime. And tiredness may not determine that either, making shift work disorder a serious sleep disorder affecting millions of Americans.
A normal sleep schedule is to wake up in the morning, be slightly tired after lunch, be more alert until nighttime and then sleepy enough to fall asleep. Shift work disorder is characterized by an irregular or overnight work schedule leading to excessive sleepiness during a person’s work shift, the time when he or she needs to be most vigilant.
Shift workers either work the night shift or rotate shifts. Some will even rotate shifts every few weeks or work 24 hours in a row. This leads to an irregular sleep/wake schedule and can lead to serious problems over time. Shift workers may experience symptoms such as severe sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, unrefreshing sleep, insomnia and even depression.
So how do people live normal lives and get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep? Luckily, treatments are available for shift work disorder, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Some of the recommendations are:
It is a naturally occurring substance in the body that promotes sleepiness. This can be taken as a dietary supplement one to three hours before a person’s desired bed time.
The effectiveness of Melatonin is ultimately controlled by exposure to light; therefore, light therapy can be very effective when working to adjust the internal clock.
During light therapy, a person sits near a light box for a prescribed amount of time or increase their exposure to sunlight at appropriate times during the day. The time of day is critical when utilizing light therapy to achieve ultimate effectiveness.
Caffeine in amounts as little as 200 mg can improve alertness. If caffeine is taken after a nap, its effectiveness can be increased even greater.
Caffeine remains in the body for many hours, so it can affect the ability to fall asleep after a shift is over.
Prescription medications are often prescribed by a primary care physician or a sleep specialist. The medicine works to keep the person alert during their shift and help adjust his or her circadian rhythm. Although effective, medications should be only considered after consulting with a doctor.
To learn more about shift work disorder, visit www.sleepfoundation.org. If you are concerned about your sleep habits, talk to your primary care provider or call The Sleep Disorders Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center at 770-219-6263. Food sleep tips also are available at www.nghs.com/sleep.
Daniel L. Cobb, MD, is the medical director and sleep specialist for The Sleep Disorders Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.