Sleepless on the late shift
If you work different shifts and can't sleep, you may have Shift Work Sleep Disorder. Here's how to trick your body into thinking it's time to sleep.
Dr. Phyllis Zee, director of the sleep disorder program at Northwestern University, shown in this 2005 file photo, gives her tips for dealing with insomnia, especially from working different shifts. (Chris Walker/Tribune file photo)
"Shift Work Sleep Disorder is when someone has trouble sleeping because you work nights or have rotating shifts," said Dr. Phyllis Zee, the director of Northwestern University's sleep disorders program. "But it's important to note that most people who are shift workers do not necessarily have the disorder. It could be just insomnia or other problems. Many of the symptoms of SWSD are just the body's normal response to a change and a misalignment of your internal timing."
"This is what we do when we're jetlagged, and shift workers are in chronic jet lag," she said.
And when a body is in a constant state of exhaustion, we actually put our health at risk.
"We know that the area of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, is important for executive functioning or multitasking," Zee said. "If I did a brain scan on someone who is sleep deprived, I can see that area of the brain is not metabolically active. Those brain cells are not working."
And Zee said if the lack of sleep continues, it can cause long-term damage.
"The World Health Organization has said that SWSD acts as a carcinogen that causes cancer," she said. "There was also a study that looked at flight attendants who worked long shifts and found they had a decrease of brain volume. You have to make changes to help the body recuperate."
Here are Zee's tips to getting your body back on track and help your circadian rhythms.
Be consistent. Make sure you go to bed at the same time every day, and don't waver. "Even if you have weekends off, don't go off the schedule and push your body to stay awake when you would normally be sleeping. Your body will have a hard time recovering."
Use light therapy. "There are light bulbs that simulate natural sunlight that are very helpful to have at work if you work overnights. It's also critical that people who work overnights or early morning shifts wear sunglasses when they are heading home. The sunlight will signal to your body that it's time to be alert and sunglasses can help trick your internal clock."
Exercise. "I often recommend that people do this before their shift, rather than after. Even if this means exercising at midnight, it's better to do so beforehand. After the shift, you should be winding down and tricking the body to get ready for sleep and not stimulating it with exercise."
Drink caffeine in small doses. "Every hour or two, have a small amount of coffee or caffeine. By spreading it out, it's been shown to improve job performance."
Ask for support. "Get your family and spouse on board as much as possible. Ask them to respect your timeline and adjust accordingly."