Living With A Shift Work Sleep Disorder

By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Sleep is essential for good health as the body does much of its healing and regenerating during sleep. However, those working odd hours, or constantly switching between early and late-night shifts may have trouble getting the proper amount of rest. Shift work sleep disorder is a little known sleep disorder that affects this specific group of workers. And while it may not sound too serious, it can have dire consequences.

What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder is a sleep disorder that usually affects those who work nights or rotating shifts, such as nurses, emergency room doctors, police officers, fire fighters, factory workers and the like. It falls into the category of circadian rhythm sleep disorders, which also includes jet lag. Because the body's circadian rhythm relies heavily on light to maintain normal function, those who work at night can experience a number of problems, some that could even be life threatening.

What are the Risks Associated with Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder carries a number of risks, some that could be fatal, considering that most of the occupations or professions that require shift work also require increased alertness. Truck drivers, for example, need to be alert when driving, and it is believed that circadian rhythm sleep disorders, such as shift work sleep disorder, are partly responsible for causing many deadly accidents.

There is a misconception that the circadian rhythm will naturally reset itself just by getting one full night's sleep. In truth, it can take up to a week of getting a good night's sleep every night before the rhythm rebalances. This disturbance can lead to undersleeping, oversleeping, or poor sleep quality because the body doesn't know when it should shut down.

In addition to decreased alertness and possibly fatal accidents, those with shift work sleep disorder also experience higher instances of heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, and other mental health problems that seem increasingly higher than those who work normal day shifts. Those with shift work sleep disorder are also at a higher risk of contracting cold and flu viruses, developing breast and prostate cancer, higher cholesterol, and higher rates of obesity. Some theorize that the imbalance caused by poor sleep puts excessive stress on the body, damaging the immune system, though it is unclear if this is actually the case. More research needs to be done to further investigate this theory.

The risks associated with Shift Work Sleep Disorder are:

  • Dangerous accidents and injuries
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of gastrointestinal disease
  • Increased risk of mental health problems
  • Increased risk of contracting cold and flu viruses
  • Increased risk of developing certain cancers
  • Higher cholesterol levels
  • Higher rate of obesity

What are the Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder is characterized by headaches, lack of energy and difficulty concentrating. While most people experience these problems from time to time, it becomes a problem if it happens frequently, and those shift workers who feel they have a problem should talk to their doctor.

One way to help determine if there is indeed a problem is to keep a sleep diary. In fact many sleep specialists will have patients keep them as a diagnostic tool. Other diagnostic tools include questionnaires and sleep studies.

Avoiding Shift Work Sleep Disorder

There are some methods that can be used to avoid shift work sleep disorder. According to the American Sleep Association, the best way to avoid shift work sleep disorder is to have dedicated shifts, so that people aren't trying to continually adjust their circadian rhythms to accommodate a changing shift. However, this isn't always possible.

In addition, employers can give employees regular rest periods, or even short nap periods. It's also a good idea to use bright light in the workplace to simulate daylight. There are even special light bulbs that mimic natural daylight that are helpful in treating problems with circadian rhythms.

When it is time to sleep, it's important to mimic nighttime as closely as possible. Fortunately, certain gadgets can assist with sleep. A white noise generator or freestanding fan can produce a sound that is soothing, yet able to cover daytime noises outside, such as children playing or cars driving down the street. Earplugs may also be helpful along with an eye mask or black-out shades to ensure darkness. It should be noted that complete darkness can lead to another sleep problem called sleep inertia, so if someone is going to use them they should set a light on a timer so that they don't oversleep.


Prevention is always the best treatment, but if that isn't possible, there are medications available to help treat the most serious cases. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will replace a good night's sleep. Those suffering from shift work sleep disorder should discuss medication options to either help induce sleep or to help keep them awake. Also it's important to know that many insurance companies will not cover the cost of these drugs and they can be quite expensive.

Shift work sleep disorder can be life altering but with knowledge, prevention and treatment, even those who work nights can get a good night's sleep once again.


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