Shift Work Sleep Disorder: What is it and How to Treat it Effectively?


Your work routine can pose a great impact on your overall health condition. A typical 9-5 work routine may not disturb your sleep at night and help maintain both mental and physical health. However, people who work non-traditional hours like late-night shifts, rotational shifts, etc. may suffer from a condition such as Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). While Shift Work Sleep Disorder isn’t the case with every person who works during non-traditional hours, it still affects a lot of people. SWSD affects the body’s natural circadian rhythm or biological clock. People with SWSD often find trouble sleeping, feel fatigued throughout the day, and stay unproductive at work. This, in turn, affects their work and leisure time. Some common occupational workers who are at risk of SWSD are firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, factory workers, aeroplane crew members, night security staff, drivers, among others.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, around 15% of American workers who work during nontraditional hours may develop this disorder. When the biological clock is disturbed, it can result in undesirable health consequences. Disturbed sleep often leads to anxiety, depression, and poor mental and physical health.

Let’s take a look at some of the symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder and how it can impact the quality of your daily life.

Common Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Good sleep is essential for the efficient functioning of the body. Shift Work Sleep Disorder is a chronic, long term condition that often impacts your everyday life. Some common symptoms of this disorder include:

  1. Excessive daytime sleepiness – A person can find himself fighting off drowsiness and feel extremely sleepy all day. People can often indulge in microsleep sessions without knowing it. A microsleep session is a 1 to 3-second sleep session that is hazardous for people who drive, operate machinery, and work on assembly lines.
  2. Insomnia – A person may find trouble sleeping and may not be able to get an adequate amount of sleep.
  3. Changes in Mood – Mood changes such as experiencing irritability, anxiety, or depression can affect personal relationships.
  4. Difficulty concentrating – A person may often find trouble focusing or concentrating on his work.
  5. Poor quality of sleep – Poor quality of sleep often results in a person not feeling fresh and finding himself stressed and unproductive throughout the day.

Sleep is an indispensable part of our daily lives. A person suffering from chronic sleep deprivation can fall prey to various cardiovascular diseases, and it can affect his heart health and digestion. If you notice any of the above-mentioned symptoms, you should consider seeking help from the doctor. The symptoms of SWSD shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sleepiness creates dangerous work conditions and can result in alarming disasters. It is partly responsible for the Chernobyl disaster that occurred on 26th April 1986. Therefore, if you come across any such symptoms, a doctor may help diagnose your condition properly.

Diagnosing Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Doctors have a specific diagnostic criterion to determine whether a person has SWSD or not. They may use the International Classification of Sleep Disorders and ask the person a series of questions about his sleep patterns and disturbances. A person is asked to keep a sleep diary to notice his sleep patterns and if he comes across any frightening situation or something that disturbs his sleep. A person may be asked to spend a night at the clinic and he may be evaluated on various things such as heart rate, sleep quality, sleep disturbances, breathing, etc.  A sleep study helps the doctor rule out certain other sleep conditions such as narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea.

He may then discuss various treatment options as per your condition.

Effective Treatment of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) isn’t something that has to dictate your daily routine. By practising good sleep hygiene, you can definitely improve your sleep and treat shift work sleep disorder effectively.

Here are certain things you can do:

  1. Minimize Exposure to Light

Morning sunlight activates the internal daytime clock. Try to minimize the exposure to light on your way back home in the morning by wearing a cap and sunglasses. While timed exposure to sunlight is essential for our bodies, it becomes necessary that you expose your body to light only when feasible – on days when you don’t work. A study conducted on shift workers over a period of 10 days showed that a combination of afternoon/evening sleep and phase-advancing light therapy may be helpful for decreasing sleeping and improving alertness at work.

  1. Sleep in a Dark and Quiet Environment

Switch off all digital devices an hour before you go off to bed. Make sure that you block light from entering your room and ask your family or companions to reduce the noise produced by televisions or music systems. Use earplugs to drown out any disruptive daytime sounds.

  1. Medications Can Help

Your doctor can prescribe you medications that can help you stay focussed at work and perform your routine activities properly. These include wakefulness-promoting agents such as Modafinil and Armodafinil.

Modafinil, sold under the name Modalert 200 mg is an oral drug prescribed for the treatment of sleep disorders. It promotes wakefulness to the mind and helps you stay focussed and productive for a longer duration of time.

Another drug Armodafinil, sold under the name Waklert 150 mg works in a similar manner as Modafinil but has a slightly stronger effect. It can keep you awake for 14-16 hours.

If you find trouble sleeping even after making changes to your sleep schedule, your doctor may suggest medication as an option.

  1. Limit your Alcohol and Caffeine Intake

Both alcohol and caffeine can cause dehydration. Caffeine, being a psychoactive drug makes you feel awake and less tired. It has a long half-life, and therefore, it stays in the system for 6-8 hours. Being a diuretic, drinking caffeine in large amounts can interfere with your sleep and force you to wake up and pee.

  1. Exercise Regularly

Studies suggest that regular exercise can increase your quality of sleep. This helps ease symptoms of insomnia by decreasing the time it takes to fall asleep. A moderate workout session before or after your work shift can be beneficial for you. Your body may get drowsy after a sudden spike, followed by a decrease in body temperature.

  1. Take Over the Counter Melatonin

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland and acts as a signal for the body to sleep. Taking melatonin supplements can help you adapt to a better work schedule. However, you should consult your medical history in detail with the doctor before taking any such supplements on your own.

  1. Indulge in Healthy Eating

If you eat a lot of junk or foods high in sugars, you’re likely to dose off at your work table. Indulge in healthy eating and prepare a healthy meal for yourself. Eating a well-balanced meal can improve your productivity, making you feel less tired at work.

With the advancements in the technological sector, non-traditional work hours aren’t expected to decline. Therefore, it becomes necessary for you to keep a check on your sleep schedule and make certain lifestyle changes to improve your sleep condition. If you find trouble managing everything by yourself and struggle to sleep, seek help from a doctor and get a medication prescribed that can help you get the best quality sleep you need.

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