Insomnia and shift work

Insomnia and shift work

Disruption of sleep is a huge problem for people who work shifts, especially those on short rotation. So how can you ensure you get a good night's sleep and feel on the ball for each working day?

Shift work and you body clock

The fatigue and loss of sleep that you can experience with night work are a result of putting your body clock out of sync. It's very similar to jet lag.

Humans don't feel tired because they have been awake and active for several hours. In fact, if someone stays up all night, they feel increasingly fatigued until a peak at 5am - and then fatigue decreases until the next evening. Tiredness is a normal body rhythm. When you work shifts, your body carries on with the same rhythm as though you should still be sleeping at night and awake in the day, despite what you are trying to make it do.

It takes the body several days to adjust to a new time structure, by which time you have gone off night shifts and back to days (and so are trying to make your body clock change yet again)!

Alcohol and medication

Using alcohol or medicines to help you sleep simply makes the problems worse. Firstly, they don't help your body clock to adjust to the new time pattern. Secondly, the sleep they induce is of a different quality to natural sleep and many find that it is not as refreshing. Thirdly, taking medication long term is not a good idea.

The exception to this may be melatonin, a natural hormone that is not licensed for use in the UK but which is widely used in the US. Melatonin plays some part in sleep control and the body clock. However, exactly what it does - and how it is best used - has still not been clearly shown.

Get your body clock back into line

There is not yet a clear solution to getting good sleep while on shift work, but the best way to deal with it is to do things which help the body clock to re-align. These include:
  • Adapting to your new time frame as quickly as possible by timing meals and other activities to match the new 'day.'
  • Some people claim that if you eat the right sort of foods that can help you to adjust. The general recommendation is a high protein/low carbohydrate breakfast and lunch, a high carbohydrate/low protein dinner, and drinks containing caffeine in the afternoon.
  • Exercise can help sort out body rhythms. You should start your new 'day' with some sort of gentle exercise. This may mean a brisk jog at 10pm when most people are tucking up for the night!
  • Recent studies have shown that a short period of sleep in the middle of a night shift can help maintain work performance later in the shift.
Follow sleep hygiene rules

You must also try to ensure that the sleep you do get is good quality. Make sure your bedroom is peaceful, not too hot and well ventilated.

You should also talk to your employers and doctor Let your employers know you're having problems adjusting to short shifts - they may be able to help, as may your GP.