There are so many people out there who have night shifts as at least one component of their jobs; this includes health care workers, law enforcement people, and retails workers, just to name a few. Whether you do night shifts consistently or just do night shifts occasionally, it can be really hard to know how to deal with the lifestyle changes that accompany your work schedule. The following article consists of my top 5 tips for how I deal with and thrive during night shift work.
1. Modulate Your Light Exposure
It’s not at all surprising that aspects of our outside environment affect our circadian rhythm. Sunlight, or lack thereof, is a major player in this regard. This is because our circadian rhythm works through the rise and fall of several important hormones which are regulated in part by our exposure to light. For example, melatonin levels start to rise in the evenings when, theoretically, we’re exposed to less light and fall drastically when our eyes sense bright lights. Conversely, cortisol levels spike during the early morning (ideally) and fall off as the day goes on.
When you work nights, this circadian flow gets all turned around. You can, however, somewhat mimic a more “natural” light exposure rhythm when you work nights. I do this by wearing amber tinted glasses (they block blue light which is largely responsible for the breakdown of melatonin in the morning and is the reason for the recommendation to get outside for a few minutes each morning) when I’m getting ready to go to sleep and making sure I go outside to get some bright-light exposure after I wake up. (I’d like to buy a light machine at some point, but I haven’t coughed up the funds to do that quite yet.)
2. Optimize Your Sleep Environment
For better or worse, your body is wired to work with the natural light patterns. This means that if you’re trying to sleep in a bright room, your body is just not optimized to really fall asleep. In an attempt to tackle this factor, I use black out shades and sleep with an eye mask.
Temperature can also effect how well you fall asleep and stay asleep. The optimum temperature range is from 64-68 degrees, so use a small fan, turn on the A/C, or open a window to get your temperature setting just right.
Making sure you don’t get woken up once your actually sleep is obviously really important as well. I wear these cheap-o ear plugs pretty much every night and they work really well. If you can’t sleep with anything in your ears, a small fan to create some white-noise can be pretty effective
3. Natural Sleep Helpers
If you’re optimized a lot of the other factors but still can’t seem to get good quality sleep during the day, I’ve had success with some natural supplements that have helped me fall and stay asleep. I get loose-leaf chamomile flowers that I mix with lavender to make a sleep-inducing tea.
I’ve gotten really great sleep when I supplement with small amounts of melatonin; to me, it seems like it is the strongest of the 3 supplements on this list so I recommend starting with really small amounts and seeing how it works for you. (I think most of the supplements come in quantities that are way too high compared to physiologic values so I tend to break the pills into quarters before using.)
4. Figure Out Your Long-Term Schedule
If you consistently work nights, it’s relatively straight-forward to come up with a schedule that works for you. If, however, you are one of those people who alternates between working days and nights (ahem, me), it’s important to transition between the different sleep schedules. While it’s tempting to switch over by pulling an all-nighter, it’s actually a bit easier for the body to transition between the sleep patterns slowly. For example: if you’ve been sleeping from 8 am to 4 pm for a week, try taking a day or two to sleep from 2 am to 10 am before heading back to a 10 pm to 6 am schedule. (The reverse is also true.) Take naps when you need to and let people around you know when you’re going to be sleeping so that you can do this comfortably.
5. Use Caffeine Appropriately
I’m pretty sure everyone out there knows that it’s important to watch your caffeine intake within 8 hours or so of getting ready for bed. However, it always seems to me that people don’t realize just how much they can tweak their caffeine exposure based on the state of their adrenals and what they need to get done. Between herbal teas, green tea, black tea, yerba mate, and coffee, there are quite a few options out there! (For more information, I wrote this article on the subject.) If I’ve gotten good sleep, I tend to stick to herbal or green teas. On days where I’m dragging and have a lot to do, I’ll grab a cup of yerba mate because I know that I can get that energy boost without taxing my adrenals. At some point, I hope to be able to enjoy coffee again but my body just isn’t currently geared up to be ok with that…I’m sharing that to show how individualized caffeine responses can be!