Sometimes, sleep isn’t simple. Try as you might, and as tired as you may be, you can struggle to drift off when going to bed. In fact, you may not get any sleep at all. In a world that works through the day, it’s naturally more difficult to get some rest. This is due to many factors, some controllable and some inevitable.
When working the night shift, the issue only intensifies. As with any work, you need to be at your best to do your job. If you can’t sleep enough during the day, your performance at night can suffer greatly. If you’re operating machinery, or taking stock, or doing anything that requires concentration, a lack of sleep can have catastrophic consequences.
Yet, even if you really do want to get some sleep, you might not be able to. Thankfully, there are many ways of approaching this problem. Let’s take a look at why sleeping when it’s light outside is so difficult, and why sleep is so important. We’ll also share some tips on how to achieve a more successful sleep schedule.
Why Is Sleeping After a Night Shift More Difficult?
Our bodies encourage sleep by raising Melatonin levels, the hormone responsible for sleep onset. Melatonin levels are decreased during the day when we are exposed to light and increase as the day darkens. This is what provides us with a natural sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm.
If you have to work at night, the problems only compound. Despite high melatonin levels while working, you will find it hard to sleep well after working the night shift. This is because melatonin levels will have been reduced again during the daytime. This situation can be improved by taking melatonin supplements, of course.
Not only does your body work against you, but day-to-day life does too. As you settle down to rest, the world is waking up, with all the noise and sunlight that accompanies it. People will expect you to be awake, even as you try to sleep. It can take a while to get used to a new sleep schedule, but other people will need to too.
Resisting the urge to stay up during the day is another problem people on the night shift experience. It can feel isolating to stay in bed while everyone else is awake. This can make it even more difficult to fall asleep, as one would expect.
- Fact: Night workers can develop what’s called ‘Shift Work Sleep Disorder’ (SWD). It is caused by work hours overlapping with a typical sleep period. The most common effects are insomnia and, obviously, excessive sleepiness. It is commonly caused by sudden changes in sleep schedules, such as when switching from a day shift to a night shift.
For these reasons, it can be difficult to transition from a day shift to a night shift seamlessly. Keeping a good sleep pattern after adjusting is critical, especially considering how much you should be sleeping each day.
Why Does Quality Sleep Matter?
You will spend about a third of your life sleeping. During this time, your body works to support healthy brain function and physical health. As a result, it is incredibly important to have a healthy amount of sleep each night. Ideally, an adult needs between seven and nine hours sleep each night to function properly throughout the day. Sleep deprivation hinders your ability to perform normally and impacts many aspects of your health.
For example, when you’re sleep-deprived, your reaction time slows. This is particularly dangerous when driving a car or operating machinery. After seventeen to eighteen hours of sleep deprivation, your reaction time is the same as somebody with a blood alcohol level of 0.5%. This is the same as somebody at the legal drink/drive limit in many European countries. Not all of these hours have to be consecutive.
- Important: According to Harvard University, ‘sleep debt’ is a term for the cumulative effect of regular sleep deprivation. While one sleepless day may not have much effect, over time it can have serious drawbacks. If you only lost thirty minutes of sleep each night, the accumulative effect would be more than two weeks of ‘sleep debt’ per year.
Clearly, then, sleep is a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, not everybody has the luxury of a full night’s rest, let alone a full day’s. It can be hard to get a good amount of sleep for those who have to work at night. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ways to help with sleepless nights or even sleepless days.
How to Get Enough Sleep When Working Night Shifts
Here are a few tips for sleeping better if you have to work the night shift:
Having a good pillow is one of the most important factors. It is essential to keep your head, neck, and spine in the optimal position during sleep. When sleeping, your neck muscles remain stretched, and cannot keep your head and neck in line with spine. This means that, without a pillow, you will likely have a stiff neck when you wake up.
Without a pillow, other problems present themselves. When the headrests at the same level as the gastrointestinal system, the contents of the stomach may come up to your throat. This causes heartburn at the base of the throat that some people experience.
Odds are that at various points in your life, you’ve been dissatisfied with your pillow. It’s a common experience. What you might not know is that there are many different kinds of pillows. There are basic kinds, made of regular foam padding.
But more luxurious options include memory foam and feather pillows. If you don’t like pillows that are too soft, you might prefer much harder kinds. You can buy pillows filled with beads or buckwheat. These pillows aren’t soft, but provide plenty of support.
It might go without saying, but the darker the room, the easier it is to sleep. However, most of us won’t have blackout curtains in our bedrooms. A cheaper and more convenient alternative is a light-blocking sleep mask.
Humans are naturally ‘diurnal’, as opposed to nocturnal—we prefer to sleep at night. Thousands of years of day/night cycles have reinforced this so that we are now hard-coded to sleep when it’s dark and wake up when it’s light. For people on the night shift, you’ll need to simulate night in order to stimulate the release of melatonin. To this end, using a sleep mask is one of the easiest and cost-efficient ways to achieve this objective.
- Tip: Sleep masks trick your brain into thinking it’s night. They won’t have any side-effects but maybe just as effective as medication. For people on the night shift, being able to sleep in complete darkness once at home is far more effective than relying on prescribed sleeping supplements.
Like pillows, there are different kinds of sleep masks. They come in luxurious materials like silk and satin, if you prefer. Some wrap around the sides of the head, or around the nose to block out even more light. There are some which are expensive—they’re more comfortable and block out the most light—whereas others are literally dollar store prices.
After the night shift, as you’re getting ready for bed, everyone else is getting up. All that noise does a tired worker no favors: birds singing, people outside your window going about their day, TV or radio next door. Unless you live in the countryside, there’s almost no chance of peace and quiet. For this problem, a good white noise machine could be beneficial.
White noise is a continuous signal operating at different frequencies. That might sound confusing, but all you have to know is that the static from an untuned radio or TV is an example of white noise. Its purpose is to drown out all other sounds, without being distracting in of itself. It doesn’t change tone or volume, so your brain can drown it out easily.
The term is used to describe any unchanging background noise, such as rain or waves. Some people prefer to listen to these instead of the sound of a dedicated white noise machine. The context of the sound has just as much of an effect as the sound itself. This is why some people can fall asleep at a party, and others are kept awake by a distant barking dog.
White noise machines are perfect for the tired night shift worker. They work at the push of a button. This makes getting to bed that much quicker and getting to sleep that much easier.
For night shift workers, in particular, there is the awful temptation to stay up in the mornings. However, having a regular bedtime routine is one of the best ways to fall asleep naturally, consistently.
Having an inconsistent bedtime routine can mean that your mind and body don’t know when to switch off. For instance, let’s suppose that after one shift, you stayed up until 10 am. Then, the next day, you went to bed at 6 am. Your body would not necessarily respond as you would hope, because it doesn’t expect to be sleeping yet. It would expect you to be awake until 10 am again, so your mind would stay stimulated until later.
- Tip: Winding down before bed lets your mind and body relax. Keeping a good routine lets you fall asleep and wake up more easily. Your body clock (or circadian rhythm) will adapt to fit this timeframe. What bedtime routine you choose to keep is entirely up to you. It could range from reading in bed to showering, to washing, to listening to music.
A good tip for those on the night shift is to avoid any stimulants before bed. Nicotine, caffeine, and large amounts of food should be avoided before bed. Conversely, incorporating specific drinks into your bedtime routine can encourage you to fall asleep faster.
Specific teas, such as Chamomile and passionfruit, may make your sleep more restful. For night workers, in particular, cherry juice in the morning can help the release of melatonin and increase sleep duration.
The connection between music and sleep has been researched extensively. The general consensus is that certain types of music can have a beneficial effect on sleep. As with white noise, music can help drown out other noises. Unlike white noise, music can elicit an emotional response from the listener. Whilst this can be counter-productive for fast, intense songs, calmer tracks can help focus the mind before bed.
- Fact: Calm music can lower your heart rate and trigger feel-good chemicals in the brain. This is to do with BPM, or ‘beats per minute’. A song with 60 BPM has exactly one beat per second.
The number of beats per minute can have a drastic difference in effectiveness. If a song has between 60 and 80 beats per minute, it is more likely going to help you sleep. Familiar songs can work well too, as the mind isn’t processing new information. However, it’s a good idea to experiment and see what works best for you.
For night workers, listening to music before bed can be an easy way to relax after work. It can also be incorporated into a bedtime routine seamlessly. It is particularly beneficial for those suffering from insomnia, a common problem for night workers. Insomnia, as said earlier, can be triggered by the sudden shift from day work to night work. Listening to the music of your choice can mean you reach REM sleep (the restorative part of sleep) faster.
Over time, your body will respond to the music as a cue to get ready to sleep. This will make it easier for people on the night shift to sleep in the mornings. As a bonus, you get to create your own morning chorus and set the mood for the rest of the day to come.
Avoid LED Devices
Checking your phone for a few minutes before bed affects sleep more than you’d think. LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are the main light bulbs used today. They can be found on your TV, your PC, and your phone to name a few places. They’re more energy-efficient and provide better lighting than incandescent bulbs.
Unfortunately, LED screens are also fantastic at disrupting your circadian rhythm. When artificial light is used, your body is unsure when to prepare to sleep. This may not be as big a problem for night shift workers since you have already been working all night.
- Important: What affects everyone is the type of light LED lighting produces. Blue light has been found to suppress the production of melatonin more than any other type of light. This is useful during the work shift when you need to stay awake. Unfortunately, come bedtime this becomes detrimental, as it keeps you stimulated.
A solution to this problem is to not use screens for at least 30-60 minutes before bed. This gives your body the time to prepare itself for sleep. This means avoiding anything with screens before sleeping.
However, an alternative is to dim the lights on the device or use a filter to change the lighting intensity. Softer lighting on your device helps, although it doesn’t completely solve the problems caused by using screens before bed. The best choice is to avoid using devices altogether.
Despite following all advice, and trying every technique, there’s still one problem. None of the recommendations so far help you actually quiet your mind. It can be horrible to lay awake in bed, especially after a long night of working. The sleeplessness can become self-perpetuating in this case: you can’t sleep, so you worry, so you can’t sleep…
If you struggle with worries, some meditation before bed can help immensely. There are many different kinds of meditation and many ways of practicing it. Meditating can be as simple as concentrating on breathing and ignoring all other thoughts. Meditation also has many benefits outside of sleep. It can help with anxiety, depression, increase self-awareness, and improve concentration, among other things.
For people coming home from the night shift, PMR may be the perfect type of pre-sleep meditation. PMR, or Progressive Muscle Relaxation, involves tensing and completely relaxing various muscle groups one by one, whilst controlling your breathing. The aim is to find as many muscle groups as you can and to contract and relax them.
By focusing on the activity, you ignore all other distractions and finish feeling far more calm and relaxed. The same can be done for breathing. Focusing on breathing in and out focuses the mind and allows a distraction from the worries of the day. As with music, there are many different kinds of meditation. It’s worth experimenting to find one that works for you.
As we pointed out above, the morning can be very noisy. Wearing earplugs is an obvious and cost-effective solution to this problem. However, while useful, they can be uncomfortable or inconvenient depending on your preferences. There are many different types, so if one doesn’t feel right for you, there are plenty more to try.
You should always be careful when using earplugs. It is important to insert them gently and carefully to avoid damaging the inner ear. Good ear hygiene will help prevent the possibility of infections that may be negatively influenced by earplugs. If you do plan to use earplugs for the duration of your sleep, you need to consider a few things first.
For one, if used over a long period of time, you may find you become dependent on them. Another issue can be the earplugs working too well. You may realize you can’t hear your alarm when it goes off, thanks to how well they’re working.
Fortunately, earplugs can have different noise reduction ratings. The highest rating is 39, which means any noises under 39 decibels will be blocked. When considering which earplugs to get, keep in mind which sounds you can tolerate, and which ones you need to hear. If you need to hear your alarm, try a lower-rated earplug. If you sleep next to a construction site, try a higher rating.
After the night shift, in particular, earplugs are useful for blocking noise. With the right pair, you should be sleeping undisturbed right through until evening. They’re a particularly good option if you share a bed or apartment with a loud snorer.
Check List of Sleep Tips for People Who Work at Night
Talk to your doctor. If you struggle severely with getting to sleep, contact your physician. They may be able to help, either with medication or by presenting a diagnosis.
So there you have it. For quick reference, here are some of the best tips for sleeping better after a long night at work:
- Keep the head raised during sleep. This will prevent a stiff neck when you wake up.
- Sleep masks are an easy and cost-efficient way to encourage the release of melatonin.
- White noise machines, such as the Lectrofan, have many sounds and are easy to use.
- Avoid stimulants before bed.
- Choosing what music you listen to before bed can help you reach REM sleep faster.
- Avoid using LED screens before bed. This includes phones, TVs, and computers.
- Meditating before bed releases stress that may otherwise keep you awake.
- Earplugs have different ratings. The higher the rating, the more sound is blocked out.
- See your physician if you have severe trouble sleeping.
Now when the sun comes up, know that you’ll have no problem getting to sleep. These are only a few tips for getting enough sleep when on the night shift. Everyone is different, so try finding the technique that works best for you. Once you have, you’ll sleep soundly knowing you’ll never have to worry about it again.