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4 Ways Shift Work Sleep Disorder Impacts Your Sleep

business man laying on benchShift work sleep disorder is a chronic disruption of normal sleep often suffered by people who work shifts, especially night shift or rotating shift patterns.

Shift work sleep disorder is a type of sleep deficiency. Whereas sleep deprivation is simply not getting enough sleep which can happen to everyone from time to time, sleep deficiency is a chronic lack of sleep over a long time, resulting in sleep debt. It covers a wider range of sleep problems, many of which are included in shift work sleep disorder.

Who is affected?

It is estimated that 15% of workers in the United States work shifts outside of the normal daytime work pattern. Of these, only 63% feel their work schedule allows them enough sleep, compared to 89% of those who work normal daytime hours.

Traditionally, many of these workers were in public service jobs, e.g., doctors, nurses, firefighters, airline pilots and police officers. But there are increasing numbers of occupations which necessarily involve shift work – supermarket checkout staff, online purchase despatchers, IT staff who look after our computer networks – these are the people who keep our busy, 24-hour world functioning.

Not all shift workers suffer from this debilitating problem, but many will have at least one symptom. It's also possible for people who don't work shifts to experience shift work sleep disorder if they have their sleep pattern disturbed for any other reason.

What causes shift work sleep disorder?

There are two distinct types of sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when we dream; non-REM sleep is deep, refreshing sleep. Both types of sleep are essential to stay healthy and to function well; in a normal sleep pattern, they alternate with each other, each cycle happening between 3 and 5 times per night.

If we don't get enough of either type of sleep, especially over a long period, our bodies and brains become stressed, and we experience problems.

However, it's also important that we fall asleep at the right time of the day when our bodies and brains are ready. We all have a natural 24-hour internal ''clock'', the circadian rhythm, which lets us know when we should wake up and when it's time to sleep.

The circadian rhythm responds to light and darkness, stimulating the production of different chemicals in the body. While we are awake, a chemical called adenosine builds up throughout the day, making us feel ready to sleep when it reaches a certain level in the evening; when it gets dark, another chemical called melatonin prepares our brain for sleeping by making us drowsy.

If this rhythmic time-keeping is interrupted, as in the case of shift work, problems can occur.

How does shift work sleep disorder affect your sleep?

In an isolated incident or two, or over a few months as in the case of mothers with new babies, sleep will often return to a normal pattern after being disrupted.

However, there is clear evidence that, because of its continuous nature, shift work can severely affect both the type of sleep experienced and the circadian rhythm.

When the normal daily rhythm is constantly overridden by a necessity to stay awake or to sleep at the wrong times, the brain can lose its ability to react to normal stimuli such as light and darkness. The result can be an inability to fall asleep naturally, or a tendency to wake up without having enough of the right type of sleep.    Snoring can be exacerbated in people that have shift work sleep disorder.  It is a condition that is more serious then anti snoring devices can solve, and treatment is required by a licensed clinician.

The main ways the disorder affects sleep patterns are:

  • insomnia
  • being unable to fall asleep
  • waking up before you've had sufficient sleep
  • feeling your sleep has been insufficient or not refreshing
  • microsleeps – falling asleep for a few seconds during the day, as your brain tries to catch up on its sleep deficit

There are some things you can do to help get a better sleep, for instance making sure you are not too hot or cold.

How it can affect your day

These problems with sleep very often seriously affect people's ability to function effectively during the day, whether at work or home.

Too little of the right type and quality of sleep, and not sleeping at the right time of day, can prevent the brain from building new pathways which help with memory, learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep deficiency can reduce the ability to perform normal tasks such as making decisions, coping with change and controlling emotions.

Other symptoms include lack of energy; lack of concentration; irritability; depression; experiencing microsleeps. These symptoms can lead to problems such as underperformance and loss of productivity at work, or relationship and family problems at home. The occurrence of microsleeps can be disastrous if they happen while driving or operating machinery.

Understanding stress and the way it affects your sleep could help to relax you more, which may help to give a better sleep.

It appears that many people today are suffering from shift work sleep disorder in our 24-hour world, with a corresponding drop in their quality of life.

Given the expectations of our fast-paced consumer society, it's difficult to see how we are going to solve this problem anytime soon.

Mark Walton
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