Three things in life keep us well - socialisation, exercise, and sleep - the latter being the most important one of all. Evolutionary, our best sleep time is from 11 pm to 7 am. What about shift workers who have to work during this natural sleep period? For one thing, they get unbelievably tired around 3 to 4 am.... I have met people who work permanent night shift yet still struggle with sleep patterns despite their regularity.
It is said that for those who work shift work, it is important to try and adhere as close as possible to the body's natural circadian rhythm, and this is true for most people. However, some of us don't have the ability to do so. As a cop, I would work night shift and come home to look after our children before they went to school, no chance of sticking as close as possible to the natural sleep cycle then.
Here are some simple things that might help those of you who struggle with sleep when working outside of the natural sleep pattern;
- Work in the light - try to expose yourself to as much bright lighting as possible over your night shift to keep you awake and alert.
- Eat lightly - have a large meal at the start of your shift, not in the middle. Snack on protein and fruit if you get hungry across your shift.
- Keep busy - avoid napping to get you through the night, this will only interfere with your sleep patterns.
- Avoid caffeine, completely - do not eat or drink any product that contains caffeine while working night shift. Caffeine remains in the body for long periods of time.
- Avoid smart technology for the last 3 hours of your shift - the blue light in smart technology mimics the blue light of the sun and you will start to produce melatonin, which is helpful to get to sleep. However, know that it takes 3 hours from the time the sun goes down until melatonin starts to work.
- Unwind before bed - spend 30 minutes winding down when you get home before heading off to bed, this will help relax your brain.
- Replicate the night - your room should be as cold, dark, and quiet as possible. Our forebears once slept in caves, keep your room under 15 degrees Celsius, use blinds and curtains, double glazing or earplugs will help eliminate noise. (Some people use 'white' noise to mask other sounds).
- Split your sleep - get as much sleep as possible in the first instance, then get up. Go back to bed in the early evening and try to catch up on lost sleep.
- Have a routine - it is difficult to do, but a must if you want to be consistent in your patterns of sleep. Try as much as you can to have a set ritual before going to bed, the same ritual every time. Mine was to have a light snack along with warm milk, have a shower, darken my room, glass of water by the bed, listen to the radio for 5 minutes then head down to sleep. Every day, no matter what, never change the ritual.
- Avoid alcohol, sedatives, or other sleep aids - as with most things, it is the quality not the quantity that matters. you are far better to have three hours of deep relaxing sleep rather than five hours of restless sleep.
Finally, don't stress about it. Easy to say and hard to do, I know. Worrying about how much sleep you need/are getting will only add to your dilemma. If you do need to have a coffee on night shift, do so. If you want to take a sleep aid, go for it. Struggling with strictly adhering to what others say about what you should and shouldn't do will only stress you further.
I got the best sleep when I found out what worked for me, may I suggest you do the same.